When most people hear the word falcon they think of the Atlanta Falcons, the football team, or a Falcon jet, but falconry is a sport that has no interest in pigskin footballs, hot cheerleaders, or private rental jets.
Falconers are interested in the magic that is derived for a brief moment when a mere mortal is permitted to join forces with nature's most adept, feathered lightning bolt. These aerial marvels, which often weigh less than five pounds, have been the inspiration for stealth jets and avian history. With eyesight eight times more accurate than a human (1), and species that have clocked diving speeds at more than 200 miles per hour (2), the 238 species (3) of hawks that exist worldwide are winged marvels.
When people use the words "hawk" and "falcon" there is confusion about exactly what birds are being described. Hawk is a generic term (like raptor) that includes all species in the order falconiformes. Falcons include only members of the family falconidae, which are birds that fall into a category of "longwings." All falcons and hawks are birds of prey and can be referred to as raptors, and a person who hunts with a raptor is called a falconer.
Getting a falconry license is learning the art of hunting with an aviary partner. Long before your local grocery store or the option of fast food -- or even personal firearms -- men (and women) who wanted to eat meat took their feathered friend out into the fields to scurry up a rabbit or some other tasty morsel. According to The Modern Apprentice, falconry is often considered the world's oldest sport, with records dating as early as 722-705 B.C. In the 4th century BC there are pictures of gold coins with Alexander the Great with a hawk on his fist. (4)
When falconers fly their birds the raptors are free-flying and have the option of leaving if they choose. Some birds do leave, but it is rare as a remarkable partnership forms between the man and bird. In the wild it is estimated by falcon experts that up to 75 percent of first-year birds die in the wild (5). The intrusion of overpopulated developments has taken away much of these animals native land and native hunting grounds, so survival has become a deep challenge.
Environmental impact studies done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services have shown clearly that falconry has absolutely no negative impact on the wildlife populations, and in some cases the boundless care that falconers have taken for these birds has helped to protect them. (6)
The legal permission to hunt with a bird is regulated by the Department of Fish and Game. The first step for an apprentice is to find a licensed Master Falconer who will agree to oversee your training for the first two years of practice. I began my journey after reaching out to Bill Murphy, the president of the California Hawking Club, who I found on Facebook. Bill wanted me to know some local falconers and women in the sport, so he introduced me to Helga. Helga is a drop dead gorgeous blond brainiac who has a Ph.D. in forensic psychology. It did not take long to realize that most falconers are extremely interesting people. One of the great things about engaging in any new endeavor is that you meet people whom you would never possibly encounter in your own repetitive daily life.
Helga invited me to join her one day at a dusty equestrian center tucked at the bottom of the Los Padres National Park, where dozens of little midget horses from Iceland were racing madly around an arena being judged on their ability to buzz past one another at shocking speeds. Helga also competes in equestrian events. "They are the Ferrari of horses -- five gears," she explained. One faster than the next. Little packages of forward momentum.
As we stood in the middle of nowhere, a hawk flew over us and perched on the edge of the nest it had built for its offspring high among the branches of a lone tree. Take note, falcon nests are huge. Even from the ground one could see that several small chihuahuas could make themselves quite at home inside this little habitat. Peaking over the ridge of the 100-foot high aerie were several little hawks quite excited about the 'rents coming home with a meal. As I watched the birds, listened to Helga, and tried to keep track of the ponies roaring by every few seconds, a feather came floating down from the nest and landed within a half inch from my foot. I glanced at it a moment, picked up the little plume and tucked it safely away in my pocket. Helga began taking me to field meets and introduced me to some of the best falconers in the area. One of them, David Peterson, tech genius in his day life, offered to work with me as an apprentice.
By the time I had all the necessary paperwork in hand and built a proper mews -- which is another world for a preposterously large birdhouse -- I had moved far out into the valley beyond Los Angeles civilization, which put me out of reach to David and Helga's hunting areas, and I had to start the search for a Master Falconer all over. I was blessed to meet Stephanie Sayre, who runs a raptor rehabilitation and education program called Wings of Discovery, and she offered to take me under her wing as well.
I trapped Theia, my first Red Tail, on Nov. 23, 2011. Exhilarating, adrenaline-charged, nerve-racking and elated are a few words that come to mind. Reaching down and picking up a young Red Tail in my arms was one of the most breathless moments of my life.
My time with Theia was like a walking meditation, quiet and focused and learning to stay completely present in each moment. She was exceptionally patient with my naïve efforts and seemed to watch me as much as I watched her -- learning to trust me and understand that I was there to care for her and support her own efforts in hunting. I allowed her to hang out in my office all day because she hated being alone, and I quite frankly hated not having her near.
In June, after seven months of spending hours each day together, it was time to let Theia go free. We walked down the riverbed next to my house and for a long time sat together as the sun started to drop. There were rabbits and ground squirrels scurrying everywhere, but she was well-fed and content, so she just sat with me and enjoyed the peace. After about 15 minutes she flew up to a nearby tree and perched. I think she was waiting to see how long it would be till I whistled, signaling her to return to my arm. No whistle came. Then she took flight. Magnificent and alone, she flew down the valley to a higher perch on a beautiful oak. I waited until it was dark and went inside. In the morning she was gone. Twice she has flown back to trees in the yard where I have seen her -- looking majestic and content as she pursues her world. Someday perhaps it will be one of her offspring that another new falconer partners with as they learn this learn this remarkable art.
To Be Continued -- The Art Of:
Motorcycles. Pole Dancing. Kindess. Poker. Salsa. The Perfect Horse. Race Car Driving. Wilderness Survival Camp. Tennis. River Rafting. Charity. Piloting a Plane. Guns and Snakes. Growing Bonsai Trees. Parkour. Cattle Cutting. Organic Gardening. Snow Boarding. Knife Throwing. Fly Fishing.
North American Falconers Association: www.n-a-f-a.com
Permits: www.dfg.ca.gov/licensing/specialpermits (Note: Permits are handled state by state through the Department of Fish and Game. Contact your state for additional information.)
For more by Kate Moulene, click here.
For more GPS for the Soul, click here.