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Hunting Is For The Birds

Hunting Is For The Birds

Posted 2/29/2016

Hunting is for the Birds

On a crisp November morning, Troy Taylor, a computer technician from Star, walks out into an open field dotted with sagebrush. A hawk ruffles its feathers atop a large stand-like pole he is carrying, called a “t-perch.” There’s a sudden movement a midst the plants, and Taylor shouts, “Ho, ho, ho, ho!” aTroyTroys he directs the hawk towards the disturbance. Immediately, the bird of prey launches from its perch and begins to track the wild rabbit that had burst through the brush. After climbing into the sky, the raptor tucks its wings and dives towards its newfound prey, falling with increasing speed. At the last moment, it extends its razor sharp talons and – “thud” – it hits its mark. Taylor rushes over to find his hawk triumphantly feasting on its downed meal, and after a few minutes he coaxes the bird off its kill with a separate piece of meat. Once the hawk is perched on his gloved arm, he then stores the unfinished rabbit for future feedings. Thrilled with the outcome of the morning, he walks back to his truck with his beloved raptor; another successful hunting trip.

Taylor has been an apprentice falconer for six months. Although he is new to the sport, he’s an avid participant – during falconry’s specialized, extended hunting seasons, he’s in the field five days a week or more with his seven-month-old Harris’s hawk, Tiberius.

“Training a hawk is a unique experience that not many can say they’ve done,” said Taylor. “Watching my hawk develop and grow as a hunter and at the same time stay gentle is very exciting.”

As an apprentice, Taylor is still training under his sponsor, Jon Neviaser, whom is also president of the Idaho Falconer’s Association (IFA). “I was especially willing to sponsor Troy because as soon as I met him I liked his positive energy; I could tell he was an intelligent and capable guy,” said Neviaser. “He has done a truly excellent job of learning to fly and hunt with his Harris’s hawk, Tiberius.”

By becoming a falconer, Taylor is continuing a sport that has been widely practiced for thousands of years throughout the world. While especially popular in the Middle East and parts of Asia and Europe, falconry is a sport almost unknown to American society. This is likely due to its late entry into the country; it wasn’t extensively documented in the United States until the 1920’s, and has only slowly grown in popularity since its initial boom in the 1930’s.

Here in Idaho, there is a close-knit group of falconers working to keep the practice alive. According to Charlie Justus, a Regional Conservation Officer for Idaho Fish and Game, there are about 160 falconers registered in the state, out of an estimated 4,500 nationwide. To unite these Idaho falconers, the IFA was established in 1978. This organization helps local falconers stay in touch with each other, and keeps them informed about local and national legislative proceedings that could affect the sport.

Similar to firearm and bow hunting, in-state falconry is a sport which has regulations that must be followed. It requires an active Idaho hunting license and an Idaho falconry permit. To obtain a falconry permit for the first time, Idaho Fish and Game regulations stipulate that a would-be falconer must pass a 100 question test, find a falconer with at least seven years of experience to sponsor them for a minimum of two years, acquire a permit to possess a bird of prey, and create a housing facility for the raptor, called a “mews,” that must be inspected by Idaho Fish and Game prior to use. The number of new Idahoan falconers each year is typically very low, but Justus describes this year as “pretty busy,” with four applicants thus far.

These entry procedures into falconry in the United States have only been in place since 1972, when the Migratory Bird Act was amended to include birds of prey. The Act federally protects certain species of bird, and prior to the inclusion of raptors it was legal to capture, own, and even kill birds of prey. When Neviaser was first learning this sport, nearly 45 years ago, present day regulations were non-existent, and the experience of becoming a falconer was significantly different.

“Falconers kept their training a secret, and discouraged people from becoming one,” said Neviaser. “I had to find my own hawk, just based off of books, and that’s how I got into falconry. It was only after I had my own hawk that other falconers started to take me seriously. Before that, I was completely on my own with just a few textbooks.”

Regardless of his or her starting point, a falconer’s first bird ultimately tests their commitment towards the sport. When asked, all falconers interviewed said that – “time” – is the most necessary component in becoming an experienced falconer.

“When you have a bird, it is not a sport where you can just forget about it for a couple weeks,” said Mike Garets, Raptor Specialist with the Peregrine Fund and local falconer. “It’s not like playing golf where you can just put the golf clubs away for the winter. When you have a bird you interact with that bird on some level every single day.”

Daily responsibilities for falconers include cleaning housing facilities, socializing with their bird, feeding it, and checking for issues, such as illness. Personal research of birds and falconry practices, as well as going in and out of the field during hunting season, also take considerable hours. The initial training of a bird is similarly time consuming, but is one of the most crucial steps in falconry.

“I worked with [Tiberius] nearly 100 hours in training over a period of 6 weeks just to get him ready to fly free for the first time,” said Taylor. “You really don't get the best out of a new bird unless you commit to hunting them several days a week.”

The time and dedication spent properly training and caring for their birds also creates a strong bond between falconers and their raptors, but not one of owner and pet.

“Some people get into the sport of falconry not understanding what it’s going to be,” said Garets. “They are not pets, and you can't treat them like that. And it is part of the regulations that you must hunt with the bird – you cannot simply keep the bird as a pet in your back yard.”

Monica Pittman, a falconer and Assistant Raptor Specialist with the Peregrine Fund, simply said, “These birds are not our pets – they’re our hunting partners.”

Due to the relationship with their raptors, many falconers are led towards a greater understanding of nature and the environment, which can foster a strong inclination towards conservation.

“Falconers are very concerned with the environment, and they want to conserve everything wild and everything natural,” said Pittman. “From a conservation standpoint, falconry is very important.”

A prime example of falconry’s impact on conservation is the successful removal of the Peregrine falcon from the endangered species list; many falconers donated their birds, time, and knowledge to recover the species. They employed special breeding techniques to increase numbers of captive bred falcons, which were then released into the wild. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, only 324 known nesting pairs of wild Peregrine falcons existed in 1975, but recovery efforts, largely due to falconers, have increased that number to the present day estimate of 3,000.

Besides the thrills of the sport, however, falconry inherently involves a certain amount of risk, and there’s always an element of uncertainty and danger that comes along with flying a raptor free.

“You never know what is going to happen,” said Neviaser. “Your bird could get hit by a car while chasing game across a street. It could fly off and your [tracking device] could fail, and you’d never see it again. Or a wild raptor, like a Great Horned Owl, could attack it. There’s always some danger involved.”

Despite the potential hazards, falconers continue to hunt with their birds and hone their craft. It’s a special kind of lifestyle that has an air of mystery; it’s both demanding and exhilarating, and something falconers would never give up.

“[Falconry] is a very fulfilling experience,” said Taylor. “When the hawk shoots off the t- perch after a cottontail [rabbit], it’s thrilling. It’s almost like you’re up there with him as he pursues the game. Some of [Tiberius’] flights have literally left my mouth hanging open in amazement. When he arcs up into the air 15 feet and folds his wings in, and power dives straight down into the brush after prey, it’s a sight to behold. That a bird can be like that with game, and then sweetly fly to your glove and want to be with you is a truly amazing experience.”