Past Featured Article

The Art of Being A Falconer

by Eric Harrold
Featured in the Nov/Dec 2017 issue

I vividly remember my first red-tailed hawk crashing down through the tree branches towards a rabbit I had just flushed as it desperately tried to reach a brush pile just uphill from its daybed. It happened so quickly that I hardly had time to react. All I could do was dart up the hill, for I needed to dispatch the rabbit and ensure that it didn’t somehow manage to jerk loose and get away. Such an escape would perhaps discourage the young hawk, whereas a long feeding on its first kill would really motivate it and provide confidence for future pursuits. Thankfully, I was able to secure the rabbit and let the hawk feed. My excitement was almost uncontainable. I was only 15 years old and an apprentice falconer with more enthusiasm than mastery of this ancient form of hunting. In the coming few years, I would learn a lot of hard lessons about weight management, housing a bird, and making wise decisions that would allow me to enjoy more successful hunting seasons down the road.

Almost everyone who has flown raptors in this ancient practice has a story about how they came to be a falconer. I picked up a book in 7th grade by a British falconer who described outings with his uncle who was a wellknown falconer in that country at the time. His version of falconry sounded like it was full of thrills and humorous scenes and that sealed it for me. Any teenager wants to laugh and be entertained. But another important aspect of what I anticipated my experience here in northwest North Carolina would involve was taking game – harvesting meat for the table. I knew my options would be fairly limited in the area where I lived. Squirrels and rabbits were abundant, but there is little else. Once upon a time, we were like a lot of places in that quail were abundant and a covey could be found on every hill. Not these days. So my red-tailed hawk and the handful I have flown since that first bird are a very practical, if not in fact, the most practical species to fly here for the purposes of these two quarry. A red-tailed hawk can actually feed you. I have caught between 30 and 53 rabbits in a hunting season. I often end up offering a few to other folks in the neighborhood who are old enough to enjoy and appreciate a rabbit for the pot. Here in the Blue Ridge foothills, most rabbits were tendered by various means and then introduced to the frying pan for final preparations. But it isn’t just my part of the country that makes a redtailed hawk a logical choice, 2 as you couldn’t go wrong with this species hardly anywhere as a utilitarian option. The red-tailed hawk is nicknamed “Old Reliable” and it is well-earned. When they are flown at their response weight (the weight at which a given bird hunts the hardest without becoming fatigued or weak) they usually offer great results. And this point is relevant for any species actually, whether it be a hawk, falcon, or eagle. If birds are flown too heavy, they won’t be as interested in catching their quarry. If their weight is too low, they may not have the strength to overtake the quarry you flush for them. Red-tailed hawks can catch other game species as well, most notably pheasants and ducks, but these require particular circumstances such as flushing the birds up through tight escape windows that either slow the birds down or cause them to have to perform some aerial acrobatics to get away.

The hawk most similar in terms of quarry taken and hunting style to the red-tailed hawk is the Harris hawk, a species that barely comes up into the southern portions of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Harris hawks are somewhat unique behaviorally as they hunt cooperatively in family packs in the wild and this makes them an excellent candidate for falconry. In addition, they breed well in captivity and most of the individuals flown in North America are captive-bred in origin. Whereas most species are not good candidates to fly in pairs or groups, Harris hawks that are familiar with each other can be expected to get along and cooperate in the hunting field. There are situations where Harris hawks that have not previously flown together, are put together and end up skirmishing or fighting and must be quickly separated or else an injury might occur. Harris hawks much like redtailed hawks, are quite versatile and can catch a wide range of quarry with respect to size. They are adept enough to catch sparrows in the right circumstance, so quail on the smaller end, to jackrabbits on the larger end, exemplify the range of quarry one might take. In the case of most game birds, it may require a re-flush or two to slow the quarry down to where these modestly-fast raptors can take them. Quail and pheasants come to mind here and many people have experienced success flying this fine hawk on them.

The three species of Accipiters or “bird-hunting hawks” native to North American differ in size and only the two larger species, the Cooper’s hawk and Northern Goshawk being sufficiently large to take game species. While birds are often their most commonly caught wild prey, these two will also take furred quarry. Up until recent years, Cooper’s hawks were not looked upon as a practical species to fly. Many folks experienced behavioral problems associated with handling and training, causing some of them to give up and either release the bird or give it to someone else. My limited experience with this species but more importantly the vast experience of some other folks suggests that proper training and handling, as well as understanding, will allow for a much more pleasurable and successful experience flying these highstrung, energetic birds. They are particularly effective on quail and woodcock and the larger females can even take ducks, pheasants, and rabbits. Most folks would opt for a Goshawk for those last three quarry types. While lots of folks in the US and Canada fly the species of goshawk native to North America, there are a number of people flying the subspecies found in Europe and also the Siberian goshawks of Russia. These European and Russian birds are exclusively captive-bred and are generally expensive to acquire.

Falcons large enough to take game species are usually flown in open habitats as they are reluctant to fly through woodlands. Before captive-rearing made it possible to acquire species not native to our continent, one would 3 have flown a peregrine, prairie, or gyrfalcon. Today these are bred in captivity along with a number of other Eurasian species such as Saker falcons. Recently, aplomado falcons native to the extreme southwestern US and Mexico have come to be very popular choices and those employed as falconry birds are almost exclusively captive bred in origin. Most of the game taken with falcons is that with a feather. Male peregrines and aplomado falcons can take quail or partridge with regularity. Female peregrines in addition to prairies and gyrfalcons can take pheasants, ducks, and prairie grouse species such as sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens. Gyrfalcons can take birds as large as geese or sage grouse. Some folks are probably wondering about eagles. Eagles are impressive birds with respect to their size and power. They’re not likely to put anything in the game bag that most folks would want to consume. They are routinely flown on jackrabbits and foxes, and some fly them on even coyotes! Eagles more so than other raptors can become intolerant of unfamiliar people in the hunting field. All the same, there is a growing circle of austringers who primarily utilize golden eagle in attempts to take the aforementioned quarry.

Disclaimer: Falconry activities are governed by the state wildlife agency in the falconer’s state of residency. The process for becoming a falconer requires the prospective applicant to obtain a sponsor for their apprenticeship that is a General or Master class permittee. They must pass the state proficiency exam and subsequently pass an inspection of their housing enclosure and basic equipment. If one desires to engage in education, propagation, abatement, or rehabilitation, a federal permit is required in addition to any necessary state permits. No one may possess a native raptor, alive or dead, or parts thereof without the appropriate state and federal permits.