Falconry evokes visions of medieval Europe or an epic fantasy series. But falconry isn’t merely a relic of the past or an artifact of the imagination. It is a 4,000-year-old sport that is alive and well, and whose practitioners are passionately devoted to it. In the U.S., however, falconry has been around for less than 100 years.
Release of a Wild Peregrine Falcon
As a filmmaking team shooting a series on the California Coastal Trail, we chanced upon falconry while preparing to film the spectacularly beautiful Pelican Bluffs, which is one of the newest additions to the Trail and which also happens to be a habitat for the peregrine falcon. In the course of our research, we came upon a YouTube video featuring a falconer named Liz Smith-Oettinger, who is also the director of The Center for Reconnecting With Nature, an organization that raises awareness of the ways in which falconry helps endangered birds of prey survive, rehabilitates and releases injured and orphaned raptors, and gives children and teens an appreciation for the natural world through nature awareness programs, falconry education and school visits.
In the video, Liz is releasing into the wild a rescued peregrine falcon named Jet, who had suffered a gunshot wound to its wing and whom Liz had rehabilitated and taught to hunt. Now fully healed and ready to make her way in the world on her own, Jet lingered on Liz’s gloved hand, relishing the final few morsels of what would be her last free meal as Liz gently coaxed her to go. Finally, Jet took wing, and we were glued to the screen with fascination.
How could a human being develop such a close relationship with a magnificent bird of prey such as the peregrine falcon? Should a human being pursue such a relationship?
Other than a situation like that of Jet, the rescued and rehabilitated bird, is the sport of falconry an ethical one?
“Many see only one thing…a bird on the glove or perch, not flying,” says the Center for Reconnecting With Nature’s website. “Some think it is a one-sided, selfish and even cruel thing to have a falcon or hawk.” And yet without falconry, the organization asserts, the peregrine falcon would be extinct.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has described peregrine falcons as “fast, aggressive, and fearless predators located at the top of their food-chain” and which “rarely suffer from predation by other animals.” The peregrine falcon “hunts other birds for food, reaching speeds of 200 miles an hour as it dives after its prey.”
And yet these powerful raptors nearly went extinct. Their population began dwindling in the 1940s with the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which caused birds contaminated by the substance to lay eggs with shells too thin for successful incubation of their offspring. The decline of the peregrine population continued into the early 1970s, and it was so severe that “the eastern population of the American peregrine falcon was gone and the populations in the west had declined by as much as 90 percent below historical levels. By 1975, there were only 324 known nesting pairs of American peregrine falcons.”
The banning of DDT in 1972 was an essential step toward the restoration of these raptors, but it was not enough, as it would take many years for the residual DDT in the environment to break down. In 1974, ornithologist and lifelong falconer Tom Cade became a founder of The Peregrine Fund, which “began its work with a simple mission to save the peregrine falcon from extinction.” “I soon discovered,” said Cade, “that help could be obtained from private patrons who were interested in conservation of the Peregrine, certain corporations and foundations, and quite a few conservation organizations. When the Endangered Species Act came into existence in 1973, various state and federal agencies also became empowered to help, particularly the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management.”
The Peregrine Fund supported captive breeding and reintroduction programs that brought about a repopulation of the species. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife sheds some light on these types of programs: “Active restoration of the peregrine falcon occurred in more than 35 nations. Captive breeding programs provided young falcons for reintroduction at suitable locations via ‘hacking.’ This is a variation of a traditional falconry practice where birds are gradually returned to the wild. Young peregrines were acclimated in a protective box on the edge of cliffs until 6 weeks of age, the normal age for first flights. A long food chute enabled attendants to feed them without promoting connections to human caretakers.”
On August 25, 1998, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s triumphant announcement of the restoration of the peregrine falcon, along with its proposal to remove it from the Endangered Species List, asserted that, “government and private raptor experts have reintroduced more than 6,000 falcons into the wild since 1974. Some of the reintroductions took place in urban areas after researchers discovered that the falcons have successfully adapted to nesting on skyscrapers where they can hunt pigeons and starlings.”
According to KQED Science, “the peregrine falcon has falconers to thank for its continued existence... Because of these efforts and the ban of DDT, peregrine falcons were removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999.”
Although the peregrine falcon is thankfully no longer an endangered species, it, like other birds of prey, has a 70% chance of dying in the wild before it reaches its first birthday. A typical cause: starvation. “Winter is the most harrowing time for raptors,” says Hawk Watch. “The majority of young birds negotiating their first winter do not survive. Competition for resources looms large at a time when those resources are most scarce.”
This too is where falconry steps in, for falconers trap, train, and hunt with juvenile birds, many of which are released into the wild when they reach breeding age as healthy, well-fed and highly skilled hunters.
“If [trapping] seems unkind,” Jenna Woginrich, a falconer living in New York state with a red-tailed hawk named Anna, tells The Guardian, “understand this: …only 10% of Anna’s peers will survive to breeding age in the wild…Most starve during their first winter. Anna will have a snow and wind-proof shelter attached to my house, with meals delivered to her every day she isn’t out there hunting for herself.”
Anna, like every falconry-kept raptor, can leave its human and return to life in the wild any time it wishes. “Every time you release a hawk for a hunt,” says Jenna, “there’s a chance you’ll never see her again. A bird that associates its human partner with food usually flies back to your fist when you call it, but the choice is always the bird’s.”
Even when a falconry-trained bird lives in the wild, it may still maintain a relationship with the falconer. According to the Center for Reconnecting With Nature, some falconers’ birds “live freely in the wild, waiting each morning for their human to go hunting with them. These birds know they are more successful in the hunt because their falconer helps them find and flush out food.”
Falconry is a practice that requires tremendous daily dedication, devotion, and commitment to the needs of a living creature and is therefore not to be undertaken lightly. Which is why in the U.S., aspiring falconers are required to apprentice for two years under a master falconer. This is a highly regulated sport, with each state having its own particular governing body.
In a YouTube video, Marten Benatar of the Center for Reconnecting With Nature talks of the thrill and rewards of the sport as well as where aspiring beginners can go to get started. In California, that would be California Hawking Club, where beginners can get familiar with the basic requirements.
Aspiring beginners in other states can easily find their state’s falconry organization via a quick Internet search and familiarize themselves with regulations, where to obtain study materials, and where to get tested on those study materials — yes, there is a written test in each state that all beginners must take in order to get started.
The North American Falconers Association also provides a helpful overview of all the preliminary steps to becoming a falconer. These steps include obtaining a hunting license or permit, finding a sponsor or mentor under whom they will apprentice for two years, and obtaining all the gear, equipment, and food needed to care for and hunt with one’s bird, including building a home, called a mews, that it will live in for two seasons before being returned to the wild.
At this point, it’s time for the next three steps: trap, train, and hunt.
During trapping season, which is from October 1 to January 31st in California and is pretty much the same in every state, falconers in training will trap a juvenile bird of prey, usually a red-tail hawk or kestrel.
Falconers then begin training their bird to hunt. Once the bird is trained, it’s time to hunt.
The most surprising fact? The three steps of trap, train, and hunt can be accomplished in the span of only four weeks, says Benatar, who talks of the thrill of the bird’s first flight after training, when it takes off to go after its prey. “Your heart kind of goes right up in your throat,” he says.
“And you’re like, oh, I hope my bird comes back…because…a great day in falconry is any day that you come home with your bird.”
7/26/18: This article was edited to remove a factual inaccuracy.