10/16/2014

Falconry: My First Hunt

Falconry Show
When I was rather young, somewhere in the single digits, I went to Brookgreen Gardens with my parents and grandparents. There was a falconry show there. I think I almost pooped my pants. It was one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen. Fast forward to last fall, I'm 21. Savannah (whom I later hitchhiked to Key West with and raced against in a triathlon) and I were at a renaissance festival. Don't hate. As soon as we got an itinerary for the day's events, there were two things that I had to see 1) Joisting 2) Falconry.

Joisting turned out to be alright. It was a highly staged and theatrical performance, so as an adult, it didn't really live up to my adolescent expectations. After a glass of mead, which wasn't quite as good as my own, we headed off to the falconry show. It also started out very tongue and cheek. A few bad jokes here, a bit of of pandering to the audience there. Then the birds came out. Honestly, if all the show was was a hawk sitting on the stage for 30 minutes, I would have been happy. Just seeing the creatures up close is mesmerizing. But no, there were raptors flying everywhere: crisscrossing overhead, landing on perches, soaring in the air, dive-bombing for food. I was a kid again.

If I were there by myself, I probably would have stayed and watched the show again. I tried talking to one of the apprentices, afterwards, but he was only fourteen and wearing a little, red gnome hat. I couldn't take him seriously. As soon as I got home though, I googled "how to get into falconry." And talk about barriers to entry!

In order to even hold a bird, you have become a licensed apprentice. This requires passing a test, administered by DNR, building an 8'x8'x8' cage called a mew, and the even more difficult task, finding an experienced falconer (general or master) to sponsor you. There are maybe a dozen of them in the entire state. So which came first, the falconer or the egg?
Falconry Association

These roadblocks were too much to handle, at the time. I was a senior at Clemson University living in a tipi, and there was no way it was going to happen, then. But now, with my plans to sail to the caribbean canceled, I have the time... sort of.

Getting into falconry, I'm learning, is not just a passing fancy. Most birds used in the sport are caught, at a year old, in the wild. They're undomesticated; they're raptors. Thus, they rightly don't trust humans. Their handler is, in most cases, the sole exception. They're the only anthropoid the bird can trust, and even then, it's fleeting.

So, in order for me to really get into falconry, train and work with a bird one-on-one, I'd have to be committed to them for at least a year. Given that I'm joining the Peace Corps, in February, and the fact that they'd probably frown upon a Peace Corps Volunteer bring a hawk to Zambia, I can't start working on my apprenticeship, just yet. But I was able to go and see a hunt for the first time.

I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that Athena, a two year old red tailed hawk, didn't just soar away, when she was untethered, in the middle of the woods. Yes, she flew to a nearby tree, but she followed us. As we moved through the thicket, shaking the underbrush and vines in nearby foliage, she was there, scanning the limbs and branches for signs of life. Squirrel and rabbit are the main bounty for falconers, in these parts of the country. The game usually gets stuck in the freezer though, for the raptor to later eat. And this brings us to crux of the whole thing. Food.

Food is the corner stone, brick, mortar, and foundation of this entire relationship. Sure, if I'd stopped feeding LitteCat, at the tipi, she would have eventually abscond, but a raptor, they have no loyalty, no care beyond the present state of their stomachs. If Athena had gotten hold of a squirrel and flow to the top of an old oak, she wouldn't have come down when she was called. It's not like a dog, where you can slowly get rid of the treat and they'll still sit. If there isn't food, they'll not coming; if they're not hungry, they're not coming.

Let me just take this moment to say, "NO. Falconers do not starve their birds." An emaciated raptor would make for a terrible hunter, just as a fat one would. I think we, as modern humans, have lost site of the one-to-one correlation that hard work and a meal have, in nature. Most go to the office, read emails, talk by the water cooler, surf the web, and somewhere in there do the thing that is their 'job'. Then, they wait two weeks, open the mail box, open an envelope, drive to the bank, and fill out a deposit slip. Finally, there's a visit to a restaurant or trip to a grocery store, the food is neatly packaged and presented, and then a plastic card is read by magnets.

A raptor feels the sensation of hunger, works its tail feathers off chasing its prey, and then soothes it's appetite with that animal's flesh, right then and there. If the bird is not hungry, it does not hunt. It doesn't need to. So part of falconry, a rather large part actually, is weight management. Birds of prey are no different than humans.
Fat Man Marathon
He would never be able to chase down an antelope.
This point is driven home by the fact that, if conditions were so bad, the raptor could literally just fly away! Only master falconers can imprint on a chick, so by and large, the only thing keeping them there is this willing partnership. Athena was out there to hunt, and we were there to help.

Roughly 80% of all raptors die in their first year of life (RaptorInstitute.org), and a large part of that is due to inexperience. Since falconers only take birds during their inaugural year, it gives the youngsters a chance to improve. So even though Athena went 0-3, on our hunt, she still got fed, unlike her unkept counterparts.

The experience of being able to see her quest for food, though unsuccessfully, was grand. Hopefully, I'll be able to make it out on a few more hunts, a little closer to home. These birds are amazing creatures, and it is incredible to watch them work symbiotically with humans, as they have for over 4,000 years... when they feel like it, that is.

If you're looking to learn how to hitchhike, check out my book- The Hitchhiker's Guide to: Earth.

Source: Royal Faires SC Falconry Association Perez Hilton


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Location: Charleston, SC, USA

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