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The Modern Apprentice

 

 

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Falconry is a sport surrounded with much myth, romanticism, and history. There are always many questions when someone finds out you are a falconer or sees you with a bird on your fist.

Is it legal to have a hawk?
Absolutely! It does require the proper permits and licenses.

Can you have just one bird?
While you're an apprentice you may only have one bird. Usually it is either a Red-Tail or a Kestrel.

Is it OK for them to be alone?
Yes - In the wild they spend most of their time alone except during the breeding season.

Don't they get bored?
These birds are not like parrots or parakeets. They are not looking for social interaction, for the most part. There are some individuals and some species that are highly social, and as the bird develops a stronger bond with the falconer she interacts with him differently. Some falconers provide toys or interactive perches for their birds, however these birds are doing just what they would do in the wild - waiting for their next meal.

What kind of a cage do you keep them in?
These birds are not kept in cages, but have their own enclosure called a mews. This is typically a sizable with perches, bathpan, and more for the bird. Some falconers keep their bird in the house or in the garage and then have a separate secure area outside called a weathering yard that the bird is placed in to sun and spend her days.

Do they come back to you when you release them?
That's the way it is supposed to work. When hunting, the falconer takes off her equipment, releases the bird, and starts to get game up for the hawk to chase. The falconer may decide to change to a different location or stop hunting for the day altogether, and will call the hawk down to the fist. Just in case she does not come down, or has been chased away by a larger hawk, most falconers fly their bird with telemetry which transmits radio signals for the falconer to find the bird. In a way, we're like bird watchers who bring our own birds to the field. At the end of the day the birds get to decide if they want to go back home with us or return to the wild.

Do the birds ever go back to the wild?
Most do. Many falconers will trap a passage bird in the fall, hunt with her through the spring, and then release this healthy bird who is in peak physical condition back into the wild. Other falconers will keep a bird for many years and eventually release it back to the wild breeding populations. Some birds unintentionally return to the wild by getting swept away by a strong wind, chased off by larger raptors, or through migratory instincts. Even those birds lost which were imprints have successfully bred in the wild.

Why do the birds come back?
Falconry birds are trained to come back for food. When released to hunt, they are free to return to the wild, but most return to their falconer time and time again. Even birds recently trapped return to their handlers. Some of this is acclimation to returning to the falconer on cue, but much of it can be attributed to the bird realizing that the falconer provides good quality food, safe habitat, and security. Many falconers report having released their bird to the wild only to have her return to the mews the next day expecting food or return the next season to continue hunting in the environment and with the advantages that only a falconry relationship provides. All wild animals evaluate if they are in a good position - does this valley provide a way to survive, or is there a better way? These hawks also have evaluated their falconer and their falconry relationship. Every night they get warm food, they never starve, and they are protected from danger. These birds come down to their falconer because they have chosen to continue their relationship.

Do you have to starve them to get them to come back?
Just as top athletes pay close attention to what they eat and their caloric intake, their weight, their fat, and their muscle mass, falconers pay close attention to their birds. An athlete cannot perform to his full potential unless he maintains the right balance of these and exercises daily. So must a falconer work his bird to keep her in top form exercising her daily and carefully measuring her food to track her caloric intake. She must have enough fat reserves and energy to successfully chase game for, sometimes, hours on end. A starving bird cannot do this.

Tying them to a perch seems cruel - is it cruel?
Tying a bird to a perch is not cruel, and much effort is taken to ensure birds are physically and mentally taken care of. Falconers design their mews for the bird's best physical and mental condition. Often times this looks odd to our eyes. The inside of a mews would appear to be a prison to a person who does not understand raptors - there are vertical bars on the windows, and the windows are small. In reality many birds are more bothered by seeing things outside their mews than they are trying to enjoy a view. The walls are smooth to prevent a bird from perching in the wrong place and damaging the feathers of her tail. Birds like Red-Tail Hawks will sit for hours at the top of a light pole, the same as she will sit in her mews. A bird like a parrot may become bored or even destructive, but a raptor is wired very differently mentally. The falconer may move her through the day to weather her, weigh her, bring her in the house for socialization, or to exercise her. Birds usually have a bath pan so they can bathe as much as they want when they want. When a falconer decides to tether a bird, the falconer has decided this is the best way to manage the bird, to prevent her from injuring herself or prevent something else from injuring her.

Isn't trapping a bird like stealing it from the wild?
Not exactly. Many studies have been done on this and the impact of falconry on wild populations. When a falconer takes a chick from a wild raptor's nest, research shows that the remaining chicks actually have a better survivability rate. There are regulations directing falconers for how chicks can be taken and how many must be left in a nest, which falconers comply with. When a chick is removed, the parents have fewer chicks to feed and focus their resources on. Many times when a falconer has been to a nest he has also noticed parasites and treated the chicks to help them survive. When a falconer takes a flighted bird from the wild, it is always under one year of age. Many times these birds have been found to have disease or parasites that make them less fit. The falconer will treat them and, when they are released back to the wild, the individual will actually be more fit.
All research done to date on the impact of falconry has used very conservative estimates for the raptor calculations, and worst-case numbers for the falconer impact. And all research has concluded that falconers have absolutely no negative impact on wild raptors. The WFA is currently looking at some data around this to go beyond worst-case numbers and look at actual net impact over time. This research is very promising to definitively show that falconry actually has a positive benefit to wild populations.
In addition to the birds the falconers take and release, many falconers also rehabilitate raptors. They use their knowledge from handling and managing birds to impact wild birds in a positive manner. They often work closely with the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife to coordinate and handle injured wildlife.

Do you breed them?
Breeding raptors takes a special license separate from the falconry license. Many falconers are also breeders, but there are many falconers who will trap or purchase their birds and not produce their own.

What do they eat?
Falconers try to create a diet as similar to the wild diet of each species and as pure and balanced as it should be. They feed rodents, quail, pigeon, chicken, rabbit, insects, beef, and even road kill. They are careful to get the optimal balance of nutrients from known food sources. Many birds receive vitamin and mineral supplements as well.

Do you raise their food?
Some falconers raise pigeons, chickens, quail, or rabbits for the food. Others store the bird's catches for food and supplement by purchasing frozen foods.

Are they trained to bring their catch back?
Normally they do not bring it back to you. The bird is trained to follow you while you try to flush game. Much of what will be caught is larger than the bird can carry - even a large Red-Tail would have difficulty dragging a rabbit out of a bush to find you. It is the falconer's job to go find where the bird caught the quarry. Sometimes the bird needs help controlling or dispatching it and the falconer will assist here, too.

Can you take them out in public, like to a school or mall?
Sometimes, and that depends on the falconer. The falconer may decide to let his bird also be useful educating the public and he may speak to scout troops or other organizations in efforts to educate on raptors, conservation, or nature. However, these birds are not commonly taken out in public otherwise unless they are hunting. Some states disapprove of taking the birds out in public as they believe it would encourage the wrong sort of people to become falconers.

Are owls ever used?
Sometimes, although they are not as commonly used as many of the other species.

What do they do in the cold?
They do the same as wild birds would do. Some birds are very good at taking the cold weather, Gyrfalcons are arctic birds and Red-Tails are very sturdy to the elements. Other birds such as Kestrels have to be protected from the elements. Typically the falconer brings the bird into the house or other temperate place.

Can they hunt throughout the year?
The bird is able to hunt throughout the year, however state laws determine what you can catch. There may be some things which are able to be caught in your state that will allow you to hunt year-round. More typically falconers put their birds up for the moult leaving them in the mews and weathering yard and feeding them up so the bird will have the energy to produce a new set of feathers. When this is complete and hunting season is back, then they will resume hunting.

Can I invite falconers to hunt on my property?
Of course! Falconers love being invited to hunt on property that has various kinds of game from pigeons to rabbits to quail. Depending on the setup, it may not be safe or advisable to have the birds hunt on the property, but the falconer can let you know that. In Washington, land owners are protected when allowing others to hunt on their land by RCW 4.24.210, and many other states have similar protections for land owners. Many landowners have extended invitations to falconers in our Horse and Hawk Connection.

How long do they live?
In the wild about 70% of the raptors that hatch will die before they are one year old. This varies some depending on the species, but is a rough figure. About 90% will die before they reach five years old. The wild is a very dangerous place full of parasites, predators, collisions, starvation, and freezing among other dangers. Hawks in the care of a falconer are subject to some of the same dangers when they hunt. They can be taken by another raptor, or collide with a tree while hunting just as any wild bird can. But they also get excellent quality food, protection from the weather and most predators, and medical care. There are many falconers who have birds seven or ten years, and I know several who are in their teens and twenties still highly active and hunting. Most of the raptors that falconers take from the wild are returned to the wild, and in better shape than they would have been had they stayed in the wild.
There have been a few very lucky and capable birds that have survived to such ages in the wild, but these are extremely rare.

Are my cats in any danger?
Cats can be in danger, or they can be a danger. If the bird is in the house and the cat gets too close, there could definitely be injury to the cat. However, if the mews or weathering yard is not secure, it is also possible that the bird can be in danger from the cat. Cat bites and scratches can also carry serious infections, so if the wound itself does not harm the bird, the secondary infection might.

Do they attack on command?
No, these birds are so quickly triggered by a visual of their intended prey that the instant they see it they will take off to attack it. A command to "attack" is really unnecessary because of this.

What is the hat for?
The hat is actually called a hood. The hood has been used for centuries. Hawks are very visual and the falconer wants the ability to control what the hawk is seeing. If there is no visual input, the hawk has nothing to react to and becomes much more calm. If the falconer knows that he will be taking the bird into a situation where there will be a lot of things that will be unsettling to the bird, then he will hood the hawk to prevent her from being frightened.

What negative impact does falconry have?
Falconry has been shown in every study performed to have no negative impact, and even to have positive effects. It was falconers at the core of the Peregrine breeding projects and re-introductions. Raptors in the wild face very high mortality rates. There are "natural" mortalities such as predation, fratricide, infection, and injuries (i.e. falling out of the nest). There are "unnatural" mortalities such as electrocutions, poison, accidents, and shootings. Most birds who die are never found serving as a link in the food chain. However, even with many unknowns, the studies on raptor populations all come to similar conclusions. Within 12 months of hatching, 70 - 90% of raptors hatched will die. Of that 10 - 30% that survives past their first birthday, most will die due to predation, malnutrition, or other natural causes. Comparably, birds which have been taken from the wild for falconry frequently enter breeding projects, enjoy good health and medical care, and most are released back into the wild within a few years - in better health than they left the wild population and at an age where they can breed in the wild.
The positive impact that falconers have had on conservation efforts is immeasurable. Much knowledge of behavior, habitat, natural history and ecology is brought to light by this highly dedicated community.

Where can I get a hawk?
You can only have a hawk with a license. To start that process, think about how your lifestyle would allow for you to be a successful falconer. More on the steps to becoming an apprentice are on the Apprenticeship page.

How much time does it take to have a hawk?
For the initial training of the bird, it can take several hours each day. This may last for a few weeks to a month, and sometimes more. Once the bird has the rudiments of training, then you can be out hunting. This may be an all day activity, or just a few hours, and once a week to three times a week or more - the more time in the field, the better the bird will be. On non-hunting days, the amount of interaction may be very little - just weighing her, refreshing her bathpan, checking her general well being, and feeding her - in total, perhaps 20 minutes. However, this is every day, and there are very few people whom you can hand the responsibility to if you need to go out of town on business or vacation. Every day you must think ahead, defrost food, and interact with her. Less frequently you will be cleaning her mews, ordering food, making equipment, traveling to the raptor vet for check-ups, and going to field meets.
There are many people who just are not in a position to have a hawk right now due to work schedules, travel schedules, location, or other commitments. And there are very few falconers who would agree that they practice the falconry that they want to practice. Either they have other commitments (family or work) which they dedicate time to, or they are not in an area with as much game as they would like or the type of game they like, or they simply are not in a location to be hunting frequently. There are many who are practicing good falconry in spite of these setbacks, and are very successful. It may take tradeoffs, and falconers are nothing if not excellent at managing tradeoffs.
But falconry needs just as many supporters as it can get. If you are not able to be a falconer now, joining the falconry lists will educate you over time and introduce you to many in the falconry community. Joining a local club and finding out what you can do to help falconers in the political realm is of great value. And if you have property, managing it for raptors, or even inviting falconers to hunt your property, will benefit yourself and the ecology.

What is the toughest part about falconry?
This question will have a different answer for each person. Some people have a lot of financial constraints. Others have a lot of time constraints between family and work and have a difficult time getting out in the field. Any suburban falconer has a difficult time finding land to hunt on and game. Many of us will end up driving an hour to get to a field that is safe to have the dogs and the hawks in it and has a probability of game.
The toughest part for most apprentices is locating fields and quarry. If you are a pre-apprentice, start driving around now to locate potential fields to fly. Some of these may disappear by the time you are able to hunt, but you will have the practice of locating fields and recognizing signs of quarry.

I've been invited to go out hunting with a falconer. Are there any rules of the field?
Although there are no "rules" in the field as there are in fox hunting, there are some general guidelines you should be aware of.
  • Never touch the falconer's bird without asking permission, it is dangerous for both you and unnerving to the bird. Keeping a respectful distance from the bird until the falconer invites you closer will help her acclimate to you.
  • Walk on the side opposite to the one falconer has the bird on. Typically the falconer will carry the bird on his left fist, so stay to the falconer's right hand side. Raptors don't like strangers near them or behind their back.
  • Avoid making loud noises or a lot of movement near the bird unless you are trying to flush quarry. These are sensitive animals and they prefer strangers to keep a distance from them.
  • If the bird catches something, stay well behind the falconer so he may retrieve his bird and deal with the quarry.
  • Follow the falconer's lead. If they start walking into the woods, follow along with them and keep close so you can watch.
  • If the falconer hands you a lure or quarry, keep it well out of sight of the bird.
  • Don't wear fur out hunting. Although fur trimmed hoods or fur earmuffs may be warm and comfortable, the bird may mistake them for quarry.
  • Watch the falconer in the field. Watch how he handles the bird and the equipment, how he interacts with the bird and the dogs, how he makes in on the kill and assists the bird with dispatching the quarry.

How do I get started?
The first place to start is to contact a local club. See if there are any events, meets, or other gatherings that you might be able to attend. Join a list like hawk-l, On-Wing, or Raptor Repertoire and start just listening to the conversations. That will give you a good idea of the amount of time involved, the issues that are dealt with, and the fun it can be. Those lists have folks from every state and a post there asking for more information or local contacts can usually turn up some leads. Contact your state's Department of Fish and Wildlife and ask for their falconry packet. Most states have a list of falconers who are available as sponsors. Contacting a potential sponsor and finding out if they are receptive to a tag-along in the field gets you the best introduction.
Good luck!

All images and text Copyright © 2004 - 2016 - Lydia Ash