Jenna Woginrich has a nice piece in The Guardian, detailing falconry or hawking in the United States. Thanks to Karen Kitty Carroll for sending it to me!
... I’m still an apprentice falconer. I’m under the guidance of a master falconer because unlike other outdoor pursuits – like deer hunting or bass fishing – US falconry requires you to find a sponsor to take you on and teach you through a mentorship. Almost anyone in the US can take a hunters’ safety class, buy a shotgun and head out into fields to hunt rabbits on public game land. But if you want to do it with talons instead of bullets, you need a teacher.
... As a US apprentice, I am legally barred from purchasing a captive-bred bird. I have to go out in the world, find a wild animal, trap it, train it and only then may we begin hunting as a team.
.... Red-tails are never domesticated. They learn to get comfortable with their handlers and get used to life in their studio apartments (called mews, game warden-approved hawk houses) but remain wild as ever. When released they go right back to their normal ways. Most falconers release a bird after a season or two to return to the breeding population. Then the falconers enjoy the challenge of starting all over with another bird.
.... I should add that if you’re a beginner living in New York state, you can’t trap just any bird. You are only allowed a young red-tailed hawk or kestrel (a small falcon) born in the wild. If that seems unkind, understand this: very, very few red-tails like Anna make it to sexual maturity. These hawks are not soaring overhead humming Enya tunes and praising the Great Spirit; they are trying not to die.
Nature is one cruel headmistress, and only 10% of Anna’s peers will survive to breeding age in the wild. Some are killed by other birds, others electrocuted by power lines or hit by cars. 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.
When you take a bird out of the wild for falconry purposes, you are most likely saving its life. Few wild animals get that kind of assistance being raised to adulthood. She will hunt with me for a season or two and then be released as a super-competent hunter for the gene pool.
The average hunt with Anna will go like this: I’ll remove the hooded bird from a transport box with a perch inside it. While the bird is calmly unable to see (the hood allows her to relax and not start hunting before the falconer is ready), I remove her leash and replace it with thin, removable strips of leather called jesses. They are designed so that with one pull of the beak they are gone if the bird wants them off.
But Anna doesn’t care about her jesses; she cares about dinner. Once she is geared up, the hood is removed and the world becomes hers again. She rests on my heavy leather glove while we walk into the forest and fields.
Nothing is keeping her with me but the relationship we have built over the past few months. When she is ready, she takes off from my hand for a high branch and watches her human below her. My job is to scare a rabbit out of the brush. Her job is to kill it.
Every time you release a hawk for a hunt, 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.
The stakes couldn’t be higher in that regard: every hunt could be your last. So you savor it. You pay attention. You hike with a walking stick and hope your clumsy humanity will spook a rabbit and as you fumble through the brush.
Your bird follows above you, graceful and perfect, flying from tree to tree. If any game is sent running from cover, poetry happens. The hawk sees its quarry and takes it in a dramatic stoop. She may take the game or it might slip away, but regardless, I have caught what I was really hunting for: witnessing the try. It is beautiful and violent. It lets you forget everything else happening in the world, from wars to late mortgages, for a few seconds.
Hawking and terrier work share a few elements, not the least of which is that our hunting partners and most-cherished companions are in the thick of it.
Hawks can lose a toe to a squirrel bite, or simply fly off over the horizon never to be seen again.
The terriers go head-to-head with formidable prey, and with slashing teeth just an an inch or two away from eye and artery.
With hawks and terriers, things can go very bad, very fast.
The way we hunt requires us to calm our fluttering hearts and to tamp down the impending doom that creeps up inside us.
Not this day is our common prayer.