I can remember as a young boy, looking up from behind my push mower on a hot, sweaty, summer day to see a ted-tailed hawk soaring high overhead. The scream of the redtail seemed to be made in mockery, as if she was saying, "Ha ha, look at you down there in the dirt and I am up here soaring in the breeze."

The image of that day was fresh on my mind years later as I was rolling down the grass airstrip in my little Cessna and noticed a redtail sitting on the end gun of a nearby center pivot. I watched as that hawk swiveled her head to track my passing as I lifted off and became airborne.

Maybe it was this same fascination with flight and the pure wonderment of birds of prey that tempted man to capture a raptor and train it to hunt with them.

Falconry, or the sport of taking quarry by means of a trained raptor, has been around for thousands of years. Many believe that falconry's roots go back to ancient Mesopotamia around 700 BC. Falconry in China dates back to about 650 BC and in Japan around 350 BC. The Goths brought falconry to Europe between the 2nd and 4th century AD, and from there it spread into Roman culture.

Falconry gained wide acceptance throughout Europe and Asia over the following centuries, and was noted in Dutch, Russian, English, Arabic and Japanese literature. The first U.S. falconry organization, The Peregrine Club, was formed in 1934, but died out during World War II. The North American Falconers Association was formed in 1961, and is still in existence.

Falconry is legal in every U.S. state except Hawaii. States adopt federal regulations on the capture and possession of protected raptors, and states may also implement more strict regulations on their own. One must first pass a written test, build adequate raptor housing facilities, acquire an inventory of approved equipment and find an experienced falconer, or sponsor, willing to oversee the beginning falconer's two-year apprenticeship.

After passing the test and passing a facilities and equipment inspection, a federal falconry permit can be issued. Only then can the apprentice falconer capture a wild bird under the supervision of his sponsor.

After the two-year apprenticeship period is over, a falconer who is at least 18 years old can move up to the General class. After five years as a General falconer, the Master class can be reached. With the graduation to higher classes, limitations are relaxed allowing falconers to possess up to three birds of varying species.

Jennifer and Tom Coulson, Master Falconers and raptor propagators from Pearl River, La., have been breeding and training Harris hawks for many years. According to Jennifer, the falconer needs to accomplish two main goals to be successful: have good field response from the hawk and find hunting spots with ample game.

"Almost anyone who has a talent for working with animals can train a hawk or falcon to fly back to them on command," she said. "That is the easy part. What proves difficult for some is the actual hunt. A successful falconer is one who takes game with his or her hawk on a regular basis. Falconry also requires a great deal of physical effort because the falconer is the one beating the bushes to flush game for the hawk."

Part of the training process is acclimation of the bird to the sights and sounds of everyday life among humans. A falconer in my area takes his red-tailed hawk on walks through town and to the post office. He says this interaction with people, pets and vehicles does a lot to calm the bird and help it adjust to its new lifestyle.

Training the bird to return to the glove is the next step. A passage bird already knows how to hunt. What you want to do is to teach it to hunt with you and to return to you when called. You want the hawk to "depend" on you.

"The falconer's job is to serve the hawk - to flush game for it under safe conditions in situations where it is likely to catch game," Tom said.

Training the bird to hunt with the human is to teach it to watch you as you flush the prey. The bird's natural instincts take over after the flush. The falconer then rewards the bird with a food item and bags the game.

Tom also brings up the fact that being a falconer continues long after hunting season has ended.

"The hawk is not a gun that can be put back in the closet at the end of the hunting season," he said. "Falconry is a long-term, year-round commitment. Birds of prey require a special diet, housing and husbandry."

Falconry employs the use of many species of raptors, not just the birds commonly known as true "falcons." For different game species, different raptors are used.

 

Redtails and squirrels

Joe Bell from Inverness has hunted squirrels with red-tailed hawks for quite some time. When I first met Bell, he had just captured a new hawk and was in the process of acclimating it to human life. While some falconers choose to hunt rabbits with red-tails, Bell explained how he hunts squirrels with his hawk.

"We go to the woods and I turn her loose," he said. "I walk through the woods, shaking limbs and pulling vines, trying to flush the squirrels out of hiding. The hawk follows close to me, watching from its perch in the treetops.

"When a squirrel appears, the hawk attacks and brings the squirrel to the ground. I then approach the hawk, offer it a piece of meat to distract it from the kill and put the squirrel in my bag. You don't ever want to take the kill from the bird without giving it something else to eat first."

Bell explained that squirrels can sometimes sever the tendons or bones in a hawk's foot, making them potentially dangerous prey. A squirrel hawk usually has scars on its feet to prove it. For this reason, many squirrel hawkers put leather chaps on the feet of their birds. To have a hawk with a severed tendon in its foot is the same as having a horse with a broken leg. The feet of the hawk are its life.

"Sometimes I never leave my yard," said Bell, mentioning that there are plenty of squirrels in the oak trees around his house. I guess that's one way of getting around hunting within the city limits.

 

Rabbits with Harris hawks

"The Harris hawk is a good choice for falconry in the southeastern United States because it is versatile," said Jennifer Coulson. "The Harris hawk can be used to hunt a wide variety of quarry from rabbits to quail and woodcock to ducks. It is one of the most commonly flown raptors in American falconry.

Harris hawks are unusual among birds of prey because they are social, whereas most raptors have solitary lifestyles. Harris hawks often live in family groups and hunt together much like a pack of wolves does. Falconers have started taking advantage of these social behaviors."

The Coulsons hunt their birds simultaneously, which makes for some interesting moments. Two of the hawks they fly, Sky and Storm, are sisters, bred by the Coulsons. Before hunting the birds, radio transmitters are attached to their legs to track them if they should wander away from the falconers.

Jennifer described a recent rabbit hunt where she and Tom hunted a small, briar-choked field.

"Since this spot does not have many high perching sites, and since the cover is fairly high, we opted to hunt the hawks off of our 7-foot-tall T-perches instead of hunting them off of the glove," she said, explaining that the hawks take readily to the perches because they can better see into the brush from atop them.

Jennifer and Tom walk through the weeds in order to flush a rabbit. When game is spotted, the falconer yells, "Ho! Ho! Ho!" a universal falconry cry meant to alert the hawk to game below.

"I flushed a swamp rabbit, yelled "Ho! Ho! Ho!" and both hawks took off from their T-perches in hot pursuit," Jennifer said. "They both lost the rabbit in a tall, dense briar, hovered briefly over the spot as if to signal to us that the rabbit was hiding there, and then returned to their respective T-perches. We moved quickly toward the spot where the hawks were hovering, and succeeded in flushing two rabbits from this tall briar."

Both hawks seemed to simultaneously catch one rabbit, so the Coulson's worked together to pull the rabbit from the briars and allow the birds to eat a small portion of the kill. Once the birds were removed from the kill, the rabbit was put into the game vest and the hawks were given a tidbit of meat as a reward. They then flew back up to their T-perches, and the Coulsons stomped off through the bushes to try and flush more rabbits.

 

Ducks with peregrines

Harvey Leslie, from Grenada, has been flying raptors since the early 1970s. To his knowledge, he and Robert McGuire from Kosciusko are the only two Mississippi falconers who fly Peregrines on ducks.

I met with Leslie in mid-December to hunt ducks with his bird. We drove north of his home in Grenada, and located a small flock of ducks on a cypress pond. Leslie informed me that on the previous two hunts with his Peregrine, Isabella, she had downed a snow goose and a drake mallard.

We walked a short distance through a grass field, and then Leslie removed Isabella's hood, which is placed on the bird's head to keep it calm during transport. Isabella was itching for a hunt, and she danced around, ruffled her feathers, and whined like a retriever waiting for that first duck to hit the water. Once Leslie removed the tether from her feet, she sat there on his glove and looked toward the sky. She ruffled up a little more, let out a few excited calls and then leapt into the air.

We began walking across the field toward the cypress hole, and Isabella flew around in lazy circles above us, occasionally swooping low to the ground past us and up into the sky again. I asked Leslie why she was doing this, thinking there was some precise explanation only falconers could understand.

"She's just fartin' around," he said.

"Of course," I thought. "Don't we all at some time or another?"

Isabella must've overheard us talking, or she noticed the ducks on the pond to our south, because she immediately headed in that direction and began to climb higher into the sky. Leslie and I hurried across the field toward the water.

"What we want to do is to flush the ducks after she gets up enough altitude, and hopefully they will head out over dry land and not sit back down on the pond," Leslie saidd. "Sometimes, the ducks are more scared of the falcon than they are of us, so they just sit right back down on the water, and she can't get to them."

Isabella had climbed up to 300 or 400 feet by the time we neared the pond, and Leslie took off running and hollering toward the edge of the water. A group of mallards sprang into the air, and circled back over the pond. Isabella kept circling overhead.

Another group of mallards left the pond behind the first, and headed to the south out over the field. They must've realized Isabella was high to the south, because they wheeled around and made a mad dive back toward the water. They then realized we were staring them in the face, and turned in the other direction. Isabella started down for a bit then made another circle.

"She's too heavy," Leslie said. "I fed her a little bit last night, but she's not hungry enough to want to attack those ducks."

In the wild, falcons may eat a meal only every few days, and will only hunt again when they build an appetite. Isabella apparently didn't have the urge on this day, so the ducks got away with their lives.

Leslie immediately pulled out a tethered pigeon and tossed it into the air. This was enough to change Isabella's mind, and she folded her wings and dove toward the earth. Before I knew it, she had zipped between us and was entering a high, banking turn to the north. In that high-speed pass, she had blistered past Leslie close enough to strike the pigeon at his side.

"That wasn't even a big dive," Leslie said. "When she goes up to 1,000 feet or more, and you can't even see her, then the ducks flush and you can hear her coming, that's a high dive."

According to Leslie, Peregrines can dive at over 200 mph, and the force of the wind over their bodies in these high-speed attacks sounds like a missile.

Leslie put the live pigeon back into his bag, and quickly tossed out a dead bird. Isabella pounced on it and began to feed. A couple of quail legs later, she was ready to hop back onto Leslie's gloved hand and pose for a few pictures. No ruffling, dancing or whining this time, just a calm, content bird.

"I wish you had seen the hunt a few days ago when she got that mallard," he said. "She climbed up out of sight, and we flushed the ducks. Those mallards headed out low over the nearby pasture, and they were in this tight little group. They must've seen her coming, because they immediately started twisting and turning, like a flock of teal pulling evasive maneuvers.

"Isabella pulled up right over the water, flew out over the field and you could hear the hit. It sounded like a lick on the football field. The next thing I saw was a big puff of feathers. That duck separated from the rest of the flock and flew back to the pond; Isabella climbed up high again. We gave her time to catch her breath, and we flushed the duck again. She immediately knocked it out of the sky."

Later, at his house, Leslie showed the evidence.

"You don't have to worry about finding shot in this one!" he said, as I stood in his kitchen and watched him put the plucked mallard in the freezer. "Falconry is bird watching to the extreme, where we get a front row seat to what happens naturally all around us."

I had a front row seat, indeed. I have never had so much fun while hunting, and it didn't bother me the slightest to not carry a gun nor to bring home any game. I was pleasantly content to sit back and enjoy. Better yet, this time I wasn't behind a push mower and I was having the time of my
life.