Photography: Courtesy of The Peregrine Fund
The ancient sport of falconry dates back many centuries and is still practiced today around the world. In Mongolia, traditional falconry is conducted from horseback using Golden Eagles to take prey such as foxes and wolves.
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As the sun sets into a deep orange over the foothills,a man walks slowly through the sagebrush. Only his breath and the crunch of his footsteps can be heard in these quiet moments of approaching dusk. He stops and slowly raises his arm. There, perched on his gloved fist, is a large bird of prey, a falcon. The bird turns her head in all directions, searching, scanning the area as if to orient herself. She ruffles her feathers, flaps her wings a few times and then lifts off, circling into the sky.
The man starts to run and suddenly, from out of the brush, two pheasants fly frantically into the air, having been flushed out of their cover by his footsteps. Overhead, the falcon has spotted the prey and is already diving at the birds. With wings tucked in close to her body, the falcon jets toward her target at nearly 200 miles per hour. With outstretched talons, she connects with one of the pheasants in midair. Feathers fly, wings flap and the prey drops silently to the ground. The falcon pulls up into a steep rise before returning to earth to seize her kill.
The man approaches the spot where his falcon sits atop her quarry, her wings instinctively outstretched to shield it from the eyes of other predators. He kneels down, reaches out with his gloved hand, and retrieves his falcon. The kill will become a meal for both bird and man.
Who are the falconers?
Falconers will tell you that they are involved in much more than just a sport. For them, it’s a deeply-held passion. Some say it’s an obsession and a way of life. But to suggest that this finely-tuned, intimate relationship between human and wild bird is anything but honorable is an insult to serious falconers.
“Falconers love and respect the birds,” says Kent Carnie, founding director and curator emeritus at the Peregrine Fund, headquartered at Boise’s World Center for Birds of Prey. “There is a feeling between man and bird that is most powerful. You can’t explain it to someone who doesn’t do it (falconry), and you don’t have to explain it to someone who does.”
Falconry, says Carnie, can be compared to fly fishing, a sport in which the preparation and the journey are perhaps more important than the outcome.
“The fly fisher will spend years perfecting his casting technique, learning to tie flies, studying the river, and appreciating the fighting spirit of the quarry he pursues,” Carnie says. “They don’t fish just so they can kill a fish. They fish because it takes them to a beautiful place. We are every bit as ardent and for many of the same reasons.”
The sport of falconry dates back nearly as far as recorded history itself. The use of raptors, or birds of prey, to hunt game has been practiced by kings and noblemen, politicians and paupers, and has been kept alive in its traditional form by generations of devoted falconers all over the globe.
Dave Smith, president of the Idaho Falconers Association, says that it is really the bird, not the falconer, that’s in control of the sport.
“The bird allows the falconer to be a part of its hunt,” he says. “We don’t domesticate the birds, and we don’t really train them to hunt. What we do is overcome their natural fear of at least one person, and then work with them so they will allow us to approach them on a kill without flying away.
“They’re doing what they naturally do in the wild, but they’re letting us be a cooperative part of it, sort of like their flushing spaniel,” he says with a laugh.
A raptor is not a pet, it’s a weapon
Unlike cats or dogs, raptors are not affectionate animals. They don’t love the falconer, and they don’t do particular things to try and please him. Raptors simply learn that life with the falconer provides the easiest and most reliable source of food and protection, a matter of convenience for the bird.
However, as Carnie points out, a sort of provisional bond exists between the bird and falconer that makes the partnership work. The bird learns to trust the falconer not to steal its food, and the falconer trusts the bird to return to him after a hunt.
When you watch a raptor roost calmly on the falconer’s glove, it’s easy, for a brief moment, to want to reach out and pet this deceptively calm creature. But, this is a wild bird of prey, and it was never intended to be domesticated or tamed and you can’t always be sure what they will do next.
In fact, these birds are considered weapons in the hunting world and falconers are required to have licenses and go by game laws, just as if they were hunting with a rifle or a shotgun.
“It is the most highly-regulated sport in the country,” says Carnie, who notes that it was falconers themselves who helped write the rules to ensure the protection of the birds and the sport they love.
It’s not an easy sport to get into. Becoming a master falconer requires two years of apprenticeship, written tests, field tests, facilities inspections, a federal license and several more years of practice and training.
And, unlike a shotgun, rifle or fly rod, a falcon cannot be put away in a corner when it’s not in use. It is a living creature that demands daily care, seven days a week, all year long. Some captive birds live to the age of 20, becoming long-term members of families.
“It’s an antiquated sport—it goes back four thousand years,” says Jeff King, a Hailey veterinarian and master falconer. “Today, it is really more the traditional art form that is practiced, rather than a means of bringing meat home to the table. If successful game hunting is your goal, you should get a gun,” he says.
King, who keeps two gyrfalcons—a female that he caught in the wild and a male that was captive-bred—got his first falconry license in 1975. “I got addicted to it. I guess it just found me,” he explains.
During the season, you’re likely to find King and his gyrfalcons on the other side of Timmerman Hill, where he does the majority of his hunting. Falcon prey might include ducks, grouse, pheasant, partridge—almost any game that is small enough for the raptor to handle. >>>