Birds of Prey

The Art of Falconry

By Liz Forster; illustration by Erin Shea

On a Saturday morning in December 2010, Daniel Rasi met his mentor Chuck Redding at a Denny’s in Houston. The two sipped coffee, Redding doing most of the talking and Rasi sitting mostly silent, just listening. It had become a tradition for the two—a time to gather their thoughts before a day of driving.

The two got into Rasi’s Subaru Impreza and drove 30 minutes outside of the city to a stretch of gravel road adjacent to a ranch. Once there, they slowed down, examining what the untrained eye would see as a naked sky occupied only by rows of bare oaks. For them, this expanse was anything but naked.

30 minutes later, Rasi saw a a blurry dark spot between the branches of one of the oaks. He stopped the car, grabbed his binoculars and discovered just what he had driven here for: a juvenile red-tailed hawk.

Redding placed the trap on the ground near the tree and they drove away slowly, waiting for any sort of response. Almost immediately, the hawk went for the bait. Rasi returned, covered the hawk’s head with a towel to calm her down and held what became his first bird of prey as a certified falconer under the Texas Parks & Wildlife Association. He named her Alice.

Rasi first discovered falconry after reading Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain” when he was in elementary school. In the book, a 12-year-old boy named Sam Gribley runs away from New York City, where he lives with his parents and eight siblings, to his great-grandfather’s abandoned farm in the Catskill Mountains. While learning to live self-sufficiently, Sam observes a peregrine falcon hunting for prey and decides he wants a falcon as a hunting bird. He eventually steals a peregrine falcon chick from a nest, who he names Frightful and trains to hunt.

Although Rasi had no intentions to run away from his Houston home, Sam Gribley’s relationship with Frightful inspired him to pursue falconry and his own source of wildness.

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Falconry has no definitive documented genesis. Experts have inferred from the earliest accounts that the practice is centuries old, dating back to the ancient civilizations of the Far and Near East. Throughout the Middle Ages, falconry practices spread west to Europe, where it became both a status symbol and a practical means of acquiring food.

Falconry soon lost popularity in the West—in part due to the rise of the accurate firearm. Survival trumped the value of wildness. Why spend time on a bird and risk underfeeding the family when a reliable, less time-consuming method of hunting was readily accessible?

Although most people opted for rifles, some European falconers stuck with it and formed falconry clubs. In 1792, the first of these clubs—the Norfolk High Ash Falconry Club—was formed, followed by a series of others in the Netherlands and England, all of which touted their exclusivity. Such inaccessibility and elitism eventually led to their end in 1927. In the same year, though, the British Falconers’ Club was established, consisting entirely of amateurs who trained and flew their own hawks.

Today, falconry is practiced in over 60 countries, 48 of which are members of the International Association for Falconry and the Conservation of Birds of Prey (IAF). The sport is defined by the IAF and national chapters as the use of trained birds of prey—known as raptors— to hunt prey in its natural state and habitat. In the United States, aspiring falconers in most states are required to complete at least a two year apprenticeship before acquiring their falconing license. To become a Master Falconer can take up to seven years.

The Ethics Committee of the North American Falconry Association has established a clear list of commitments for members. The primary obligation is to ensure “the continued availability of that resource [raptors]” and the survival of wild populations, even if this conflicts with the goal of hunting.

“If you love these birds, you want to make sure that they have a habitat and a place to survive,” said Deanna Curtis, president of the Colorado Hawking Club. “That is what we have to show animal rights activists groups. Yes, we use them as a resource, but we also protect them.”

As dignified members of the falconry community, Master Falconers have an obligation to instill these ethics in less experienced members. Master Falconers can act as mentors for newly licensed falconers, guiding them through the challenges of training a wild bird.

On Nov. 16, 2010, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed falconry under the Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity. The nomination was the largest in the history of the UNESCO convention, with 11 nations presenting the proposal in front of UNESCO officials. By listing falconry as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, UNESCO has required signatory governments to protect the traditional skills and knowledge associated with falconry that are increasingly threatened by rapid urbanization and modern lifestyles.

The proposal asserted that falconry is one of the oldest relationships between man and bird, a natural activity since the falcon and prey have evolved together for millions of years.

“This leads to a fascinating insight into the way nature works and poses an intellectual challenge to the falconer in his understanding of behavior,” the proposal reads. “His task is to bring the actors together on nature’s stage. To do this, the falconer must develop a strong relationship and synergy with his bird.”

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Just as in humans, the true test of the symbiosis between the falconer and falcon is not in times of success or rest but rather during times of friction and chaos. A couple months after catching Alice, Rasi brought her to hunt in an open field filled with knee-high grass and thorny bushes. Unlike where he had first caught Alice, this area was devoid of trees and most of the prey he would find would be hiding in the bushes. He had never hunted in this area before, but was confident enough in the relationship he had developed with Alice to test a new area.

After assembling his gear and positioning Alice, Rasi walked through the grass holding the perch about his head, kicking the bushes in search of rabbits. Rasi had no trouble finding prey for his bird, but each attempt to kill was unsuccessful. He tried reminding himself that falconry is a sport of patience.

The Texas sun continued to beat down, heating the ground, until eventually, a column of dense air—known as a thermal current—rose upwards. Birds instinctually use thermal currents to soar, and Alice was no exception. She launched off the perch, let the rising air lift her well above Rasi’s head and began her own hunt.

“I just sort of watched her, not really knowing what to do at first since something like this had never happened to me before,” Rasi said, chuckling quietly. “I then thought, ‘I should probably call Chuck.’”

Rasi had clipped a transceiver to Alice’s leg before starting their hunt, which Redding could locate with his transceiver. The two spent four hours in the car, holding the transceiver out the window attempting to find a signal. At first, the transceiver pointed generally toward a bird soaring high above Rasi’s head. Rasi and Redding moved so they stood directly below the bird and the signal blew up. Rasi then pulled on his glove and laid out a dead mouse. He waited, but the bird kept soaring. He waited longer, and eventually, the bird flew in another direction, and disappeared.

“I knew that as long as I kept on going out there, whether that day, the day after, or the day after that, I knew I would find her,” Rasi said. “I never thought she would go back to the wild completely—we had established a delicate, mutual relationship—but you also can’t force a wild animal to do anything.”

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This is where falconry encounters its ethical problems: to what extent does owning a raptor for sport compromise the bird’s wildness and welfare as well as that of the general environment?

The animal rights activist group PETA has criticized falconry for its interruption of the course of nature. Although PETA does not have a stance towards falconry published on their website, they have publicly declared their opposition to falconry in the past. In October, 2015, PETA urged the city council of Langley, Washington to abandon the idea of using falcons to cull rampant rabbit populations. Cruelty casework associate manager Kristin DeJournett’s letter to Langley’s city council reads:

“There is nothing natural about falconers setting habituated captive hawks upon domestic rabbits in order that they be torn apart—an exceedingly inhumane and, as such, an arguably illegal approach.”

From PETA’s point of view, the characterization of falcons is black and white: wild or habituated, free or under human control. And regardless of the legality of falconry in the state of Washington, to PETA the practice is inhumane and thus inherently illegal.

Other animal rights activist groups have criticized the sport of falconry, characterizing it as a ‘bloodsport.’ Animal Defenders International states:

“We as humans have no right to inflict cruelty upon each other and our treatment towards animals should be no different. Suffering is suffering and killing an animal for sport is deliberate cruelty at its worst.”

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In the mid-20th century, European governments adopted the views of these animal rights advocacy groups in response to the rapid decline of the peregrine falcon, the fastest bird in the world. The peregrine falcon enjoys no natural predators other than golden eagles and great-horned owls while in their juvenile stage. But suddenly, in the 1940s, their population began to decline worldwide. By the 1970s, their numbers had plummeted. In the United States, the peregrine falcon had disappeared completely from the East and had declined by as much as 90 percent below historical levels in the West.

In response to the near extinction of one of the most remarkable birds in the world, European governments banned falconry, fearing that the practice caused the peregrine falcon decline. Even countries like Sweden with little history of falconry followed suit.

Although the United States did not ban falconry, peregrine falcons were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1960 and then again in 1973 when the Endangered Species Act was passed. This proved to be the more rational response as the pesticide DDT, not the practice of falconry, proved to be the cause of the peregrine falcon population decline. DDT prevents normal calcium deposition during eggshell formation, resulting in thin-shelled eggs that can break during incubation. Because peregrine falcons are at the top of the food chain, they do not directly ingest DDT, but are exposed indirectly through the bioaccumulation of the substance in their prey. And because DDT can take more than 15 years to break down in the environment, the banning of DDT in 1972 did not immediately solve the peregrine population problem. Falconers did.

In the face of an impending peregrine falcon extinction, ornithologist and falconer Tom Cade began to consider breeding the falcons in captivity and developing a method of reintroduction to the wild. His methods were put into practice in 1972 when the government and falconing associations launched recovery projects using a technique called “hacking” that prepares young falcons for independent hunting. These efforts accelerated with the creation of The Peregrine Fund, a national non-profit dedicated to facilitating the peregrine falcon population rebound.

Since 1974, more than 6,000 peregrine falcons have been released in North America through cooperative efforts among federal and state agencies, The Peregrine Fund, the Midwestern Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project and a variety of other research groups. In 1999, when the peregrine falcon was declassified as a federally endangered species, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Jamie Rappaport Clark commended falconers for their key role in recovery efforts.

“The banning of DDT made the recovery of the peregrine falcon possible. But the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act and the extraordinary partnership efforts of the Service and state wildlife agencies, universities, private ornithological groups and falcon enthusiasts accelerated the pace of recovery through captive breeding programs, reintroduction efforts and the protection of nest sites during the breeding season,” he said.

Today, 17 years after their declassification and one year after the end of the population monitoring period, Curtis echoed this belief. “The peregrine falcon would have gone extinct without the efforts of falconers,” she said. “These types of successes are what we have to show animal rights activists groups. Yes, we use them as a resource, but we also protect them.”

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Rasi eventually found Alice about four hours after she disappeared in a tree in the forest adjacent to the field. Since releasing Alice six months after capturing her, Rasi has owned four other raptors: Blitz, a Harris’ Hawk; Cora, also a Harris’ Hawk; Dorothy, a red-tailed hawk; and most recently, Ellie, a Kestrel. For him, the most rewarding part is watching the birds up close, circling through the air like trained acrobats.

“They have to adapt to the different methods a prey has of trying to escape—stopping abruptly or zig zagging,” Rasi said. “The raptors have to react really fast, predicting the movements of the prey. It’s really cool to be able to see that up close and not something that many people get to see.”

This awe reinforces the falconers’ respect of wildness and conservation. Without it, falconry could get lost along with most of the world, in the grey area between resource utilization and the maintenance of the planet and its wildness.

“Remembering that it is a wild animal is important,” Rasi said. “It’s the main thing that guides every piece of my behavior.”