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Warrior Birds: Hawking

The Ancient Sport of Hawking Gives Outdoorsmen a Ringside Seat in the Primeval War between Hunter and the Hunted
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

Imagine standing on a freeway overpass, high above the traffic rushing past. Imagine spotting an enormous motorcyclist in the distance, a 350-pound Hell's Angel looking ominous on his Harley, cruising in the passing lane at, say, 70 miles per hour. Now imagine diving headfirst from the highway overpass, timing your jump perfectly so that you and the giant, speeding Harley rider arrive at an unobstructed point on the freeway simultaneously. Assuming you have executed your treacherous leap successfully--and you have, since this is all imaginary anyway--you must now wrestle the biker (who is at least twice your size) to the ground, where, with a few well-placed blows, you kill him instantly.

Welcome to the world of game hawks.

The life of a peregrine falcon or a goshawk or a golden eagle, like that of most any animal in nature, is filled with this kind of violent confrontation. A raptor--a bird of prey--is a stalker, a hunter and, ultimately, a ruthless killer. It is, like the metaphorical freeway overpass jumper, frighteningly vicious.

But hawks are also profoundly beautiful. Like a galloping cheetah chasing a bounding gazelle or a great white shark cruising after a school of mackerel, a hawk in flight is ineffably graceful, a living study of aerodynamic wonder.

This is why some 4,000 Americans have discovered the ancient sport of falconry, the art of hunting with a trained bird of prey. They derive intense enjoyment from watching at close range a raptor doing what nature has designed it to do. Indeed, seeing a red-tailed hawk making lazy, effortless circles in the sky, its magnificent wings outstretched and its head panning the ground below like an automated surveillance camera, is like seeing Michael Jordan shooting jumpers in his pregame warm-up or spotting Jerry Rice in the corner of the stadium, jogging in a zigzag: They are all visually arresting and confident and utterly in control. When the time comes to strike, they will be ready. And they will often succeed.

No wonder, then, that falconry has fascinated mankind for more than 4,000 years. Most historians say the sport originated in ancient China, where peasants employed raptors to supplement their food sources. (Before the invention of guns, hawks may have been the most effective means of capturing small quarry.) Later, when the practice spread to Europe, falconry garnered a reputation as "the sport of kings," possibly because only the king and members of his court were allowed to own certain rare species of birds. Despite the sport's patrician connotation, falconry's appeal cuts across class lines. Unlike, say, polo, for a nominal investment--approximately $1,000, less than a set of new graphite-shafted golf clubs--anyone with a passion for birds and the patience to pass through a supervised educational program (including a two-year apprenticeship) may participate in one of the world's oldest and most seductive outdoor activities (see "Getting Started, below").


This winter, the California Hawking Club held its silver anniversary field meet in Yuba City, near Sacramento. A couple hundred hawkers, their birds in tow, met to swap stories, trade equipment and let their birds do what they do best. The club's members, an eclectic mix of the wealthy and the working class, enjoy this annual congregation of falconry aficionados in the same way antique auto connoisseurs relish car shows: It's fun to gawk at other people's prized possessions--and even more fun to have them gawk at yours.

Thus the centerpiece of the hawking club's field meet is the weathering yard, where the birds, tethered to handmade perches, preen in the sun, showing off their subtle coloring and lean muscles. Curious enthusiasts--lawyers and vintners and civil engineers and truck drivers by trade--lean over the fence rails surrounding the yard, peering at the birds as if they were so many rare jewels. The birds are alert but calm; the humans are unabashedly excited, like 10-year-old boys behind the dugout at their first big-league baseball game. These people--mostly men, though the club's president is a woman--delight in a bird's subtle attributes with the intensity of cigar lovers tasting a well-made double corona.

The weathering yard is similar to the aviary at a zoo, only you can get closer, close enough to see the birds' talons and beaks and piercing eyes. Since some species of raptors are occasionally hunted in the wild by other, larger species, the weathering yard is divided into two sections: the hawks, including the red-tail, Harris and Cooper varieties; and the falcons, including the smaller merlin, prairie and gyr varieties. Scattered among the purebreds are dozens of hybrids, such as the merligrine, a mix between a merlin and a peregrine. Though owls, ospreys and eagles are also birds of prey, they are not used in America for falconry because of species protection laws and behavioral incompatibility.

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