The first hurdle of falconry is the fear. A full-grown raptor rockets down from the sky to nail a landing by grasping your forearm in its razor-sharp talons. The next is disabusing yourself of the notion that these are extravagant pets for oil sheiks. This millennia-old art is actually a sport—and it’s thriving in the United States.
Falconry is working in tandem with a bird of prey—an eagle, hawk, falcon or even an owl. Skilled falconers ramble through nature as their avian partners—don’t call them pets, they’re wild animals by law—fly alongside. The human’s job is relegated to flushing out game (squirrels, jackrabbits and snakes) from the brush, so the bird can swoop down on it. Getting a falconry license takes several years—typically by apprenticing with a master falconer and passing a written exam. But if you just want to experience the thrill of working with one of these magnificent raptors, a number of companies across the country will show you the basics. You skip the learning curve and the need to stock your freezer with rodents, reptiles or road kill to feed your bird. From the North American Falconers Association list of providers, I tried New England Falconry of Massachusetts. But California is another popular state for falconry as vineyards owners have found that a few flybys by a hungry hawk will discourage pesky birds from gobbling grapes. One of them, Napa’s Bouchaine Vineyards, offers occasional falconry experiences. Among the most challenging aspects of the sport, after training a bird to trust you, is keeping it in fighting trim. “Weight is
everything,” explains New England Falconry’s Ian Turner, as a handsome Harris Hawk grips his heavily gloved forearm. “Konrad weighed 670 grams this morning. If he was 690 I probably wouldn’t have flown him. He’d think, ‘I’m full enough, I don’t need you guys.’ ” Turner stresses that falcons and other birds of prey are never truly domesticated, nor would you want them to be. When it comes to taking down a squirrel—the critters have been known to bite off a careless hawk’s toes in the struggle to survive—you want a bird that’s all business. Visit bouchaine.com, n-a-f-a.com and newenglandfalconry.com