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.
Falcons are generally known as the fighter pilots of the sport. Long, pointy wings, slender bodies and particularly large feet make them especially adept at high-speed, open-air flight; they are capable of soaring to 1,000 feet or higher and bringing down ducks and pigeons at speeds ranging from 120 to 200 mph. Hawks do not fly as fast--probably closer to 70 mph--but with shorter, broader wings and a stockier build, they are more maneuverable, capable of twisting through forests and brush to nab quail and pheasant. Some of the birds, such as the red-tail hawk, are expert bombers, which soar down from lofty perches, pouncing on mice, snakes and rabbits with brutal force.
Spend enough time around the weathering yard and you'll notice a spectrum of bird behavior, from the delightful to the terrifying. In one corner of the yard, a mature Harris hawk, relaxed and seemingly content, bathes himself in a small bowl of water beside his perch. If not for his curved, needle-tipped talons, you might think him a wren in your backyard.
Across from the laid-back adult Harris, a young, immature female of the breed periodically begins to "bait," jumping up and down, flapping her wings. Her neighbor, a young red-tail, screeches loudly, like a baby seeking a bottle. According to Rick Holderman, an engineer from San Diego and the field meet's weathering yard marshal, the red-tail's caterwauling may be a plea for attention, or it may merely be social talking. "Once these birds have been domesticated," he says, "they can recognize their owner, whom the bird associates with food. If I walk past my bird, you can bet she'll start yelling at me."
In the falcon wing, a petite, robin-sized merlin "mantles" over an afternoon snack. He stretches his wings to their full length and pulls the tips toward his beak, creating a tent of feathers that conceals his food from the other birds. The effect is something like a vampire enveloping his cape over a nubile victim.
Some of the birds wear little leather hoods, like horse blinders. "A raptor's brain is 90 percent vision," Holderman says. "Maybe eight percent of its brain is dedicated to hunting and killing, and two percent to reproduction. The rest is all about eyesight." The phrase "eyes like a hawk" is not merely a cliché. A hawk's vision is thought to be about eight times more powerful than a human's. (If you and a hawk, for instance, were to sit in the stadium press box at a football game, you would see an expansive green field; the hawk would see individual blades of grass.) To a hooded raptor, the world is an extremely mellow place.
Unhooded, perched on a tree above a meadow, a game hawk is anything but relaxed. He is part roving radar dish, part meat-seeking missile.
At the California Hawking Club's field meet, groups of falconers (and their birds) light out into the fields around rural Yuba City, in search of quarry. Those falconers flying merlins seek flocks of English sparrows, which a merlin can pluck out of midair like an outfielder snaring a line drive in the gap. Those flying Harris hawks seek jackrabbits--muscular, superfast bunnies the size of a small dog.
Whether you like hunting or not, it is difficult not to admire the precision and grace with which a raptor works. Though domesticated, most trained birds hardly differ from their brethren in the wild--except that the domesticated ones live about three times longer. Trained birds, like wild ones, like nothing better than to hunt. You can see the excitement in the bird's behavior when it is cast from its master's forearm into the sky: It's like a slot-machine junkie let loose in a casino.
Falconry is not merely voyeurism. Part of the sport's appeal is working with the bird, beating the brush, flushing prey, guiding the hawk toward potential targets. "It's not the bird that gets trained," Holderman says. "It's the hunter who gets trained. We have to learn to operate within the bird's instincts. We have to learn how to work in tandem with this flying creature."
To that end, all apprentice hawkers in America train under the supervision of a sponsor, a master hawker who guides them through centuries-old methods for trapping (it is illegal in America to buy or sell wild birds), training and bonding with a bird of prey.
Once a hawk or falcon is trapped, it is trained solely with food. Through Pavlovian conditioning, the hawker gets his bird to associate an upraised, gloved hand with being fed. During the bird's indoctrination, most hawkers feed it fresh, unprocessed meat, such as day-old chicks, quail and rabbit. In addition to training a hawk to return for food, humans must become adept at "manning" the bird, getting it used to being around people. Most raptors will fly away--never to return--only if they're spooked by human contact or become too fat.
Though we humans prefer to believe that the birds adore us as much as we adore them, raptors are not like, say, dogs. They do not feel affection and loyalty for us. They do not crave praise. They want one thing: meat. As long as we can provide it--whether in the form of freeze-dried baby chicks or running rabbits--they will stay and work with us. Otherwise, forget it. All hawkers carry portable scales on which they weigh their birds, for a sated, heavy hawk will not fly. Why bother? A light, hungry hawk, on the other hand, will become a fearless hunter once it's let loose of its restraints.
Duane Zobrist, an international lawyer from Los Angeles, and his son, Duane Jr., the director of The Falconry Academy at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia [see box, page 337], lead a jackrabbit hunt early one moody morning during the California Hawking Club field meet. Accompanied by three other hawkers, the Zobrists prepare to fly a couple of experienced Harris hawks in a field behind an abandoned farmhouse. The air is cool and moist; the sky is gray. If you did not see large tractor-trailer trucks roaring past on the horizon, you might think you were in the moors of Scotland, where an abundance of small game makes it one of the best countries in the world for falconry.
The Zobrists weigh their animals and pronounce them fit to fly. Offering the birds a gloved hand as a perch, they carry the eager hawks into the field. (The birds are restrained by small leather straps, called "jesses," tied around their ankles.) Aside from the pure, aesthetically pleasing sight of a hawk in flight, having one of these magnificent creatures sitting calmly on your arm may be falconry's most appealing element. Though the birds do not like to be pet--it is not good for the water-resistant oils on their feathers--they do not seem to mind being near their masters. This awe-inspiring proximity, this intimacy a falconer shares with his winged partner, is hawking's greatest reward. If you are not filled with wonder by the sight of a hawk perched on your hand, staring at you with its steely green eyes, falconry --or any natural communion--is probably not for you.
Duane Sr. and his son gently cast their hawks into the air. The birds take to the sky, looking for a lofty, secure perch. They find what they are looking for in a nearby telephone pole. The hunt is on.
The hawkers fan out across the field, beating the underbrush as they walk, hoping to scare out a jackrabbit. The hawks coolly observe the action below, careful not to waste any energy until their quarry is in sight. (Each extended flight is equivalent to a grown man running a mile or more. The birds cannot afford to waste themselves on frivolous efforts.) When the hawks' handlers feel they are getting too far from the birds, they whistle and shout, waving furry lures to attract the birds' attention. "We don't want them to get out of range," Duane Sr. says. Predictably, the birds follow their masters. The prospect of some chicken snacks does wonders for a hawk's commitment to the team.
The younger Duane notices his hawk displaying some peculiar behavior, leaning anxiously on her perch. "She sees something," he says, excitedly. Sure enough, a gargantuan jackrabbit, around 10 pounds, breaks from the brush and sprints across the field. With a few powerful flaps of their wide wings, the hawks soar after it, closing the 50-yard gap in maybe three seconds. The birds chase the rabbit; the humans chase the chase. A football field away, darting left and right, one of the hawks pounces on the rabbit, creating a spectacular collision. Struggling to live, the rabbit rolls on its back and kicks at the hawk with its giant hind legs. "Help the bird!" Duane Sr. yells to his son, sprinting ahead. "She needs help." In a few dramatic seconds the struggle is over; the rabbit escapes.
None of the falconers seems the least bit disappointed. "Did you see that? Wasn't that amazing?" Duane Jr. asks the group. "What a flight! What a great flight!" The only member of the hunting party noticeably dismayed is the hawk, who returns to her master with a chunk of rabbit fur in her talons and an anxious look flashing in her eyes.
"Most people only get to see that kind of flight in a nature film on television," the younger Zobrist says, nuzzling his hawk, nose to beak. "We get to see it every time we step outside. That," he says, looking as though he might kiss his bird, "is what hawking is all about."
Contributing editor Michael Konik writes Cigar Aficionado's gambling column.
Equipment: A beginning hawker needs a hawk house for his bird to live in, perches, bath pans, elbow-length leather gloves, jesses, a scale and a fitted hood. Total cost: about $1,000.
Ownership: It is legal to trap game hawks, but you may not buy or sell them. Before you trap your bird--or are given one--most jurisdictions require a state and federal license. After trapping the bird you must register it with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Falconry is illegal in Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii and West Virginia (there is no game hunting at the academy).
Clubs: Most licensed hawkers join the North American Falconry Association (307/834-2462). Additionally, most states have their own regional club. California's is the largest.
Hunting: Any area of the country that has a surfeit of open land and rabbits, pheasants or ducks (such as Idaho, Wyoming or Montana) makes for good hunting. Overseas, Scotland is especially good, since the ratio of wildlife to humans is slanted overwhelmingly toward the winged and four-legged creatures.
The Falconry Academy at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, is the first full-time teaching facility dedicated to falconry in the United States. The school offers a one-hour introductory session to falconry and a three-day beginners course, which covers everything prospective hawkers need to know to obtain and train their first bird of prey. In addition to expert instruction, the school stocks every piece of equipment an apprentice hawker needs to get started. For more information, call (304) 536-9245.