(Note: This post originally published in early 2011)
A few years ago, when I was still working in the corporate world, I found out that one of my colleague’s husband was involved with falconry, the art of training birds of prey to hunt. Actually, there are many different kinds of birds of prey used in today’s falconry sport: falcons, red-tailed hawks, American kestrals, etc. Regardless if you agree or disagree with this sport hunting technique, you have to admit it is quite interesting to learn about everything involved with the art. One day, my colleague asked me if I’d like to go out with her husband and grab some images. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity!
Before any hunting began, I asked Robert many questions about falconry in Missouri. The Missouri Dept of Conservation has some rather strict rules and guidelines in place for falconry practitioners. And falconers must get inspected and pass a state exam, and only then can be certified to keep “falcons” and practice this rustic art. In addition, they must have a suitable housing arrangement for the birds (with room to move about freely and protection from the elements) and this housing must be approved by the state before a bird is obtained for falconry purposes. One of the main rules that falconers are required to follow is that they must regularly weigh the bird to determine when it’s crop is emptying, thus “becoming hungry”. When the bird’s weight shows the crop is emptying, the bird must either be fed fresh prey (Robert uses cottontail rabbit meat, one of the red-tailed hawk’s main staple) or the bird must be allowed to hunt on it’s own.
Robert catches and trains Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) as his “falcons”. Robert goes into a rural area and sets a trap, using a gerbil as bait. When a young hawk sees and pounces on the gerbil, Robert pulls the trap’s cord and the hawk is caught. One important thing that Robert taught me is that he catches/keeps only young (first year juvenile) hawks to train and use for hunting. He does this because first-year hawks often have a hard time catching their own prey; with this being the case, they will often eat roadkill, and in the process will be hit and killed by cars/trucks. So Robert catches a young bird, and trains it to hunt rabbits … kind of a pseudo parent to the bird, you could say. The trapping process occurs in the fall, before the winter sets in and prey becomes harder for the bird to catch. Robert works with the hawk over the winter and into spring (by spring, the bird is very adept at hunting and taking down a cottontail rabbit on his own). Once spring has arrived, Robert returns to the area where he captured the hawk, and returns it to the wild. Once fall rolls around, this capture/train/release cycle is repeated.
So you can see the process of becoming a falconer is quite a hectic schedule that most of us wouldn’t be able to perform! Robert has a couple of factors that help him out, though: First, he is one of those rare, “stay-at-home” dads with his 2 small children. Secondly, Robert was taught the art of falconry from his grandfather (who still practices falconry, too), so if Robert needs to be away for a few days, his grandfather will oversee the hawk’s care for him.
Let’s get to some images I made with Robert and his young Red-tailed hawk:
After a short hunt, the hawk returns to Robert (note the piece of meat on Robert’s hand)
The hawk returning to his handler
The hawk landing for a treat
After the hunt, I moved in and grabbed a few close-ups of this magnificent bird:
Two weeks after these images were made, Robert returned to the area where this beautiful bird was originally trapped and the hawk was returned to the wild.