How to become a Falconer

Try to be anything else. A professor, a farmer, a lawyer. Forget about reading My Side of the Mountain when you were eight. Try not to mull over the decline of the American Kestrel population on the coasts. Read every book that you can get your hands on, even some that are clearly filled with lengthy treatises outdated on British colonial falconry law. Spend ten years watching red-tailed hawks soaring over every lousy little apartment you live in during college and grad school and think about how your life might be better as a falconer, how much more time you’d spend outside, how much of a paunch you’re growing studying. Set it aside. You have no space, no money, not time. There are reasons, capital-R-reasons, not to be doing this. They are based in logic, and in the benefit for the bird you don’t have. Better a hawk be wild, then entrapped in your life right now.

Move states, move jobs, move lives. Move again. Buy a dog, buy a horse, buy a car. In that order. Priorities must be clear, after all. Finally, buy a house. Think Jesus Christ what have I gotten into? the first time the basement floods, the roof leaks, the water pressure drops to zero on the second floor. Get a little fatter, lose a little hair. Have foot surgery so you can walk without the blistering neuroma pain that kept you from hiking. Notice that your dog is still alive, your horses are still alive, you are still alive. Think, if I can live through that, maybe falconry.

Contact your falconry club’s regional director about an injured red-tail that slams into a tree on your property. He will immediately begin interviewing you as a candidate. He won’t say it. He wont come right at it. But he can tell you’re not a moron, and falconry has need of not morons. It’s complimentary, but don’t get excited. This isn’t a puppy you’re thinking of acquiring. It’s not a cockatiel. It will not love you. It will not care about your foot pain, or your bruised ego, or your schedule, or your fading vision. You are talking about taking a wild animal, free, and changing it’s relationship to the world through your actions. This is serious business. Set aside the thought for nearly a year, but register to take the state falconry exam anyway.

I registered to take the exam as the result of years of thinking “what if?” and realizing that, finally, there really was no impediment to my being a falconer except myself. I had the time and the temperament, it was a question of certification and learning. I would encourage anyone thinking of becoming a falconer to consider whether you have the time to devote to this. You’re not buying puppy, the bird you trap will not love you. You may come to love it, but your feelings will be entirely irrelevant to the animal. Legally and ethically, your hawk will be a wild animal, and if you are not ready to sacrifice time, and money, and anything else that comes along with taking a living creature from the wild and training it, then move on. I will not coddle, I will not tell you it is easy. It is not. It is hard. It is work. You will be hurt, your bird will be hurt, sometimes at the same time.

Do not study for the exam directly. Certainly don’t memorize facts. It’s best not to look right at falconry, you figure, lest like a hawk, it perceives your attention as a threat and life conspires to keep you from it again. You are probably wrong about this. Return to your books. They are comforting, and the people in them do not phrase directions in a multiple-choice format the memorization of which slips sideways out of your mind as soon as you read it. Have your wife read you every one of the thousand questions on the exam three months before the test. You get eight three percent of them correct. You ace the medical section. You bomb the section asking about birds you’ve never seen. Who knew there were this many raptors in New York State? Not you, obviously. Study furiously. Think any fool can memorize things, what the hell is wrong with my brain? Your wife reads you all the questions a week before the exam. You get an eight five percent. For 2 percent you think, fuck studying. Take the test and pass with an eight four. Think maybe I can do this.

I was glad to have studied how I did. I left the test and went into this process reasonably sure I wouldn’t kill a bird. Still nervous I would, but pretty sure any bird I took would have a better chance of survival with than without me.

Keep talking to the club’s regional director. His name is Jason, or Geoff, or Roy, or Al. Go meet him at his house. He will show you his bird, Belle. Belle is in molt. Belle does not like you. You like that she gives you nothing for free. Meet his kids, his wife, his sponsor. You are being vetted. You know you are being vetted. He is wondering if you are an asshole, a nut case, an environmental kook, a fool, a moron. You think this is only fair, because at the same time you are observing him, checking his actions sideways, as a hawk fresh off the trap inspects a human up close for the first time. Who is he? How does he treat his birds? Observe that he is patient with his children. Notice that he is built like a pickup truck, but handles his birds gently. Consider that a person who cannot control himself with children and strangers, is unlikely to be a good mentor in falconry. He seems like a solid guy. You hope he will agree to sponsor you. You feel the need to prove you can do this before you ask.

Finding a sponsor, for me, wasn’t just about finding anyone with a falconry license foolish enough to take me on. It was about finding someone with a falconry license who knew their skills cold, who flew their birds, and above all could demonstrate to me on no uncertain terms that the good of their animals came above all else. My wife and I have an agreement; if we take on a horse, it’s for their life or for ours. Until death do us part, if you will, which I suppose is why they call it “animal husbandry.” With a hawk, the responsibility is twofold. You aren’t taking a domestic animal that might be okay somewhere else without you, you’re taking a wild animal and interrupting the course of it’s life forever. It is my responsibility to do the absolute best I can by that bird, until it’s release.

When my future sponsor, Jason, commented that his life as a falconer was “all about the bird” I knew I had come to the right guy.

Read more books. While you’re reading these books, construct a mews. It must be 8×8 feet, at least, but make it larger because it’s better to not fail an exam on a technicality. It must have a chamber enclosed from the weather but well ventilated. Ponder ventilation. Electrical? Air pressure based? A giant window through which air can move freely? Decide on all three. The weathering yard must be enclosed with wire mesh. The county you live in no longer has farms. Wire mesh is sold in the wrong sizes, the wrong increments, the wrong lengths. It’s goddamn annoying, but drive to 3 counties to collect enough of the right mesh to cover the weathering yard in a weekend. Shingle the roof in 94 degree summer heat because you read heat was easier to shingle in. Sweat. Curse the writer of that book. Sweat some more. Finish the month before trapping season would begin.

Constructing a mews is difficult work. Passing the state inspection can also be. I got a letter from Albany with specs in it. These were not be the same specifications my region’s inspector had. Fortunately, she called me and went over what she expected a “passing” mews would look like. I think it’s not a bad idea to look up the local DEC office and see who your inspector is, ask other falconers for advice about construction and inspection, and make sure you follow the regulations. It was important to me to be totally above reproach. Falconry is a privilege, not a right; that’s why there’s a license.

Remember you need a sponsor to apply for a license. Ask the regions director. You already know his answer. You already know he has vetted you, his sponsor has vetted you. Other falconers have called your cell phone and “spoken casually” which is the same as an interview. It is more terrifying than asking your wife to marry you. Do not think on this comparison too deeply. This is not a social ask. This is a commitment to you and any bird you take. To follow you, the newly minted, foolish falconer, into the field to trap a hawk, train a hawk, fly a hawk, and if necessary hurt and bleed with a hawk. This is not a small ask. You know this. He agrees.

There is paperwork. There will be more paperwork. There is state paperwork that must be filed for your sponsors license. You must also file it for your license. You must have a mews inspection by the state DEC. This goes well, but it also has paperwork. You must get a small game license. You have not lived in New York as an adult, so you require a hunter education class to get your small game license. There are 30 people in it. 24 of them are children. You are 32 years old. There is a test. It is entirely on firearms. You consider writing in some questions about falconry, but you sense the government agency issuing licenses doesn’t have a sense of humor. You file all the paperwork. You keep copies of it, because a book or a website or a wiser older falconer advised you to do so. You forget where you put the copies.

It was very hard to keep track of all the paperwork I needed to file in my first year, and the dates, and what regulations were current. Facebook groups and forums had conflicting information. Different state run websites had information that conflicted with the written forms. I ended up reading the laws when in doubt, and following what was closest to that. As of this writing, that strategy has worked.

On Sept 1 you wake up imagine going deep into the wild and calling down your hawk from the heavens. You spend the day riding along on a trapping trip for another apprentice. The DEC is called, runs your license plates, and arrives at your house. They do not want to see your paperwork there. They want to meet you in the field. You meet them at a gas station, and show them your paperwork. It is fine. Everything is fine. You lose an hour of trapping time.

You find your hawk on the corner of a farm field, watching the ditch for mice. You deploy a cage trap behind a bus garage where she is watching a field for mice. You trap her on a ridge near Syracuse in a bow net. She is on a lamp post, overlooking a freeway. Sit in the car with your sponsor and the other falconers watching the trap for what feels like, perhaps, a millennia. The level of excitement and discipline of each person in the car is directly related to their level of experience. You are on a hair trigger, barely able breathe. She makes you wait 30 seconds or so before coming to the trap. Your sponsor reminds you that you don’t necessarily have to take the first bird on the trap, but he says, she’s got nice big feet and is 1183g, big enough to hunt squirrels. She is beautiful, she is wild, and she is entirely in your care. This hits you like a ton of bricks as you drive home at dusk, the hawk quiet in the giant hood behind the passenger seat.

Trapping!  Man it’s exciting. You’re going out there, with the full permission of man and gods alike, to find a wild creature and begin a partnership with it. The hawk is totally unsuspecting of course, but boy, nothing ever feels quite like the moment of taking a hawk off the trap. It’s a whole new world.

Here I’d like to mention a small ethical quandary I had to overcome to be a falconer. As my wife will tell you with very little provocation, my need for personal freedom and space is probably paramount, often to a stupid degree. So here I am, engaged in an activity that requires me to capture a wild and free creature, and bend it to my will, how do I justify that?

Honestly, the capture? It can’t be justified in and of itself. Some part of falconry does necessitate changing the environment. Sometimes that is going to end up for the worse. I can’t know that, in advance. All I can do it go into the activity with my eyes open, responsible for what I do, and understanding that mistakes I make are mine to own, and live with. The goal, absolutely and without question, should be to help raise a young hawk to adulthood and release her back to the wild to breed, better for the experience. If I am successful at that, I figure it is a greater good than the deprivation of a year or two’s freedom the hawk undergoes.

Take her home. Take her out of the giant hood. Put her in the new chamber. Look at her. She looks at you. Your wife comes outside and says may I see her? You say okay. She says Oh Matthew, she’s beautiful. Her tone roots you to the floor. You fall in love with the hawk instantly. You realize right then, that falconry is going to take you over like a survival instinct; allowing no room for other thoughts.

You train the bird. There is discipline, for you. There is food, for the hawk. The hawk does not care about you, she only cares about food. Each time you work with her, getting her used to your dog, your horse, your car, you become more fascinated with her learning process. She first learns you are not a threat, by eating. She then learns to come toward you, by eating. She then learns to fly to you, in order to eat. And then she learns to follow you, to eat what you flush from cover. She is elemental, a force of nature, driven by hunger and preference for the easiest meals of her life. Your bird, you learn, will eat a gray squirrel, but prefers a chipmunk. Chipmunks are fast, and clever, and easy to flush, so you give her many opportunities to go for them at the start of hunting season.

Learning what your hawk will hunt is a treat for some, a frustration for others. A couple first-year apprentices across the state I got friendly with had smaller birds that wouldn’t hunt gray squirrels for anything – reds, chipmunks, mice; sure. Gray squirrels were a rarity.

My bird came off the trap with good instincts for ground quarry, but took three months to really start working squirrels in the treetops. This made the first weeks of snowfall very frustrating for me! I went from daily kills in my first month to going out three, four, or even as many as eight days in a row without killing anything. Jason would tell me “she’s young, give her time to figure it out, just keep getting out there.” And intellectually, I know it’s my impatience getting in my way, but man I like to see her figure out a new technique and use it to catch a squirrel. Like the first day she learned to miss, and bounce off the ground right back into a perch! Damn, what a morning! The first gray squirrel she took from a treetop, out with Jason at the Falconry Club’s meet, man! It’s incredible, watching a hawk learn new tricks, and knowing she will survive to get better and better at it.

On the first hunt though, your sponsor goes with you. He tells you, it’s all about the bird. He tells you let’s get her something. He tells you try calling her to the glove here. It is the first day of hunting season. She takes a red squirrel, a young one, and you are suddenly alone in the woods. You can hear your sponsor’s voice nearby offering instructions clip up one of her jesses; let her eat; call her to the glove. Instructions you have utterly forgotten, because you have trained a bird that has killed wild game, and she is still here, still tolerating you, even looking at you expectantly for a lure; and you are thinking let’s do it again.

So you do it again. You fall down a lot. Sometimes in mud. Sometimes in ice. Sometimes in water. Sometimes through ice, into mud and water. You get cold, you get hot, you get footed, you get hit in the face by thorns and brush. Sometimes, your hawk also takes a squirrel. Often, she does not. It’s not that she doesn’t know what she’s doing; it’s that you don’t know what you’re doing. Work harder, demand more than you thought possible, peel off that layer of suburban humanism that coats you like pond scum on water and become something stronger. Around mid-season, you and your hawk start to connect with game more often. You learn what you’re doing, she learns to trust you, and you turn into something greater than the sum of your parts. Your freshman philosophy / English / anthropology / music professor would be proud.

Mid-season my hawk was bitten by a gray squirrel weighing 683 grams, largish by squirrel standards, and with a fight to match. She self-hunted it, and took it on the ground where, as I sprinted to her through the woods, it was able to wiggle partly free of her talons and latch onto her body. It was a battle, for sure. The bite was, to put it politely, “on the bird’s rump.” The bite passed through the shaft of her fifth and fourth tail feathers, tearing all the way through the rump tissue top to bottom. It required multiple stitches, and two weeks of chamber rest before the wound closed. Eventually, both feathers fell out. As of this writing, they have not grown in again.

This was my hardest lesson. Birds get hurt. Most of these wounds would happen in my care, or in the wild. In the wild I have read that hawks have a 5% survival rate in their first two years. Witnessing the careless abandon that my passage hawk slams herself around while pursuing quarry, I am surprised the rate of survival is that high.

It is the day of your first hunt again. The sun is dappling through the trees now, making shadows across the trail as you walk back to the parking lot of the state land, and your hawk has eaten her fill. The walk to the truck is quiet, you admiring the hawk who has allowed you to participate in the hunt, then come back with you. Her feathers are fluffed up, unmarred by the mid-season wounds she will take, and clean; her feet are lightly painted with her kill. To one talon a bit of fur  adheres. You think I will do this again tomorrow, and every day, forever. As you put her in the giant hood, she rouses immediately. Close the door to the giant hood and drive home.

With apologies to Lorrie Moore

– Matt