Hunting With Hawks

The trials and satisfaction of falconry in 21st-century America

Man has emerged from the shadows of antiquity with a Peregrine on his Wrist. Its dispassionate brown eyes, more than those of any other bird, have been witness to the struggle of civilization, from the squalid tents on the steppes of Asia thousands of years ago, to the marbled halls of European kings.

-- Roger Tory Peterson, fromBirds Over America

The history of falconry stretches back over 4,000 years, across every continent and every culture, from the Bedouin who apply the skill and speed of the peregrine falcon to chasing prey across vast stretches of desert to the Kazakh horsemen of western Mongolia who hunt fox, rabbit, and wolf through snowy mountaintops with the help of trained golden eagles. In ancient Egypt, the hawk was the avatar of Horusand kept by priests; Julius Caesar was reported to have used birds of prey to destroy carrier pigeons during his conquests; Pliny, Aristotle, and Martial all make mention of the commonplace union between man and bird. During the 15th century, falconry grew so fashionable in Europe that a social hierarchy, known today as the "Laws of Ownership," evolved. The social significance and joys of falconry were so great in Britain, Mary Queen of Scots often took leave of her prison at Turbury Castle, in defiance of Queen Elizabeth I, simply to fly her merlins. Even as late as 1921, long after birds of prey had become the luxury of the elite and rifles had become haute mode among common hunters, the art of falconry was vital enough to the human experience that William Butler Yeatsinitiated his famed and demonic vision of the apocalypse with the desperate separation of falcon from falconer:

Birds of a Feather: Pamela Hessey and Charlie Kaiser.
Silke Tudor
Birds of a Feather: Pamela Hessey and Charlie Kaiser.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

Thankfully, falconry is still practiced in a great many parts of the world, including the Middle East and Central Asia where it is highly revered and sanctified by Islamic tradition, but here in the West, where the exacting Laws of Ownership have dissolved with fiefdom, falconry still belongs to the realm of privilege, albeit privilege of time, rather than title. Anyone perusing the Northern American Falconers Association Web site is immediately directed to a section listing the demands and dedication required of every falconer: time (365 days a year, regardless of work schedule); money (for food, shelter, equipment, and travel to hunting grounds); access to land (gun-free wood lots, hedgerows, and briar patches for short-winged hawks; wide-open expanses for longwings); and permits (a slew of them, since all raptors are protected by state and federal laws).

Although the sheer excitement and unfettered adoration most falconers feel for their birds are difficult to conceal, individual falconer Web sites are not overly inviting to the novice. Arcata's Daniel G. Wake, who runs "The American Game Hawkers" page, which he claims as among the first on the Web devoted to hawking, has been a falconer since 1983 when he was licensed at the age of 16. Although Wake's fervent passion began at 12 years old (upon seeing a "really bad" made-for-TV movie called Harpy) and continues to this day, he offers little encouragement to the newcomer. Instead he offers, in agonizing detail, a practical list of expenses (at least $2,500 to start and $800 every year after, not including travel) and asks the questions passed on to him by the California Hawking Club's apprentice contact, Rick Holderman: Will you, and can you, commit part of your waking hours to a creature that, at the very best of times, will merely tolerate your presence and is as affectionate as a stone, and, at the worst of times, will cause you heartache and puncture wounds? Can you commit to an average of half an hour a day, every day -- two to four hours on a hunting day -- regardless of school, family, or job ... forever? Wake goes on to suggest hours of book study and the willingness to lose intimate relationships. Then, and only then, does he suggest searching for a sponsor who, if he can be convinced of your fortitude, will become essential en route to a license.

As a reporter, finding falconers willing to open their mews proves only slightly less challenging than taking up the sport itself.

"Reporters usually sensationalize the sport, which creates problems for us in anti-hunting circles," explains Charlie Kaiser, vice president of the California Hawking Club, which boasts 400 members, most of whom are conservationists, hobbyists, and educators, with fewer than 200 licensed falconers. "Or they praise [the sport] and fail to mention the commitment necessary. Either way, a lot of falconers don't feel comfortable with press people."

A half a year after making my first inquiries about U.S. falconry, I am standing in a warm Martinez morning outside the home of Kaiser and his partner and one-time falconry sponsor, Pamela Hessey. Hessey emerges from her backyard studio where, as one of the country's principal carousel animal restorers, she breathes life into oversize jack rabbits, ostriches, and horses in vibrant fairy-tale hues. Badger, the couple's excitable black mutt, runs laps around the studio. Inside, the cats Scrapperand Shadowbemoan the end of the Olympics, which afforded ample lap-time, and turn snotty tails up at the off-limit sunroom, where two formidable perches sit on the floor surrounded by large, white telltale droppings. A table scale, augmented by a perch, sits near a small ledger in which the weight and diet for all three of Kaiser and Hessey's raptors are recorded daily. Captive birds of prey will only hunt at certain body weights, during certain seasons, making the year-round ledger essential, as is daily in-house exercise for building the birds' muscle tone during off season.

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