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Sink your talons into falconry

Sink your talons into falconry

Human-animal partnerships have existed for millennia, and many people, cultures and groups still rely on them today. Raptors – another term for birds of prey – have worked alongside humans for at least 3,000 years, and there is evidence that our partnership may be even older. From an Iranian king of the Pishdadian dynasty to European royalty in the 6th century to the modern-day Kazakh eagle hunters of Western Mongolia, birds of prey have helped humans hunt.

These animals are not pets. Though they maintain a mutually beneficial partnership with humans, they are still wild animals – and that is what makes the sport of falconry so fascinating.

From fledgling to falconer

An adult female red-tailed hawk, named Vesper, perches atop her catch of a small rabbit.In Michigan, falconry – also called hawking – is a unique sport, and one that attracts people who love a challenge.

There are currently 137 licensed falconers in Michigan, and they’re a passionate group. With a rigorous education and training process, it’s hard not to be.

After an intense exam, a mandatory two-year apprenticeship (if you can find a mentor), an approved DNR falconry permit in addition to a small game hunting license (at minimum), a housing facility inspected by a DNR conservation officer, a red-tailed hawk or American kestrel legally taken from the wild (with a general raptor capture permit and submitted falconry acquisition and disposition report), and an official U.S. government leg band and a veterinarian’s certificate of health for the bird, there’s a lot that goes into the most heavily regulated hunting sport in Michigan – and that’s just to start.

An apprentice can apply to become a general falconer, then master falconer as they gain more experience and training – each step with its own additional requirements, as well as type and number of birds they can legally possess.

Several species of hawks and falcons are used in the sport, each with their own favored terrain, hunting style and quarry – meaning the hunting experience is just as varied and unique as the birds, the target game and the falconer.

There are equipment and housing requirements, too, not to mention the time, energy and skill that go into training a bird. Patience and an understanding of raptor behavior and biology are key in training, which helps establish the bird and falconer as a team. It is a relationship built upon mutual trust.

“It’s all about the different personalities and styles of the birds,” said Chris Martello, president of the Michigan Hawking Club. “The bird’s letting you hunt with it, not the other way around.”

The Michigan Hawking Club is dedicated to the conservation of raptors and education about the sport of falconry. Its members work with the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, as well as the Michigan Audubon Society, on various conservation projects, and many of them work to rehabilitate injured raptors.

They often go to outdoor expos and give educational “hawk talks,” showing off their birds, talking about how the sport works, and often fielding questions about how to get involved.

An adult man with a red-tailed hawk on his arm addresses a room full of people. “Sometimes, the best way to get involved is just to observe,” said Martello. “Have realistic expectations going in and ask questions.”

It is not an experience for the faint of heart. Keeping birds, especially ones with sharp talons and beaks, is serious business. Making sure the bird is content and well cared for is at the core of the sport, and comes with its own considerations.

The care and feeding of hunting birds

“It’s a level above being a pet owner – these are working birds,” said Martello. “If you don’t keep the birds well, they won’t hunt well. There’s a lot of aspects that go into taking care of them.”

Hawking birds have specialized needs. Making sure they have adequate and appropriate food is vital, especially since the human-raptor partnership is based around it. Their holding facilities, also called mews, must be built according to state and federal specifications and inspected by a Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officer. On top of that, special equipment is required for their care, training and use as hunting aids.

“Free room and board, free shelter, free health care – it’s a good deal for the bird,” said Martello.

With their specialized needs, they also require specialized care. Falconers must be ready at a moment’s notice to take their raptor to a veterinary clinic that specializes in their care – which is rarely close by.

With all these considerations, falconers have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the proper care of raptors, and some even help nurse injured raptors to health, assisting wildlife rehabilitators in returning these birds to the wild.

Falconry is more than just keeping the bird; falconers must also have access to hunting land during the hunting season, and between six and 10 hours a week to devote to hunting with the bird.

Taking flight

A bottom-up view of a red-tailed hawk taking off from a tree branch.Falconry is an extremely challenging sport on all levels, not just in terms of knowledge or licensing requirements. The game most often targeted by falconers – rabbit, squirrel, pheasant and duck – have evolved specifically to evade predators. Only a small portion of flights are successful.

For this reason, some call falconry “extreme bird-watching.” While not every hunt ends with a harvest, every excursion a falconer takes with their raptor is all at once a test of their training and knowledge, a study of raptor behavior, a bonding experience with their animal partner and the continuation of a heritage that endures today.

Falconry is difficult, expensive and often unsuccessful when it comes to bagging game. Why, then, are the people who practice it so dedicated to the sport?

It boils down to a love, fascination and respect for the birds.

“The Michigan Hawking Club doesn’t want to recruit more members – it’s not a numbers game,” said Martello. “We want to recruit better falconers. Make sure you go into it with eyes wide open, for the right reasons, with a respect for the birds, the animals and the sport.”

If that sounds like you, check out the DNR’s falconry resources and reach out to the Michigan Hawking Club. Its members are more than happy to talk about the sport and may even invite you along on a hunt. The public is also welcome at the club’s annual winter field meet Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, at the DeWitt Charter Township Community Center.

By Emma Kukuk