Rapture of Raptors

In one of the last true connections with the wild, falconers the world over partner with and are beguiled by birds of prey
lifestyle, outdoors, history, culture
Written By Lesley Conn
Photography By Terry Duthu

The steady crunch of boots moving through tall grass mingles with the sound of a buffeting wind. Occasionally, a bell jingles quietly. Your eyes scan the field ahead, over the patches of buttercup and periwinkle and along a hill pockmarked with rabbit holes.

As you top the ridge, a small patch of brown bobs off to the right. You open your left hand, fan out your fingers and release the hawk perched on your wrist. In a split second, the raptor swoops over the rabbit, tumbling it forward as talons and beak find their mark.

Only then do you realize that your heart has been thumping loudly against your chest, waiting for the moment when you will join a sport older than the Persian Empire, one still pursued today by enthusiasts around the world.

“The whole experience is about the relationship between you and the bird,” says Duncan Eade, a trainer who works with hawks, eagles and other birds of prey at the British School of Falconry based at Gleneagles Resort in Perthshire, Scotland. “The bird is counting on you to flush out the prey, and you’re counting on him to catch the rabbit and return to you once it’s over.”

A Longtime Fascination

For Ralph Rogers of Winifred, Montana, falconry has been a passion since boyhood. Over the last 50 years, he has trained, bred and released dozens of peregrine falcons. A wildlife biologist by trade, he is a past president of the North American Falconers’ Association and current vice president of the International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey.

Much of the effort Rogers and other falconers made to catch, breed and release peregrines stemmed from the critical need worldwide to help falcons recover from the devastating effects of the pesticide DDT, which so weakened eggshells they collapsed before incubating birds could hatch. Decades later, peregrine populations are thriving, but that has done nothing to lessen Rogers’ interest.

“It’s just an absolute fascination,” he says. “One is the beauty of watching one of nature’s most superbly adapted creatures do their thing. We get to see something on a daily basis that, even as an ornithologist, takes your breath away. And then the art of it is the subtle interpretation of the behavior of these raptors and their prey and witnessing how nature has provided advantages to both.”

An Ally in Survival

Picture a hunter who knows his very survival depends upon finding food. He comes upon one of the most naturally efficient predators in life, a raptor who has grabbed a rabbit or similar quarry.

But gravity is a hindrance for the bird, which cannot fly away with its heavy meal. The desperate hunter charges the bird, which chooses freedom over food.

Mutual benefit is soon realized: The hunter can flush out quarry and protect the falcon from other predators. All he has to do is allow the bird his share of the kill. Centuries later, the rules are much the same.

You are right there, inches away, to these piercing eyes, and their heads are constantly moving and bobbing as they are watching everything around them.

Raptors are keenly gifted hunters. Scientists estimate raptors can see up to eight times more sharply than humans and are able to spot prey as small as a mouse from up to a mile away. The bobbing and turning of their heads help them triangulate location before they attack. And peregrines are especially known for their speed and ability to fell other birds in flight. They are the world’s fastest animal, able to reach more than 240 mph at dive speed. Rogers, a private pilot, offers an aviation comparison: The top speed of his 2014 180-horsepower Carbon Cub is a mere 110 mph.

This partnership between man and bird is documented in ancient writing and drawings more than 3,000 years old in what is now Egypt; civilizations in the Middle East, Mongolia and China have a similar ancient lineage.

Eade began training 14 years ago with Emma and Steve Ford, who in 1982 started the first raptor hunting school in the world, the British School of Falconry. The Fords moved to Gleneagles Resort in Scotland 10 years later, creating a partnership that allows interested falconers luxury accommodations while offering Gleneagles guests another recreational option along with championship golf courses, training hunting dogs and off-road four-wheeling.

Emma Ford says her fascination with falconry began at age 8, when a falconer moved next door to her family home in Kent, England. Today, she and her husband have traveled as far afield as the Philippines and the United States, sharing their passion for the birds and the sport.

“That’s how it stays new for me,” Ford says. “I love to watch someone’s eyes light up as you place a hawk on their wrist for the first time, and they realize they are that close to something from the wild.”

A Father and Son Experience

Eric Juhlin and his son, Paxton, 14, planned their summer trip to Scotland around golf. During the long midsummer season, when dawn comes about 4 a.m. and sunset about 11 p.m., the Park City, Utah, pair found ample time in their schedule for a day of falconry.

As father and son talk about their morning raptor session, it’s clear to see what Ford means: Their eyes light up, they sit forward in their seats and Paxton Juhlin’s hands begin to mimic the hawk in flight.

“You feel the power from their wings as they fly in toward your hand,” Paxton says. “And then to watch them up close—I love how they glide and swoop.”

Eric Juhlin found himself equally fascinated.

“You never get so close to a live wild bird,” he said. “You are right there, inches away, to these piercing eyes, and their heads are constantly moving and bobbing as they are watching everything around them.”

When Paxton describes what it’s like to hold a hawk on a gloved hand, the teenager taps into an emotion older visitors may not express as honestly.

“You feel kind of … regal,” he says after a moment’s thought. “You’re walking around like ‘I have a hunting bird on my arm. How cool is this?’ ”

It’s not a feat easily achieved. Training a raptor, even one born in captivity, takes months of patient, careful coaching, Ford says. This is the time when a bond of trust between human and bird is forged.

The process is called “manning.” The trainer begins by sitting with the bird in a darkened room, which eases the bird’s anxiety, before progressing to having the bird accept bits of raw meat while perched on the gloved hand. It’s simple association; as the bird realizes food comes while on the hand, the raptor becomes more willing to sit there. The birds usually are taught to land on the left hand. It’s a nod, Ford explains, to medieval days; the right hand was always kept free to grab a sword if need arose.

Two leather leashes—called jesses—extend from a tiny cuff around each leg and lay over the handler’s palm before being clutched between ring and middle finger. The bird might hop or flap wildly—even hang upside down—but as long as the handler holds tight, the bird isn’t going anywhere.

Making sure the hawk returns to its handler requires a combination of consistent reinforcement—a morsel of food upon every return—and maintaining an ideal flying weight.

The birds need only a few ounces of food per day. Overfeed, Ford advises, and not only will the hawk fly sluggishly, it likely will refuse to return on cue, preferring to roost in a tree to digest and groom. Underfeed and the bird won’t have sufficient energy to hunt. It’s much like a top athlete maintaining an ideal weight for competition.

“Finding that flying weight and keeping to it is the key to falconry,” Ford explains.

Traces of the Past

The need to hunt with falcons has long since passed, largely ushered out after guns proved easy and reliable for felling prey, but falconry remains a popular tradition still practiced around the world. In the International Falconry Association alone there are 60,000 members from 80 countries. Many countries require at least some level of licensing and training before allowing someone to keep raptors. In the U.S., anyone wanting to breed must apprentice with a master falconer for two years, pass an exam and an inspection of facilities by game officials.

In the Middle East, where Bedouin tribes once relied on raptors to down migrating birds, necessity has ebbed into honoring tradition. The houbara bustard, a chicken-sized bird revered as a food source and a fellow desert dweller, is still the primary prey. Some populations of bustard winter in Pakistan, which has proved an opportunity for international diplomacy as the government approves falconry permits for wealthy princes from neighboring countries to hunt the birds.

In Turkey, falconry was banned in 1988, but recognized as a regulated sport in 2002, though only sparrow hawks are allowed for quail hunting. Once seen as a rite of passage for young boys, falconry is being threatened there again, Rogers says, not by regulation but because youth today are more enamored with internet gaming.

In western Mongolia, some Kazakhs still hunt from horseback with trained golden eagles, a remarkable accomplishment celebrated before each fall hunting season at the country’s annual Golden Eagle Festival.

Falconry has shown its ability to adapt with the times. Technology is one aspect. Some falconers forgo bells for GPS tracking to follow their birds. And in some areas of the world, raptors are now launched from cars as their owners follow in air-conditioned comfort.

Uses have evolved, too, and Rufus the Harris hawk is a prime example. Think of him as the air marshal over the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, where Wimbledon is played each summer. Pigeons love grass seed, but a few daily rounds by Rufus keep the birds from becoming a nuisance. He’s a hawk with a fan base and has the Facebook page and Twitter account to prove it.

The whole experience is about the relationship between you and the bird.

Back on the Hunt

Ford rates Harris hawks as ideal for beginning falconers. Known as “wolves of the sky,” they are highly social, will hunt in pairs and are fickle enough to go to the closest handler with a nice bit of fresh meat to offer.

Hunting with a Harris hawk seems simple: Hold bird firmly. Release when prey is sighted. Offer a fresh lump of meat to lure bird from kill. Repeat as needed.

In actual practice, though, a beginner quickly realizes the hawk may be the smarter of the two. Its first advantage is in the sheer power it exudes—deep penetrating eyes, a powerful beak and strong, curving talons that tighten on your gloved wrist as you carry it. Toy with me, its unwavering stare seems to say, and I will snatch out your eyeballs before you can blink.

The Harris hawk’s diminutive size—it stands about 18 inches tall and weighs about 2 pounds—often prompts Ford’s new clients to ignore it as they rush toward a golden eagle, which stands about 3 feet tall and weighs about 15 pounds. That, her new clients insist, is the bird for them. Eagles can be very selective, though, and often bond with only one handler. But Ford cites a more practical reality, too: A good day’s hunting will last for hours. Better to carry the 2-pound bird on a stiffly held arm.

Harris hawks are ideal hunters of rabbit. Step only a few feet into a Scottish pasture, and it’s easy to see why rabbits are considered a nuisance animal. Their burrows undermine the soft soil, creating holes that can mean a nasty injury for the leg—cow or human—that steps into it. Sometimes, the soil collapses underfoot simply from being too near a hole.

Hawks will test new handlers, as this one did. The bird jerks up its head, flaps its wings and strains at its jesses as though it has spotted prey. Once released, it lands a few feet away, waiting for a tidbit of meat before it will step back onto the glove. Fall for that more than once or twice, and the hawk will become full and lose interest in hunting.

The hawk tries again, but if handler holds firm, the flapping and pulling stops. An understanding has been reached. Minutes later, another bob of brown darts across the field. Bird and handler react as one. The left arm swings forward in an arc as the hand opens, the hawk beats hard to gain speed and height, then plummets, talons open at its target. Once rewarded, the hawk returns to the glove.

Together, hunter and hawk are masterful, and maybe, as young Paxton described, even a bit regal.

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