Falconry, the sport of royalty, rare but fulfilling pursuit

By Jordan Nailon

Posted: May 04, 2015

<p>Unity College student Andrew Fleming extends his arm to give his red-tailed hawk a landing perch in a field near Unity, Maine in 2004. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)</p>

Unity College student Andrew Fleming extends his arm to give his red-tailed hawk a landing perch in a field near Unity, Maine in 2004. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The art of falconry has a long-standing reputation as an esoteric endeavor of the aristocracy and indeed, the birds of prey have dutifully served many meat-hungry monarchs throughout the ages. The origins of falconry are not nestled behind European castle walls but instead were hatched in the clutches of some of the world’s first human hunters, somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago and most likely in Asia. These hunters employed their birds in order to kill and retrieve fresh meat in the stead of the sophisticated tools required for conquering larger animals, which had not yet been developed.

With only an estimated 10,000 falconers practicing the craft worldwide today, bird whisperers are a rare and uncommonly passionate breed. Their primal enthusiasm for the craft of falconry is easily understandable though when you consider that their special human and bird relationship has evolved over such a wide and wending swatch of human history.

For the uninitiated the following is a hyper-condensed definition of falconry found on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website:

Falconry is the art of training raptors to hunt in cooperation with a human and the sport of actively pursuing wild quarry with a trained raptor. A person who hunts with a raptor is called a falconer. The training of a bird for falconry is to allow her to accept a falconer as a partner in the hunt.

Falconry is not for the faint of heart or the casual recreationist. It is a time-consuming, dedicated way of life. Falconry is a demonstration of the predator/prey relationship where people witness and participate in nature, close-up and in action.

When falconers fly their bird, these raptors are free-flying and may leave if they choose.

Nobody, under any circumstances, may keep a raptor as a “pet.” Only licensed falconers may have birds of prey and these birds must be flown freely and hunted regularly.

Roger Blain is a certified master falconer who lives in Lake Quinault. Blain first began studying falconry in 1976, but given the timeless history of falconry, he downplays the extent of his nearly 40 years of experience. In Blain’s words, he’s been at it just “a little while.”

Although he is a master now, Blain first learned about falconry through a chance encounter with a curious customer back in the 1970s.

“I was working in a mountaineering shop and a fellow came in, and he was a big burly guy. He did not look like a mountain climber, as they are usually pretty thin,” remembered Blain.

After a brief exploratory chat, Blain confirmed that the gentleman was, in fact, not a mountaineer. Instead the peculiar customer began to divulge his true passion in the out of doors, the art of falconry.

“He told me a story about how he had gone to Scotland with his falcon. Her name was Lady,” Blain recalled.

One day while Lady was on a soaring vacation flight over doglegged country, she flew away and didn’t come back.

“He was there two days, walking the moors trying to find her and he couldn’t,” Blain said. “His flight home was coming up so he went on a last ditch effort to find her, working his lure, and all of sudden there she was. She came back to him after two and half days of being on her own.”

As Blain remembers it, the customer began to weep openly in the store when retelling his story of a love bird lost and found again: “I thought, ‘There must be something to this to make such a big burly guy cry’.”

The customer central to that story turned out to be none other than Al Nye, one of the most influential and respected torch bearers of falconry in the United States during the 20th century. From that day on, Blain was hooked on the idea of working hand and talon with raptors.

Although the roots of falconry are closely associated with hunting pursuits (the activity is managed under hunting regulations by the WDFW and USFW), it is not the thrill of the kill that motivates the vast majority of falconers today.

“We’re not out there for the hunt, we are out there for the conjoining partnership,” explained Henry Thomas, a master falconer from Hoquiam. “The fulfillment of my life is to be with the raptor, in this case falcons. Falcons and humans are the oldest conjoining of species in history, going back possibly 10,000 years.”

That evolutionary bond of trust between man and bird is regularly referenced as the primary motivating factor for falconers. As Blain explained, “There’s just no feeling like it as far as I’m concerned. To turn a bird loose, it does not have to come back to you. If it doesn’t like you, if it doesn’t trust you, it will not come back to you. And I have never lost a bird.”

Coming to understand what makes a particular bird tick and nurturing that relationship has proven to be an enduring and rewarding experience for Blain, a former National Park ranger.

“I’ve always been essentially a naturalist. I watch over nature and everything natural trying to figure out how things work,” said Blain, who has developed a deft sense for the visual and audible cues that are required to communicate with a soaring bird.

There are three levels of required certification in order to become a master falconer. The sport is so rigorously regulated that an aspiring falconer must apprentice for about three years before they are allowed to keep their own birds. During that apprenticeship, the aspiring falconers must study the language and techniques of falconry, learn to responsibly and regularly fly their birds, master techniques for safely hunting with their birds, and learn to craft and care for all of the required gear.

“You learn slowly and carefully so the birds are not jeopardized,” Blain said.

Only after the three years of apprenticing does a person become eligible to attain general falconer status and the right to maintain their own raptors. The general falconer level is held for about five years before a person is considered for master falconer status. During the interim, regular observations are made by certified inspectors who note the conditions of the birds, their home environment, and their free-flight schedules.

Those exacting requirements, coupled with the already esoteric nature of the sport, have combined to keep falconry a rather peripheral pursuit in the public’s eye. Honing in from the common estimate of 10,000 practicing falconers worldwide, there are believed to be 3,000 falconers in North America, and about 125 licensed falconers in Washington.

Thomas, of Hoquiam, grew up in a regular falconer’s family and absorbed all of the regurgitated knowledge that flowed from the family tree. A practicing falconer since 1963, Thomas said that his parents and grandparents were practicing falconers as well, with the family’s first efforts dating back to 1927. This unique upbringing deeply affected Thomas and transformed him into an inexhaustible aquifer of falconry information.

For instance, Thomas rebuked the ubiquitous notion that raptors in general and falconers specifically are simply blood thirsty vagrants with a bit of a science lesson.

“Bear in mind that all predators, birds of prey and sharks included only require 10 percent of their (hunting) efforts to succeed,” said Thomas. “In this case, with 147 million years of raptor, birds of prey evolution, predators are really not allowed to be too efficient.”

Thomas went on to espouse the peace-mongering virtues of the notorious war hawks with a Game of Thrones-like history lesson. “Falconry has thwarted wars between countries. A gift (of raptors) between a king and a queen or a country and rival country has thwarted wars,” Thomas said.

The royal pedigree of falconry even reached into the common vernacular of medieval times and captured the imaginations of all classes of people. “The activity was symbolic,” Thomas said. “In fact the rank of raptors was based on royalty.”

Traditionally a king and queen were represented by the corresponding sexes of Gyr falcons, while princes were represented by peregrine falcons. On the bottom rung of the raptor hierarchy were knaves, servants and children, who were represented by the kestrel hawk.

In spite of the fascinating beginnings of his sport, Blain knows that modern falconry often fails to inspire the masses. As a result he insists that some unwarranted heat is cast on falconers by those who don’t fully understand the intentions of his ilk.

“Falconers are often hated by birders because we take birds of prey out of the nest,” Blain said. “We are allowed to do that. We are issued permits to do that as falconers, but people don’t understand that birds of prey eggs do not all hatch at the same time, so there is always a runt in the litter. Many times they are killed by siblings or go underfed.”

In fact, WDFW statistics put the survival rate of wild raptor fledglings at around 70 percent.

“So I’ve always made it my practice when I take a bird from the nest, to take the runt, because they are nearly always going to die. That makes me feel good about it, to give that bird a chance,” Blain said. “After three of four years I generally let them go.”

All concerned parties agree that those concentrated conservation efforts have made a meaningful impact on the recovery of the once-decimated peregrine falcon population in North America.

Dan Varland, of the non-profit conservation group Coastal Raptors, was one of those concerned parties, “Really, it was the falconers who learned how to breed peregrine falcons in captivity and transferred that knowledge in order to reintroduce peregrines to North America.”

Varland began working with raptors in Washington as a consultant for the Rayonier timber company in 1993 when the spotted owl first began making waves in the local economic and environmental front. “I also worked on management plans for bald eagles because they have bald eagles that nest on their land,” Varland said.
In 1995, Varland began working in Grayland, Ocean Shores and Long Beach catching and banding peregrine falcons for research purposes.
“It’s their intensity, their intelligence, their beauty that all draw me to them,” Varland said.
Varland believes that falconers generally get a bad rap from those outside of their cloistered community.
“I don’t think they have much impact as long as they follow the rules and regulations,” Varland said. “But there may be some rogue falconers. Just like any field or walk of life, you have people who don’t follow rules and regs and they can create problems.”
Varland noted that peregrine falcons have continued to increase their numbers in Washington along with bald eagles, and that red tailed hawks are “holding their own” right along with other hawk species.
“People are out there that are uninformed,” Varland said. “For the most part, persecution from humans is not as much of an issue as it was in the past.” He added, “I think it’s a positive story overall for raptors in western Washington.”

Krystal Kyer, Executive Director of the Tahoma Audubon Society agreed with Varland that there is a highly nuanced and sometimes contentious relationship between falconers and other branches of bird lovers, but disagreed with Blain’s notion that birders “hate” falconers.

“I think with any large organization there is going to be a large diversity of opinions,” said Kyer, who noted that her Audubon Society does not have an official position on falconry. “Some people might think that any bird being in a cage might be bad, where some others might not care so much.”

Kyer noted a similar sense of disharmony that some people assume exists between hunters and bird watchers. “I think the same sort of issue comes up with hunters and Audubon, but we actually work together really well. Hunters do a lot of good work for conservation, so we have to work with them and we want to work with them.”

Kyer added, “The bald eagle is a great example of what can be done when people work together. I think that as long as falconers aren’t doing anything illegal then I don’t think anybody would have an issue with that.”

Roger Blain has also done his share of raptor recovery work, including once caring for a bald eagle that had been shot near Forks.

“There are a lot of falconers in Washington,” said Blain, who sadly noted that there are few falconers near him on the west side of the Olympic Mountains, so there’s “nobody to fly with.”

“Most of the people live on the east side of the peninsula, or the north end, or obviously Seattle. That’s where most of the falconers are,” said Blain, who noted that bad weather and dense forests dampen falconry efforts in his wet neck of the woods.

Although the term falconer applies to any person who regularly works raptors in the open, there are more specific designations depending on the type of bird one employs.

“Basically you have hawkers and falconers,” Blain said.

Hawkers fly either accipiters or buteo hawks. Accipiters are hawks with long tails and short round wings that are designed for acrobatic flights through dense cover, like alder thickets. They are said to fly like bats. Buteos are the red tailed hawks that can often be seen sitting alongside the freeway. Buteo hawks have long tails and broad wings designed for long soaring flights on the thermals of the day.

Falcons, like peregrines, Merlins, and kestrels, have short tails and a long pointed wing that allows them to fly at break neck speeds. Their feathers are harder than other birds so that they won’t flutter and break in the wind when the falcons are diving at speeds of up to 180 miles per hour. These birds prefer to fly high in open country rather than forested areas. Fields, meadows, grass lands, and the east side of the Cascades all make great falcon flying country.

“It’s referred to as going on high,” Blain said. “The birds just watch you as you go along, and when you find prey you holler ‘ho, ho, ho!’, and put your glove on, and they will go on a dive and they will hit whatever it is you are trying to get them to take.”

Falcons hunt for birds almost exclusively so ducks, partridge, and quail are all common targets on their hunts.

Once though, Blain had a bird that swooped in and took a mammal that, thankfully, came equipped with nine lives.

“In thirty years I’ve never had that happen. Except once a red tail hawk I had took a cat but didn’t kill it,” Blain said. “When I got to her, she was holding on to the cat and the cat was motionless and I thought that she had maybe killed it.” But as soon as Blain removed the cat from the hawks clutches the felines’ eyes shot, “wide open and she thought ‘Oh my gosh!’ and ran away.”

In the unlikely event that a raptor kills a non-game animal there is a “let it lie rule” that prohibits any harvesting or disturbance of the carcass.

Along coastal areas Blain recommends using accipiter hawks or buteo buzzards because of their ability to soar on the ocean winds and navigate the trees.

“You just let them go and have a personal journey, work the terrain, and eventually work their way back to you,” Blain said. “I’ve never lost a bird, and I’ve never had a bird die because of an injury. I love my birds like I love my family and I just take very good care of them. That’s why they lived for over 20 years.”

Once when Blain was living in Maine, he had a kestrel fly off to the south and not return, at least not at first. He figures it went to vacation in Virginia, but the uncertainty was hard on a man who prides himself on his unbreakable relationship with his birds. One year later, to Blain’s delight, his distinctively marked kestrel came flying back to Main, swooped into Blain’s backyard to say hi and wound up sticking around to squawk at the red tailed hawk that had taken its place.

After a short while Blain’s old kestrel flew away again and returned to its newfound life in the wild, but Blain’s bird-loving heart was put at ease knowing that his old friend was alive and well and as wild as ever beyond his home castle walls.