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Photo: Joanna Richards
Photo: Joanna Richards

Falconry pairs humans and birds in hunting

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Falconry, the sport of hunting with birds of prey, is ancient: its history goes back thousands of years. It was once used as a way to catch small prey, like rabbits and pheasants, before humans had guns. And the sport is still practiced today.

It takes many years to become a master falconer under New York state law. It's small game hunting season right now in northern New York, and reporter Joanna Richards went out with falconer Rick West last year, to learn what keeps him practicing this ancient sport.

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Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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We're at a state boat launch area in Sackets Harbor. Rick West, from Adams, has brought two of his many birds out to enjoy this beautiful fall day in the woods. He opens two wooden crates in the back of his pick-up, and a pair of big, fierce-looking hawks step out, rustling their feathers. They're talkative as West lets them out; then they're up in the trees in a flash.

They're still wild birds, they will still breed, they still know that they're a bird.
One of the birds, West tells me, is called Willow: "She's a five-year-old Harris hawk. The Harris hawks are from the southwest – Texas and Arizona. They're called the wolves of the sky. And they're the only bird of prey that hunt in a pack together.

The other bird's name is Sasha: "She's three. In the bird of prey world, the females are in charge out there, guys. And if females get sick of their mates, they just do 'em in; there's no divorce court."

Willow and Sasha have bells on their feet—I ask West why that is: "Falconry's a sport that's been practiced for almost 5,000 years. And now, we have like little transmitters you can put on their tails to follow 'em. And so the bells are so you can tell where they are, and especially if they're on the ground."

He tells me each bell has a slightly different tone, "so I can tell which bird is which by the tone of the bells, and by the sound, the way they fly. Sasha…she's more of an aggressive kind of bird and kind of just dives in there, and Willow's more the thinker of the two."

The birds take off among the trees, and we follow them. West wears a thick leather glove that can withstand the birds' talons, when they land. He's wearing a vest, with thawed-out mice in the pocket – food for the birds. He carries hoods fit specially for each hawk. Each one is made of leather and a kind of lizard skin, beautiful and tiny works of art. They're used to calm the birds during travel and trips to the vet. He also carries a lure – a rope about three feet long with a kind of dummy bird on the end, adorned with feathers. The birds are trained to come when he swings it, and also when he whistles and calls out to them.

Lots of training – of the falconer and the birds – leads up to this moment, when a hunter can let his birds go in the woods and be sure that they will come back to him. The birds have to know and trust him – and that takes a lot of time working with them.

"I get 'em when they're older birds, so they're not imprinted. They're still wild birds, they will still breed,  they still know that they're a bird. Basically, to train them, you sit with 'em, you get 'em very tame, you get 'em to eat off your fist. Then you get 'em to come a few feet, then a few yards, then eventually you train 'em on a long, creance line and get 'em to respond to a lure also."

There's a scuttling sound up in the trees, and the birds are suddenly turned on, active, honed in, of course, like hawks. They just miss a squirrel as it scampers into a hole in a tree.

"They're not like humans", West says."They can't talk and express themselves, but you can certainly tell what's going on by their body language. You can watch 'em up in the trees here now and a couple of 'em are leaned over and of course, they're sunning themselves and they'll preen their plumage. But right now, they're looking for a meal at the moment. They know they're going to get fed later on, but they're having a good time up there just looking around."

West's birds stay pretty close – within sight, usually – as we walk through the woods. We can see their dark brown bodies and white breasts up in the branches. If they get further away, he calls to them, and offers them a tasty rodent morsel.

They're like athletes, he says – they need to be exercised to do well as hunters. In the wild, only about 20 percent of raptors – birds of prey – survive their first year. Many succumb to starvation or predation. And hunting is tough – the birds can get hurt in scuffles with prey.

These birds, then, have it lucky – guaranteed meals from West, who gets his bulk orders of frozen rodents free from a lab, and first aid and vet care when they need it. Falconers also flush game from the bushes for their birds to go after. 

In exchange for their care and feeding, the birds offer something to West, too: intimacy. He gets to enjoy these fierce and beautiful creatures up close, and develop a trusting relationship with them.

He started training birds as a child with roller pigeons, a kind of bird that does a flip in the air as it flies: "I just have always enjoyed birds, ever since I was a little kid. I loved the roller pigeons, they were fascinating to watch, and I enjoy training birds and training animals. I just enjoy their company. You know, we all do something to relax. Life, life is very simple when you're walking around in the woods and working with these birds."

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