The relationship with birds of prey is so different than with other animals.
Falconry is thousands of years old and it’s the tradition with taking wild quarry with a trained bird of prey, with a raptor. I was fortunate to grow up in Georgia in an area that at the time was pretty rural. My childhood home was surrounded by woods and backed up to horse pastures and so spending time in nature has always been my thing. In college and post-college I developed an interest in birds of prey, in particular the red-tailed hawk. I moved from Georgia to California 12½ years ago and that is when I decided to pursue falconry.
To become a falconer in California and in most places, you have to pass a written test with Fish and Wildlife, then you take your hunter’s safety course and get your hunting license. Then the hardest part is finding a sponsor – someone who’s willing to teach you the art and practice of falconry, free of charge, for a minimum of two years. It’s a big commitment, it’s definitely a lifestyle. I knew I wanted to incorporate that into my life and I started looking into finding a sponsor. I serendipitously met my partner Kirk and he was a falconer. I met him one evening when he was out flying his bird and we struck up a conversation and the very next weekend we went hunting – that was our first date. It was pretty amazing, we spent the whole weekend together and had such an amazing connection on so many levels but most importantly through the birds.
For me, working with birds of prey has connected me to the natural world in a way like nothing else. Not only do you become a part of this predator–prey relationship, seeing it up close – which I think in itself is so amazing and rare to witness – but you’re aware of everything they’re aware of. You become aware of the other predators in the area, the prey and the predators that are around. It’s an interesting way to move through the world with that awareness and have the opportunity to step into that space.
Traditionally how falconry has been practiced is that we trap our bird from the wild. All native raptor species are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act so the regulations and protections around birds are really strong. Captive breeding of raptors did not start in earnest until the 1950s, maybe 1960s. For our federal education permit that Sky Falconry holds that allows the public to work with our birds, we’re required to have captive-bred birds. We work with licensed breeders to purchase our birds but as a falconer just going out and hunting with your bird you can trap certain birds at certain times and in certain ways from the wild.
As a general rule, training with birds of prey, we want to get them when they’re a little bit older. Some do really well imprinting on humans, but a lot of them do better when they learn all of their healthy behaviors – especially the fight-or-flight instinct – and then we start training them. Traditionally, we want to trap most species out of the wild after they’ve been kicked out of the nest and they’re out in the world on their own. At that point, you can work with a bird for a season; most raptors die within the first year of their life so you can get them through that tough period of their life, teach them how to become good hunters and gain some good flight skills and hunting skills, and then release them back into the wild. Or you can keep them for a few hunting seasons and then release them, or you can work with them as long as they want to stick around.
For wild-trapped birds, even for our captive-bred birds, they can choose to fly away, they have the opportunity when they’re out flying to do that. We fly our birds with tracking devices; they’re not always successful, but you do have to have special permission to release captive-bred birds back to the wild. Or if they were to get lost you report it to the government. It’s all regulated. It’s a different relationship that what we’re accustomed to with an animal.
You start building a relationship of trust with the bird – it is primarily built on trust. You start spending as much time as you can with your bird. The process in falconry is called “manning,” so you spend a lot of time manning your bird, getting them comfortable with you, getting gear on and off and feeding them and them trusting your hand. It starts from there and you slowly build it up to where you can free fly your bird and hope that they come back. There is no way to make your bird come back. You just build the positive experiences and that trust and give them the best life that you can give them so they’re more apt to return. And there’s still no guarantee in that. If you trap a bird from the wild that is already out and had been living and hunting you can sometimes within a couple of weeks or shorter time go out and hunt with that bird. Building that deeper trust and ability to touch them and check them out for injuries and do all the things that we have to do with them for the husbandry part of it takes longer – you’re always building that.
We opened Sky Falconry nine years ago. We hold a special permit from Fish and Wildlife that allows nonlicensed falconers to legally glove up and free fly a trained bird of prey. It is such a rare opportunity to work with these birds and introduce them to the public, especially in such an intimate way where you’re actually seeing them in their element, free flying and being who they are as raptors.
We offer different experiences depending on what you’re looking for and your age and mobility and all of those things. But essentially all of our classes include an educational component where we teach about the art of falconry, some of the history, the practice of it, raptor biology, conservation, and then pair that with the hands-on. We go through the glove tutorial and then we’ll do an experience here in the field or we can go walking about with the bird on our 40-acre ranch, free-flying the bird to and from the glove. For me, the impact of teaching in that hands-on way is a lot more powerful than just simply seeing the bird on a glove and talking about it. Though I do think that has its place and it’s really wonderful, I think it just adds a whole dimension when you’re seeing them attempting to hunt and how they fly and more of the natural instincts that drive them. It’s very powerful. A lot of our students and guests that visit have an emotional reaction, often they’ll cry, there’s joy, there’s a little bit of fear. Some people have a very strong fear of birds which is sort of a new thing for me. I think that the innate fear that people have of snakes and spiders and these things… I’ve never thought of birds as being in that category! However, for a lot of people they have a fear of birds and I find it so incredible to see them come with this long-held fear and grow beyond it through the experience. And then at the end, hanging out, large bird of prey on the glove.
We get five-year-old children up to 92-year-old people so we’re fortunate to get a broad array of people that love birds, or that want to do an experience with their family, or like animal experiences or nature experiences. I don’t think that the people who come through our classes are at all indicative of those that actually go on to practice falconry. There are people who come through that do, which I think is wonderful. But falconers make up a very small percentage of the population. Hunters in general: there’s not that many people at this point compared to our numbers in the past that hold hunting licenses or are out in the field with a gun or an arrow or a bird. It’s a way more sustainable way to get your meat. We go to the grocery store and buy our chicken in a pretty clean package and there’s no blood and we’re so disconnected from our food source. When you’re hunting to sustain your family and friends and using the meat and only taking what you’ll use from the field, that’s true hunting and sportsmanship.
I think working with these birds and allowing the public see that is an opportunity to bring that awareness to them as well. My partner Kirk will often say that birds scavenge as well, they not only hunt live game but they also scavenge. We don’t offer live prey, we let them hunt live prey, but we don’t feed them live prey, and people will ask when we offer prey to our animals, “Oh, is that dead? Is that a dead animal?” That’s what you do when you go to the grocery store! You’re scavenging when you go to the grocery store, to some degree. You’re going up the aisles to pick up the animals that have already been killed and prepped for you. It’s an opportunity to bring that to their awareness.
I feel so much gratitude towards these birds and the relationship that we have. It’s very interesting because the relationship with birds of prey and raptors is so different than with other animals in that they are predators. There’s not necessarily a relationship of love and affection like you have with your cat or dog or more domesticated animals. It's a relationship built on trust and positive reinforcement and it’s a gift every time they choose to come back to you and stay in the relationship, because they don’t have to. They know how to fly and they know how to hunt and they know how to survive on their own and that they choose to stay in the relationship with the falconer is pretty incredible. They know we are a good opportunity; we give them a really good life. They have the opportunity on a daily basis to get out and fly and hunt and do the things that their natural instincts drive them to do, as well as having protection at night from predators when they’re the most vulnerable, and having food on a daily basis and having the things that make their life easier and good. I’m amazed by it every time it happens and it feels like such an honor to be in that relationship with them because it is a choice. For me to be able to share that, then, with the public and give them the opportunity to fall in love with these birds if they haven’t already had an interest… my hope is that it inspires them to go out into the world and make even tiny little changes that can have a positive impact on the environment and the natural world.
As human beings – especially in the digital age – our focus is very narrow and it is very easy to always be looking down and looking at a device and disconnected from the world around us and the repercussions of our choices as we move through the world. These birds, these apex predators of the sky, they really are barometers for us and what’s happening in the larger scale. When we see them getting killed by poisons or by pesticides, it’s an indicator of what’s happening on a larger scale. It’s like the canary in the coal mine. Even simple things like don’t throw anything out your car window, even if it’s an apple core. A lot of us think, “It’s an apple core, it’s biodegradable.” You’re drawing the prey animals, the raptors, to the roadside, perpetuating the cycle of them hunting there and getting hit. Or poisoning prey animals like gophers and squirrels and mice and things like that – inevitably you’re going to poison whoever eats that. That secondary poisoning is something that we’re seeing with all of our predators. To be able to bring awareness into people’s minds… there are so many things that are going wrong with global warming and it’s a little overwhelming to know how you can have an impact. I think if you just bring it back to your choices as a consumer and how you move through the world, it’s so powerful. It’s pretty fascinating to see even the smallest little ah-has happen during class when people are like, “I never thought about that.”