How do you describe falconry to people when you talk to folks for the first time?
A lot of people don’t realize it exists; they think of it as a fantasy thing. These women form relationships and partnerships with their birds that last for years. These hawks are all juveniles when they are trapped, which means that they need to be under 3 years old to protect the breeding populations. Before 3, they have done some hunting and they have basic skills. When the trainers take them in, [they] give them 5-star meals and Olympic-level training. These women share their lives with these birds, but the birds don’t love them. A falcon is not a pet, but the birds understand that this is someone in their lives who will provide them with food and who they can trust. They are training these hawks to hunt and asking them to work with you as a predator seeking prey.
There is a community of people doing this in New England, but I chose to focus on the women. I come from a family of a lot of women, and I’m much more comfortable around women. Over time, they really have become friends. It’s not just something I spend my Sunday mornings doing.
How do you train a bird?
A newly trapped bird is generally scared of humans, so the beginning of the relationship is earning their trust and easing their fears.
The very first step in training a bird of prey is one of the biggest steps: They need to eat off the falconer’s glove. They must remain calm and quiet, even with a piece of meat on the glove. The bird’s condition has been thoroughly examined beforehand — is it starving, greedy, healthy? For the bird to bend over and eat from the glove, they are exposing their neck and making a huge leap of faith with the human. The bird is used to taking its food and running and finding a safe place to eat, because in the wild there are other predators and threats. The journey to earning this bird’s trust and making it comfortable has begun.
From there, they move to hopping or stepping onto the glove, to flying 15 feet away on a short leash, and then they work their way up to free-flying, a huge moment in the falconer–bird relationship. The first jump off of the glove is a leap of faith. They’re gone. That’s a beautiful thing, that the hawks have their freedom when they’re working with a falconer and they choose to come back. It’s trust on the part of the falconers, too. The birds have the opportunity to live their own lives. Most of the falconers release their birds eventually, and they continue to do what they’re meant to do, to go on and hunt for themselves and reproduce.
It’s nice in falconry that these birds are only doing what’s natural, but they’re doing it alongside a human being. The falconers have to be so much to them in return — they have to be trappers and wildlife experts and trainers.
Falconers are only allowed to trap juvenile hawks so as to not affect the breeding population. Juvenile hawks have a mortality rate of 60% to 80%. Two large risks are rodenticide, or rat poison, and car strikes, the former of which many falconers loathe and advocate against, as it can disrupt entire ecosystems. Falconers are able to keep a young hawk safe and in great physical condition, until it is ready to reenter the wild and look for mates, helping to guarantee future generations of raptors.