Falconry was once called the “sport of kings.” Royals trained hawks and falcons to hunt for smaller birds and animals. Birds of prey were revered by the ruling class, and the birds were protected from hunters. Some say it was the beginning of wildlife conservation. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Corbin Sullivan reports on some falconers who are keeping the sport and its conservation heritage alive:
Falconry was once called the “sport of kings.” Royals trained hawks and falcons to hunt for
smaller birds and animals. Birds of prey were revered by the ruling class, and the birds were
protected from hunters. Some say it was the beginning of wildlife conservation. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Corbin Sullivan reports on some falconers who are keeping the sport and its
conservation heritage alive:
That’s Buffy. She’s a full-grown Goshawk and she’s angry because I’m a little too close to her
Buffy’s named after a television character who slays vampires. She’s one of two Goshawks that
Dave Hogan uses for hunting near his Southeast Michigan home.
Buffy is tall — about 17 inches high — and thick, with feathers ruffled in the stiff winter wind.
The bells on her feet jingle when she stirs.
It’s too blustery for her to hunt today. But when she does hunt, she perches on Hogan’s fist,
waiting for a rabbit or pheasant to flush.
When game does appear, Buffy springs from Hogan’s leather glove. After she’s killed her prey,
she brings it back to him.
But Hogan’s quick to point out that he’s not the only one who gets something out of the hunt.
“It’s a partnership. They know that you’re out there helping them catch game. They rely on you.
You’re the dog for them and you’re the setup man for them. And they understand that.”
Dave Hogan has been practicing falconry since he was 15 years old. He’s 52 now. That’s 37
years. He uses birds of prey to hunt, he rehabilitates them and he breeds them. With all that
experience, he’s reached the highest level of falconry – a master falconer.
Hogan says some falconers keep the meat that the birds catch for themselves, but he has a lot of
mouths to feed.
The game that Buffy and her mate, Spike, catch helps to feed the birds that Hogan rehabilitates.
Right now he’s got an endangered Merlin and a Red-tailed Hawk. The Merlin broke its wing and
the hawk dislocated its shoulder.
He doesn’t want to get attached to the birds, so he hasn’t given them names. But Hogan will feed
and exercise the birds until they can return to nature.
Hogan says besides tending to injured birds, falconers also have a big role in conserving the birds
they train. Often a master falconer will capture a bird in its first year, train it and then let it go.
Hogan says it’s common to let the bird go only a year later. They’re left to their own devices.
But he says after a year, they’re fully grown and better able to fend for themselves.
Hogan says taking young birds lightens the burden on a crowded nest. And he says a lot of birds
can use that help.
“Eighty percent of all the hawks, eagles, falcons that are born die in the first year. It is that hard
for them to make a living. They get kicked out of the nest when they’re young. There’s
anywhere from, depending on the species, from one to four young in the nest. And the nest sits
way up high in a real tall tree, and very often one of them gets knocked out of the nest.”
So, by using the young birds, falconers say their sport is important in helping birds of prey
In central Wisconsin, another hunter, Kurt Reed, is about to apply for master falconer status. It
takes seven years to reach this level.
Reed is training his second Red-tailed hawk in a forest behind his home. He says he’s learned a
lot about falconry in the past seven years.
“In taking care of or training a Red-tailed Hawk. It’s all about weight control and
responsiveness. So for example, today my hawk is a little on the heavy side. He’s about 1340
grams and that’s about two ounces more than I would like him to be if I was going to go hunting
with him today.”
It’s beautiful outside, and sunny. Reed says days like this can be bad days to hunt, especially
when the bird is packing some extra ounces.
“If you take your hawk out when they’re way overweight, they’re going to go sit up in a tree and
sun themselves, and you’re going to wish you hadn’t done that.”
And that’s just what happened a few minutes later. He let his bird – Bucky – go for a test flight.
So he let the bird go about half an hour ago and it’s still up there – just looking around. It’s
changed trees quite a few times but it doesn’t seem to want to come down any time soon.
Bucky never did come down while I was there. Reed says Bucky does this all the time. He says
he’s learned that patience is the most important skill in falconry.
And Reed says the hard work gives falconers a deep appreciation for the birds they train.
That appreciation might be the reason many of these falconers go beyond daily hunting to help
birds of prey in need.
In fact, falconers have been credited for helping to bring the Peregrine Falcon back from the brink
Back in Michigan, one organization was instrumental in bringing Peregrines back to that state.
The Michigan Hawking Club helped save the endangered bird of prey in urban environments.
One of them is Zug Island in the Detroit River.
Zug’s Barren. It has no trees, just a giant steel mill. Still, Peregrines nest in the mill’s steel
girders just like they’re big tree branches.
Dave Hogan is the president of the Hawking Club. He says young birds would die if falconers
didn’t help them.
“Since 1991, out of the 70 young the wild Peregrines in Detroit have produced, we have had
hands on help on over 31 of them, where we’ve rescued them from certain things and put ’em
back in the nest or raised ’em and put ’em back in a family situation where the parents can take care of
Hogan says it’s not just about using the birds to hunt. He says the best part about falconry is
seeing the birds live to fly free, whether they come back or not.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Corbin Sullivan.