For 23 years I have been studying and then working with birds of prey. I used to go hiking out in the woods with my father. Often you'd see a hawk sitting on a fence post, or it would be flying across from one side of the woods to the other. Really exciting. I became an avid hawk-watcher and then became a general-class falconer. I'm licensed by the federal government and the state of Virginia. And there are about 6,000 of us in the entire United States.
Actually what falconry is, overall, is the sport of hunting wild quarry in its natural surroundings with a trained bird of prey. And the sport is over 4,000 years old; it's probably one of the oldest sports in the world. It started in either Asia or the Middle East. Before firearms were invented, having a trained hawk would be another way to add meat to the pot that you might not be able to catch otherwise. And it was also referred to as the sport of kings. Most medieval kings or nobles took an interest in the sport. They even had an office called the royal falconer. In some kingdoms, the royal falconer was actually ranked fourth [in rank] to the king. He also sat at the fourth seat of honor at the royal table, and by law and custom, when he came in after a successful day's hunt the king had to rise and receive him.
Even leaders such as the Aztec king Montezuma, Queen Elizabeth the First, Henry the Eigth, Kubla Khan, they were all avid falconers. ... Basically, Kubla Khan had an air force. He had about 500 trained birds of prey hawks, eagles, falcons, whatever they were and about 10,000 falconers on horseback. Pretty amazing stuff.
In the United States, a person would have to be an apprentice for two years to become a falconer. Falconry is really more of a lifestyle than a hobby. It requires much dedication and love for the birds. Falconry is sort of like advanced birdwatching, in a way, because I'm participating with the bird in what it does naturally every day.
Once I first release that bird after all that training, release that bird into the wild for the first time, and it chooses to come back to me when it's called pretty exciting. It's not like working with other things. The bird doesn't need me. I need the bird. [laughs]
It's basically in the fall when falconry season really starts. We really enjoy the flight of the birds, being with the birds. When you go out in the woods and the bird is working with you, it's like you get separated from the day-to-day.
In usual day-to-day stuff, you don't pay attention to anything. If you're driving on the road, you don't notice the wildlife or anything else. But when you're out there flying the hawk, all that's taken away. I actually become a part of what the hawk is doing. Your senses become a little more elevated. Because now you see all the other stuff that's going on that you never paid attention to before. Plus the beauty of flight, when the hawk takes off and it's looking to you and you're looking back at it it's kind of a rush.
as told to Melissa Scott Sinclair; photographed by Chad
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