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From the October 2013 Conservationist

A falconer with a red-tailed hawk, wings out-stretched on his gloved hand

Photo: Angelo Peluso

The Sport of Falconry

By Christopher Paparo

While at work one day, I met a gentleman named Mario who mentioned that he was a falconer. I was intrigued; I'd never met a falconer before, and quite frankly, didn't know they even still existed except in old movies. I started asking many questions, and after a short talk, Mario offered to take me on an outing with one of his birds. Being an avid hunter and enjoying birding and wildlife photography, I jumped at the chance to combine all three hobbies.

A hawk with outstretched wings and open beak
A northern goshawk mantles a prey item.
Photo: Christopher Paparo

The following week, I accompanied Mario to one of his many hunting spots on the east end of Long Island. Driving down the highway in his Jeep, I could hear a piercing call coming from inside a wooden box he had secured in the back seat. We pulled off the highway and turned down a bumpy dirt road leading to a field of tall grass and briar patches with tall cedar trees scattered throughout. Almost instantly, the cries from the box became more intense as if the occupant knew where we were and couldn't wait to get out.

Stopping the car, Mario grabbed a single leather welding glove with a ten-inch long leather strip attached to the cuff. He put it on, opened the box, reached in with his gloved hand and brought out one of the most beautiful birds I had ever seen: a female northern goshawk named Nadia. Strong and powerful looking, the bird's wingspan measured more than three feet!

While Nadia stood on Mario's fist, he clipped the leather strip of the glove to a pair of leather strips that dangled off her legs. These strips are known as jesses and enable the falconer to control the bird while it stands on his/her fist. Each jess is attached to a leather strap, known as an anklet, which is wrapped around each leg of the hawk. Just above the anklets, Nadia also wore a pair of small bells. These special falconry bells are handmade, and have a very high pitch. As Nadia flies around, the sound of the ringing bells allows Mario to keep tabs on her location if she should fly out of sight.

Mario then attached a small radio transmitter to one of the anklets and explained that while the bells are a great way to find Nadia when she is fairly close, sometimes she will fly out of earshot in pursuit of prey. The transmitter enables him to track her up to 15 miles away.

Once outfitted with the transmitter, Nadia was unclipped and immediately flew to the top of the nearest cedar tree. Perched high above the field, she waited there for us to join her. I have hunted fields many times with working dogs that flush rabbits or pheasants, but this was different: there was going to be a role reversal where Mario and I were the "dogs," and Nadia the "gunner."

A northern goshawk in flight
After spotting prey from its perch atop a
tall tree, the falconer's goshawk takes
off after its quarry. (Photo: Christopher

Spreading out approximately 20 yards apart, Mario and I walked the field, pushing through briar patches and other dense cover trying to flush out rabbits. As we made our way through the field, Nadia would fly treetop-to-treetop keeping up with us, but more importantly, she was watching the field ahead. About 75 yards into the field, Mario yelled loudly, "HO! HO!" In an instant, Nadia took off in Mario's direction, flew right over his head, and was in hot pursuit of a rabbit. I watched in awe as Nadia buzzed back and forth, in-between the small briar patches after the rabbit.

Suddenly, Nadia slammed through a brush pile and landed on the ground. We ran over to find her standing in front of a woodchuck hole clutching a clump of fur in her talons. The rabbit had escaped. Mario knew that once a rabbit ducks into a hole, it is not seen again during that outing, so he bent down to pick up Nadia.

Nadia hopped onto his fist and ruffled her feathers back into place. I was amazed that she appeared completely unharmed after crashing through such a dense brush pile. It didn't take her long before she flew to the next tree in the field. Once she was in position, we started the process again.

This happened several more times, and each time the rabbit was victorious. With the sun beginning to set, we headed for the truck, attempting to flush game as we walked. It wasn't long before I flushed a rabbit from a thick patch of tall grass and cried out "HO! HO!" The chase was on.

The rabbit entered a briar patch for cover, and without missing a beat, Nadia slammed through the thorns as if they did not exist. As we approached, we realized Nadia had succeeded this time. She spread her wings, covering the rabbit in a behavior known as mantling. This allows her to hide her catch from other hawks that might swoop down to steal her hard-earned meal. When we reached Nadia, she lifted her head, looked at us, and let out loud cries, as if shouting a victory scream.

Nadia wasted no time enjoying her catch: quickly plucking the fur to get at the tasty meal beneath. As is usual for a hawk, she started with the organ meat which is packed full of nutrients. Once she had eaten all of this "good stuff," Mario traded Nadia a leg of a rabbit that she caught the day before for the carcass of the rabbit she just caught. Mario explained how this allows him to save rabbits to feed Nadia in the future, or to roast himself. I confess it surprised me how easily she gave up the fresh rabbit for the older reward.

A red-tailed hawk about to land on a falconer's arm and glove
At the end of the hunt, the author's bird
returns to accept a treat. (Photo:
Clifford Dayton)

Once Mario had the rabbit tucked away in his game bag, we walked back to the truck, leaving Nadia to feed in the field. By the time we reached the truck, Nadia was done with her prize and was looking to see where we had gone. At this point, Mario held up another rabbit leg in his gloved hand, and blew a whistle. In an instant, Nadia landed on his fist to eat the newly offered morsel. When she was done eating, Mario opened the box and Nadia hopped right in, seemingly ready to go home. It was an amazing day; one that caused me to become hooked on falconry.

For the remainder of the season, I accompanied Mario as often as I could, watching not only his goshawk, but also his red-tailed hawk and peregrine falcon. When the season ended, I was disappointed that it would be another six months before we could go afield with the birds. But disappointment quickly turned to excitement when Mario offered to be my sponsor if I wanted to pursue the sport of falconry. Without hesitation, I said yes.

Falconry requires serious dedication. Unlike a gun in a safe, a live raptor cannot be ignored. They require care and attention 365 days a year. Apprentice falconers must practice under the guidance of a seasoned falconer for at least two years, and can only become licensed if the sponsoring falconer approves.