Insider Info

Falconry is the sport of hunting with a trained bird. Falconers work with a type of bird called a raptor, or a bird of prey. Falconers typically hunt with falcons, hawks and sometimes buzzards.

The sport differs for the falconer, depending on the type of bird being used. With true falcons, or long-winged hawks as they're sometimes called, the falconer releases the bird and travels the ground while the bird soars above looking for prey.

The falconer then "flushes" the game. In other words, he chases or scares the prey out into the open where it can be hunted by the falcon.

Savik is a black northern goshawk.
Courtesy of: Doug Trapp

It's basically the same with hawks, except that instead of soaring overhead, the bird follows the falconer by flying from tree to tree, waiting for the falconer to flush the prey.

Hawks and falcons also differ in the prey they go after. While falcons chase other birds, hawks go after rodents and even insects like crickets and grasshoppers. Hawks are more agile, so they can chase their prey into woods and other areas of cover.

Falconry is unlike any other activity. Why? Because it's the only activity that partners people with wild animals in a common goal.

What do falconers say is their favorite thing about this sport? "The thrill of watching a bird of prey do its most natural thing -- hunt," says Mike Fiest, a member of a hawking club.

"The respect in understanding that no matter what you do, the bird's well-being is first and foremost. This animal is your hunting companion. Both you and the bird will begin the process in respecting one another. You are with nature in its most pure sense."

No matter how much you think you've trained your raptor, remember that the bird is not a pet. "People have a misconception that these birds are pets," says Rick Johnson, a falconer in North Carolina.

"There's a huge investment of time in just making these birds appear tame. In reality, they aren't tame at all. They just learn to tolerate humans being close to them."

Falconers say this is no hobby, either. It's more like a full-time job.

"Falconry isn't something you play with," says Andrea Chen, a falconer in California.

"It's arriving home exhausted from a hard day's work with a mild case of the flu, then tramping through mud and drizzle because you are the bird's slave -- you serve it."

There's a lot more to becoming a falconer than going out and getting a bird. There are licenses to be applied for and an apprenticeship or training period to complete, which can take as long as two years.

You also have to have a proper habitat for the bird. That means building a "mew," which is the main living and sleeping quarters for a raptor. A falcon needs an outdoor enclosure as well, with shelter, a door and perches. This can cost up to $1,000, says Fiest.

In addition to the housing, you'll need scales to keep track of the bird's weight, a hood for transporting your bird and licenses to keep it.

By the time you've done with all this preparation, you might have spent anywhere from $500 to $2,000. If you want a bird to go with all of this, it will cost $300 to $2,000, depending on the type of bird you want.

All beginners start with birds like a Harris hawk or red-tail. Some falconers catch their birds wild, but most birds are bred in captivity.

"Once you have mastered the sport, your working sponsor will suggest that you can go the next step, a falcon or other birds that are harder to train. These birds can get very expensive," says Fiest.

"The biggest cost is your time," says Fiest. "You must spend at least two hours a day with the bird during the working week, and at least five to 10 hours per day on the weekend. You must keep the bird keen and alert.

"You are hunting with this bird. When the hunting season is over, you are letting it go through its molt and then its training all over again. I hate to say this, but falconry is a religion."

Working with wild birds can be dangerous. But as long as you're careful, you should be able to avoid the biting or clawing that can happen. In fact, it's much more likely the bird will be hurt.

"There are far more dangers for the bird than for the handler," says Lee Chichester, a falconer in Blackburg, Virginia. "The handler may get footed -- grabbed by the talons of the raptor -- or may be bit if he or she isn't careful or has been sloppy in training."

Falconers have to be careful of roads, power lines and fences when they're out with their birds. "Hawks don't understand steel wire," says Johnson. "They think they can just fly through it."

Experts agree falconry suffers from a bit of an image problem. They say it's unfair for two reasons. First, what they're doing isn't unnatural and it doesn't endanger birds. Second, the thrill is in the hunt, not the kill.

"Some people think what we do with birds of prey is unnatural. In fact, many raptors make use of humans to help them hunt," explains Chichester. "I've seen a marsh hawk soaring over a rice harvester, waiting for him to scare something out."

Chichester says falconers just help the birds do what they'd naturally do.

As for hunting, coming home empty-handed is OK by most falconers. "I remember my bird chasing one squirrel in the same tree for three hours and coming home with the squirrel still in the tree," says Johnson. "The sport is in the chase more than in the kill."

Falconers take an interest in preserving wild raptors. For instance, falconers were involved in the work to help restore the endangered peregrine falcon.

You're not likely to find a falconer around every corner because this sport takes so much time and skill. The North American Falconry Association has about 3,000 members. More people are into falconry in Britain, where falconry has a long history and where there are fewer regulations.

If you really like this activity, you might consider a career related to it. "There are a few opportunities in falconry, pest control and breeding," says Fiest. "But if you are a good entrepreneur, you can do almost anything."

A falconer should know some biology, especially the biology of birds of prey. "There are diseases that will come and go, so knowing these things will help," he says.

"What we are lacking [here] and maybe across North America, are good veterinarians that know birds of prey. This is a different skill set than understanding parrots and budgies."

Getting Started

"If you think you want to be a falconer, the first thing you have to decide is if you're committed enough. The sport means an hour a day, every day, for eight or nine months of the year," says Chen.

Fiest agrees. "My only advice is to have a commitment to make time with the bird. The bird wants to hunt, so you have to go hunting at any given opportunity," he says.

"I can only stress this over and over again -- that this is not 'bird keeping' like a parrot. It is not like a gun where you put it away after the season. It is not like owning a dog. The bird has no allegiance to you. It is a solitary animal."

Get in touch with a local association to find out how you can get started. See if they'll put you in touch with a falconer in your area who can take you out and show you the ropes.

If you think you're committed enough, get in touch with a local branch of government that handles fisheries and wildlife matters. Find out what the local regulations are and which licenses you'll need. "It is important to obey the laws," says Fiest.

In most areas, you'll need to go through an apprenticeship or training period before you become a licensed falconer.


North American Falconer's Association

Arizona Falconers' Association

California Hawking Club


American Falconry

An Introduction to Hawking,
by  E.W. Jameson
A Falconry Manual,
by  Frank L. Beebe
A Rage for Falcons,
by  Stephen Bodio
Falconry and Hawking,
by  Phillip Glasier


Peregrine Falcon Home Page
Find out about the falcons living on a university campus

Falconry and Raptor Education Foundation
This group's goals is to help falconry continue to grow and flourish

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