Fall falconry season offers a new, fascinating way to hunt for fowl.
Falconry is one of the most exciting and challenging forms of hunting, requiring time, commitment, dedication, and teamwork with a magnificent hunting partner intrinsically more skilled than humans. Today, there are only 54 falconry permits in Massachusetts (19 Masters, 25 General, and 10 Apprentice). There would doubtless be many more falconers if sportsmen knew how to get started -- and if falconry weren't so demanding.
Krup entertained me, sharing the tradition's romantic origins in the vast open grassland steppes of Mongolia and its spread across Asia to the Middle East. Nomadic tribes like the Mongols and Kazaks hunted big ground birds, such as bustards, there. The sport was eventually introduced to Europe by returning Crusaders who were enchanted by the sport.
Falconry remains largely the sport of aristocrats and the very wealthy in the Middle East, but here in America, there are no class prerequisites.
All you need to do to obtain a permit and bird are: 1) have a valid state hunting license; 2) get a licensed General or Master Class falconer to sponsor and guide you through your two-year apprenticeship; 3) pass a written exam administered by Mass Fish & Wildlife; 4) possess all essential equipment and a hawk house; 5) pass a state inspection of your building and equipment; 6) pay $25 for a permit.
Selecting a proper bird -- choices are legally limited, depending on one's level of expertise -- can be complicated. Breeders are so competent, they can offer birds that are raised in a variety of beneficial ways. Those hand-raised by and among people require extra time and tend to cost more money. Others can be parent-raised, probably the most common practice. Before purchase, their training can be started in a number of ways, as well, each having a benefit for a specific need.
The birds for falconry are as diverse in cost and capability as guns are for hunting. Discounting huge eagles, at the top of the list for many practitioners are the supremely magnificent gyr (pronounced jeer) falcons from the Arctic.
According to Krup, for falconers, "it's all about the flight,'' and gyrs are powerful, fast, direct flyers that can take your breath away. They fail, according to Krup, only in their intolerance to heat -- an important concern in the hotbed of falconry in the Middle East. The less magnificent Saker can handle heat, though, so crosses of the two species are seen there sometimes as a necessary compromise.
Once prohibitively expensive and the object of much poaching, gyrs have been successfully bred in captivity, resulting in a precipitous fall in their pricing. They once commanded as much as $10,000 on the black market, but today common gray-colored gyrs can be bought for as little as $2,000, according to Krup. The more striking and far less common black-phase gyrs cost about $2,500, while the iconic white gyr falcons command at least $3,000 and sometimes much more. Females -- 30 percent larger than males, like most raptors -- are much more desirable as their greater power makes them perfect for duck hunting.
The star of falconry in America may be the peregrine, the fastest animal on earth. Its incredible stoops from high altitudes can be most dramatic. Once nearly extinct, it has recovered strongly, thanks to the harmful pesticide DDT being banned in America, and to successful breeding programs pioneered at Cornell University. Private breeding has become so successful that the supply now exceeds the falconers' demands, so prices have plummeted. Not long ago, they sold for $5,000. One can now buy a male for as little as $600. A larger more desirable female averages around $1,500.
Depending on the quarry you seek or the personality of bird that suits you, there are other choices for falconry. The merlin is one of my alternate favorites.
If a gyr falcon is like a Ferrari and a peregrine is like a Porsche, the merlin would be well represented by an Austin Healey or MG -- Small, fast, maneuverable, easy. Available at just $600 and weighing about 220 grams, it can hunt starlings and other pest birds dramatically. Hybridized with a peregrine and weighing around 400 grams, it can be perfect where states permit dove hunting.
One bird that has captivated my imagination is the goshawk, which can sell from $1,500 to $2,000. What warrants that high price is their excellence in being hunted from the fist, usually behind a pointing dog. Notoriously ill-tempered and highly strung, they can be challenging even for their handlers to deal with. They're temperamentally opposite peregrines, merlins, kestrels, and red-tails that seem affectionate in comparison. And goshawks are fragile, susceptible to aspergilus, a dangerous lung disease.
Another raptor that can be hunted from the fist -- one mostly wild-trapped -- is the Cooper's hawk. They live only about eight years, compared to 20 for gyrs and peregrines, but they're perfect for quail hunting.
One liability of Cooper's hawks is the difficulty with their weight management. They have a very high metabolism, and require being kept strictly within a 3-gram weight variation. Birds in falconry have to be fed enough to remain healthy, but hungry enough to be lured back to the handler for a meal while freedom is in their grasp. If Cooper's hawks are underfed, they can easily get sick. If they're overfed, they can fly away for good.
Sharp-shinned hawks -- the killers of many songbirds at our feeders -- are another bird that can dramatically be flown from the fist. They have a quick, dynamic flight. But weighing only 200 grams, they can die in the cold if they run out of food. They're excellent for hunting pestiferous starlings and house sparrows, but they can't differentiate between them and songbirds, which are illegal to hunt.
When a bird is taken from a raptor, one must swap its prey immediately with meat. If you were to just take it away, the sharpy would think you're stealing it and get in the habit of mantling the kill (covering it with its wings) and screaming intolerably at your approach.
But if all these birds are tempting, know that novices need to start with either a red-tailed hawk or kestrel, the easiest birds to acquire and master.
The affectionate red-tail is much beloved by many, and is by far the most popular bird in Massachusetts falconry. They're relatively easy to train, can be flown from the fist, or soar. The red-tail can catch the wind on the slope of a hill and hunt almost like a falcon. It makes a great partner, is common, and readily available to capture in the wild. It excels at hunting for locally common ground game like rabbits.
Kestrels aren't very popular in local falconry. They're mostly known as grasshopper eaters, but they can be flown like little rockets to pursue invasive and troublesome house sparrows year-round. That drama may be miniaturized, but it's exciting, quick, and dramatic. Kestrels are pretty, too, especially the bluish males. They're smart, forgiving, and affectionate. Not captive-bred, they require capturing out of the wild.
Contact Mark Blazis