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Falconry is a team sport with Great Lakes roots

Friday, March 26, 2010

Falconry may be a private, intimate art – but it’s for team players only.

Falconers train and care for a bird of prey – raptors like the red-tailed hawk or the northern goshawk – forming a symbiotic pair that hunts small prey like rodents, rabbits and other birds.

“It’s like a front row seat to an I-max movie to nature,” said Kory Koch, communications director of the Michigan Hawking Club. He flies a northern goshawk.

And in all the Great Lakes States – where the sport first stepped into the new world – it’s legal and practiced.

The first falconry field meet in the North America was in Media, Penn. in 1938– a region from which many fathers of Great Lakes falconry hail.

And this old sport continues to be cherished.

“We are obsessive and compulsive in our pursuit,” said Michael Kuriga, vice president of the Pennsylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust, who flies a Finnish goshawk.

A demanding lifestyle

The sport’s demands limit the number of falconers. They commit to extensive training, follow tight regulations and care for their birds daily.

To be licensed, a person apprentices to learn raptor training and husbandry, wildlife regulations and other aspects of the sport before becoming a fully-fledged falconer.

Each state has only a small falconer population willing to make this commitment. In Ohio where there are no more than 80 licensed falconers while Pennsylvania there are about 168. Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have about 100 each. Indiana has 88 and Illinois has about 150. California has the largest number of falconers in the nation.

But the number of active falconers is often less. Licenses stay active for several years and the sport’s demands make it difficult to balance with work and family. Not every licensed falconer practices every season.

“Really, the best way to describe it is as a lifestyle,” Koch said.

Unlike other seasonal sports like deer hunting, the weapon cannot be put away. The raptor must be fed, protected from the elements and exercised daily year round.

“With falconry there is an everyday demand to keep your bird healthy and happy,” Koch said.

Falconry at sunset

Michael Kuriga practices the sport all over the world including the Red Desert in Wyoming. Photo: Michael Kuriga

Tight Regulations

Federal regulations set strict minimum requirements for falconry but states define other aspects like when and how many birds can be acquired from the wild each year.

“It’s similar to an international driver’s license. There’s the basics but then the locality should adjust for the speed conditions for the roads,” Kuriga said.

And each state is different.

A Michigan law passed last June upped the annual total number of birds that could be taken from the wild from 25 to 84.

In Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania birds can be taken during two seasons, passage – migratory birds, and in the late spring or early summer- when young birds, eyas, can be taken from nests.

In Wisconsin and Illinois, full-fledged falconers are allowed two eyas per year, while New York allows one. These states also require that one nestling be left in the nest. In Ohio, eyas cannot be taken from the wild at all.

Some threatened birds like peregrine falcons are not used in the region.

Captured birds – increased chance of survival

But falconers and experts are quick to note that taking raptors from the wild doesn’t affect wild populations.

“There’s so few falconers taking a minute amount of birds,” said Tom Funke, the director of conservation of the Michigan Audubon Society, an organization that negotiated Michigan’s new law.

Capturing birds can also increase life expectancy and quality of life.

“When you trap a young bird, you give it the best care, the best protection from the elements,” Koch said. Taking young birds can also increase the chances for the birds left in the nest.

“By taking one bird out of the nest, it’s giving the other birds a better opportunity,” he said.

The birds are by no means considered ‘pets’ or domesticated animals. Falconers respect that they are wild creatures.

When hunting, the birds fly un-tethered. It’s the bird’s choice to stay with falconer.

“It’s not a social animal, there is no negative response, no discipline. You have to give everything you think it wants or it’ll fly over the hill,” said John Blakeman, treasurer of the Ohio Falconry Association. He flies a red-tailed hawk.

And captured birds are released often.

Some falconers trap birds, fly them through the winter and release them in the spring, Koch said.

Healthy rapport with other organizations essential

The limited number of participants and misconceptions of the sport – that birds are held against their will and that capturing wild birds drastically affect the wild population – can make political progress difficult.

“It really is a challenge, when you’re such a fringe group, to get attention and get people to write letters and get people to try to support you,” Koch said.

Small groups like the Michigan Hawking Club rely on partnerships with larger organizations like the Michigan United Conservation Clubs to gain this support.

Other states, too, maintain such alliances.

View Falconry in the Great Lakes in a larger map

“We have an excellent rapport with our Pennsylvania game commission,” Kuriga said.

Kuriga thinks that such liaisons and reasonable demands make political support possible.

“We do our homework. We’ve done our research. We have the data to support what we do,” he said.

Ohio, too, fought political battles. In 1982, it was the last Great Lakes state to legalize falconry.

“It was exceedingly difficult. It was 10 to 12 years of slow and careful education to get the legislature to buy into this thing,” Blakeman said.

Conserving a sport

Falconry education goes well beyond the legislation floor.

Last year, members of the Michigan Hawking Club explained at an ornithology conference how self-igniting methane devices in landfills threaten the birds. The devices are perfect roosts for birds of prey and often catch them in their flames when they ignite.

The Pennsylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust conducts nest surveys for northern goshawk research. The club was also instrumental in reintroducing the peregrine falcon to the Pennsylvania area.

Associations like these ultimately want to make sure that falconry is done legally and correctly.

“We facilitate and educate people who want to get into it,” Blakeman said.

More than just a sport

In the end, most falconers admit that it is not about the hunt but about the private relationship with a wild creature in a sport that’s been practiced for centuries, Blakeman said

“When we read the literature and tear into the mind of falconers in any age at any time, it’s always the same. And yes, even to this day there is a unique unmatched majesty.”

© 2010, Great Lakes Echo, Michigan State University Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. Republish under these guidelines. Reporting supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.