A Bird in the Hand

By on October 28, 2009
RoadKing Mag

Kate Marden’s life changed when she was 9 years old. That’s when a falconer, one who breeds, trains or hunts with birds of prey, visited her elementary school and flew his red-tailed hawk around the multipurpose room. “I was hooked,” says Marden, who later read voraciously about falconry and birds of prey. As an adult, Marden volunteered in a falconry show at a Renaissance fair where she met the master falconer who later sponsored her apprenticeship.

For Jim Tigan, it was a favorite childhood book that planted the seed: My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, the story of a boy who runs away from home and trains a falcon to hunt for him. “That, for me, was all it took. Ever since fourth grade, I knew that I would be a falconer.”

Today, Marden and Tigan are married and own West Coast Falconry Academy in Marysville, Calif., the state’s only licensed falconry school.

Falconry, practiced for thousands of years by cultures around the world, is one of the oldest methods of taking wild game with a trained bird of prey, also known as a raptor. “A lot of guys are into black powder and bow and arrow,” says Tigan. “Falconry can be akin to that. Falconry is one of the purest forms of hunting.”

It’s easy to be caught up in the awe of the sport while witnessing a trained raptor’s speed and agility during a simulated hunt-chase, or observing “lure-flying,” the elegant game of keep-away used to exercise birds in the off-season. But birds require training, conditioning and care all year, each with associated time commitments and costs. Enthusiasts must also consider the upkeep of a bird’s food, shelter and equipment, and have access to land with habitats supporting the prospective raptor’s normal prey.

The process of becoming a falconer begins with an apprenticeship. To begin the two-year program, the student must be at least 14 years old and sponsored by a general or master falconer. The sponsor guides the apprentice through the necessary education, permitting and licensing, and oversees the capturing and training of either a red-tailed hawk or an American kestrel in the wild, in its first “passage” year. Once a falconer reaches general or master level, the range of species he or she may own broadens.

Bird training starts with “manning,” the term used to describe acclimating the wild bird to a human environment. The next step is training the tethered bird to fly to the falconer’s glove, using food as reward. The goal is to train the bird to return to the glove from as far as 300 feet. A falconer generally spends an hour each day exercising the bird, which is when the true rewards emerge for many. “I’m a big guy, and not super-graceful,” says Tigan. “But when the birds are flying, I feel like I’m flying with them.”

For a falconer, hunting is also a pleasure, celebrating the collaboration between human and bird. Falcons fly up to 100 miles per hour, and strike their prey in the air. But when Marden goes duck hunting with Hohenstaufen, her gyrfalcon-peregrine hybrid, it’s up to Marden to startle a flight of pond-sitting ducks into the air while Hohenstaufen circles at a comfortable distance above. When he spies an airborne duck, Hohenstaufen tucks into a dive and knocks it out of the sky.

The scene is different when Marden hunts rabbit or pheasant with Diego, her red-tailed hawk. Unlike falcons, hawks kill by compression, with their feet, and strike their quarry on the ground. In this type of hunt, with her terrier at her side, Marden’s job is to flush out a covey of partridge, or a nest of rabbits by kicking up the brush. With any luck, the pair accomplishes their task and Diego flies off the glove, in direct pursuit, to nab the game.

Marden relishes the social aspect of hunting with other falconers, especially those who fly hawks, since hawks will hunt in groups.

“Falcons and hawks are kind of like a campfire that has some kind of primitive draw,” says Tigan. “Once you start a fire in a campground, everybody starts to come around it.” Falconry is the same, he says. “It’s very appealing and sexy. Everybody who sees the birds wants to get close to them.”

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