-- Roger Tory Peterson, from Birds Over America
The history of falconry stretches back over 4,000 years, across every continent and every culture, from the Bedouin who apply the skill and speed of the peregrine falcon to chasing prey across vast stretches of desert to the Kazakh horsemen of western Mongolia who hunt fox, rabbit, and wolf through snowy mountaintops with the help of trained golden eagles. In ancient Egypt, the hawk was the avatar of Horus and kept by priests; Julius Caesar was reported to have used birds of prey to destroy carrier pigeons during his conquests; Pliny, Aristotle, and Martial all make mention of the commonplace union between man and bird. During the 15th century, falconry grew so fashionable in Europe that a social hierarchy, known today as the "Laws of Ownership," evolved. The social significance and joys of falconry were so great in Britain, Mary Queen of Scots often took leave of her prison at Turbury Castle, in defiance of Queen Elizabeth I, simply to fly her merlins. Even as late as 1921, long after birds of prey had become the luxury of the elite and rifles had become haute mode among common hunters, the art of falconry was vital enough to the human experience that William Butler Yeats initiated his famed and demonic vision of the apocalypse with the desperate separation of falcon from falconer:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
Thankfully, falconry is still practiced in a great many parts of the world, including the Middle East and Central Asia where it is highly revered and sanctified by Islamic tradition, but here in the West, where the exacting Laws of Ownership have dissolved with fiefdom, falconry still belongs to the realm of privilege, albeit privilege of time, rather than title. Anyone perusing the Northern American Falconers Association Web site is immediately directed to a section listing the demands and dedication required of every falconer: time (365 days a year, regardless of work schedule); money (for food, shelter, equipment, and travel to hunting grounds); access to land (gun-free wood lots, hedgerows, and briar patches for short-winged hawks; wide-open expanses for longwings); and permits (a slew of them, since all raptors are protected by state and federal laws).
Although the sheer excitement and unfettered adoration most falconers feel for their birds are difficult to conceal, individual falconer Web sites are not overly inviting to the novice. Arcata's Daniel G. Wake, who runs "The American Game Hawkers" page, which he claims as among the first on the Web devoted to hawking, has been a falconer since 1983 when he was licensed at the age of 16. Although Wake's fervent passion began at 12 years old (upon seeing a "really bad" made-for-TV movie called Harpy) and continues to this day, he offers little encouragement to the newcomer. Instead he offers, in agonizing detail, a practical list of expenses (at least $2,500 to start and $800 every year after, not including travel) and asks the questions passed on to him by the California Hawking Club's apprentice contact, Rick Holderman: Will you, and can you, commit part of your waking hours to a creature that, at the very best of times, will merely tolerate your presence and is as affectionate as a stone, and, at the worst of times, will cause you heartache and puncture wounds? Can you commit to an average of half an hour a day, every day -- two to four hours on a hunting day -- regardless of school, family, or job ... forever? Wake goes on to suggest hours of book study and the willingness to lose intimate relationships. Then, and only then, does he suggest searching for a sponsor who, if he can be convinced of your fortitude, will become essential en route to a license.
As a reporter, finding falconers willing to open their mews proves only slightly less challenging than taking up the sport itself.
"Reporters usually sensationalize the sport, which creates problems for us in anti-hunting circles," explains Charlie Kaiser, vice president of the California Hawking Club, which boasts 400 members, most of whom are conservationists, hobbyists, and educators, with fewer than 200 licensed falconers. "Or they praise [the sport] and fail to mention the commitment necessary. Either way, a lot of falconers don't feel comfortable with press people."
A half a year after making my first inquiries about U.S. falconry, I am standing in a warm Martinez morning outside the home of Kaiser and his partner and one-time falconry sponsor, Pamela Hessey. Hessey emerges from her backyard studio where, as one of the country's principal carousel animal restorers, she breathes life into oversize jack rabbits, ostriches, and horses in vibrant fairy-tale hues. Badger, the couple's excitable black mutt, runs laps around the studio. Inside, the cats Scrapper and Shadow bemoan the end of the Olympics, which afforded ample lap-time, and turn snotty tails up at the off-limit sunroom, where two formidable perches sit on the floor surrounded by large, white telltale droppings. A table scale, augmented by a perch, sits near a small ledger in which the weight and diet for all three of Kaiser and Hessey's raptors are recorded daily. Captive birds of prey will only hunt at certain body weights, during certain seasons, making the year-round ledger essential, as is daily in-house exercise for building the birds' muscle tone during off season.
Kaiser packs in the last of the day's rations -- hunks of quail used as reward and lure for the two Harris's hawks and one red-tailed hawk with which we will be hunting -- and we pile into a pickup truck with a "Hawking" license plate. The drive is a little over an hour and ends at Grizzly Island, the largest continuous marshland in Northern California. As Kaiser registers their hunting licenses with the park, Hessey takes a moment to fill me in on the reality of hunting with hawks.
"Rabbits and cottontails only make noise once in their life," says Hessey, who has been involved in falconry for over 23 years. "It will wrench your heart. We are respectful of the prey and try to help it on its way, but you should be prepared."
Kaiser, who cried for days after shooting a bird with a BB gun as a child, recalls his trepidation: "I'm not a hunter, so I wasn't sure if I could do it, break a rabbit's neck with my hands, but after working so closely with an animal, you start to see everything from a bird's-eye view. Nothing matters but the safety and health of the bird. We always say a little prayer for the prey, though. Sometimes we even end up rooting for it. You'll see how much respect and admiration you'll gain for the prey animals out here."
We stop under a grove of trees, where pellets on the ground indicate the presence of a great horned owl, and immediately Modock, Kaiser's red-tailed hawk, begins to screech. It's a chilling, antediluvian scream that means business, but it's the Harris's hawks that come out first -- exquisite brown raptors that hunt socially even in the wild. Kaiser and Hessey put on large leather hawking gloves and, working with one hand, attach a small leather cuff, a hawkbell, and a transmitter to each bird's talons. Helmets and leashes removed, Hessey's 12-year-old Cowboy and Kaiser's 4-year-old Mojo jump onto the large T-shaped perches their owners carry over their shoulders, and we move off into the field. The hawks stretch their wings in the sunlight, bobbing on their perches and enjoying the ride before they fly ahead to do reconnaissance. They light on bushes and short trees, waiting for us expectantly as Kaiser and Hessey flush the nearby grassland. Almost immediately, Mojo spots something in the distance and takes off at an alarming speed, with Cowboy on his tail. We give slow, ineffectual chase as the birds dive toward the ground. There's a puff of dust and the distant sound of struggle as we race to catch up to the birds, following a trail of bunny fur. Kaiser is the first to arrive. Both birds have their talons embedded in a cottontail that pants rapidly under the weight of the birds. The animal is silent as Kaiser holds its neck and pulls its hind legs with a sharp tug, but it won't give up its life. It heaves and stares up at Hessey with large brown eyes as Hessey murmurs to it, patting its eyes closed. Kaiser lures the birds off with a pre-skinned piece of quail. Mojo comes easily but Cowboy's talons are frozen in a slayer's grip. Finally, he lets go and the bunny kicks in death spasms. Hessey quickly hides the carcass in her vest and the hunt is on again.
A small while later, the birds take off, with Mojo flying high, getting a view, and Cowboy making a low beeline for the prey. Suddenly Mojo dives. This time, the birds land a much larger jack rabbit, which gives a fight and a scream. Hessey and Kaiser assist where they can and the animal dies easily. The birds are visibly enjoying their day out as they devour their quail treats. A short time later, and quite unexpectedly, Mojo catches his first wild sparrow in midair. Not to be outdone, Cowboy suddenly tumbles off his perch and gulps down a field mouse. Thinking that looks like fun, Mojo follows suit, finishing his mouse in two mouthfuls. With full bellies and two carcasses for the summer freezer, the Harris's hawks turn wing toward the truck where, out of sight and earshot, Kaiser guts the rabbits and inspects them for parasites. Deeming the meat good for his birds, he buries the rest under the owl's tree for passing scavengers.
In an open field between several industrial buildings and some railroad tracks, Modock finally takes wing. She soars over a small hill and lights on a telephone pole, forcing us to traverse several fences and two gravel pits. Despite the abundance of prey, she moves off again, just a little farther. We flush the grasslands, moving toward her, yelling, "Ho! Ho!" as prey runs across the field, but Modock ignores the rabbits, staring instead into the distance. She moves off one more time, and Kaiser becomes worried. Perhaps her weight is too high; perhaps she can already feel springtime in her veins, overriding her desire to hunt; perhaps she'll fly over the next set of fences, miles away. Kaiser whistles, waving a lure, trying to draw her back to the T-perch. At last she returns, only to ignore another rabbit within easy range. She flies off and returns again to the T-perch, her tremendous wings barely moving as she soars just over my head. It is a thrill, watching her return each time. Even without prey it is a thrill, and it's little wonder Kaiser and Hessey both agree there will be no human children in their future.
"It's a unique relationship," says Kaiser. "Nothing quite like it."