Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated with birds of prey. Several years ago, I attended a lure-flying demonstration between a falcon and his handler, which piqued my interest in falconry. In 2013, I formally joined the ranks of the kings and pharaohs of old as a licensed falconer.
Rich in history and full of tradition, falconry is an ancient sport in which a bird of prey and a human work together to hunt in the wild. The prey that is captured is used by both bird and human for food, clothing, and other survival needs. Even the ancient Egyptians created hieroglyphs depicting birds of prey sitting on people’s gloved hands.
Being a falconer is not a hobby; it’s a lifestyle that is strictly regulated. Because the birds that falconers use are not domesticated, the sport requires strong dedication to ensure a bird’s proper acquisition, use and care. Proper training techniques, equipment-making, veterinary medicine and game-taking are necessary to the well-being of the bird and the success of the falconer.
In my first year as a falconer, I was required to capture and care for a wild juvenile red-tailed hawk. It seems contrary to conservation for falconers to take a wild bird. But because juvenile hawks in the wild have only a 20 percent chance of survival their first year, falconers ensure survival by helping the bird to be a successful hunter without the pressure of starvation. With a falconer by its side, the bird eats regardless of hunting success.
In my home, the crisper in my refrigerator is not filled with fresh fruits and veggies but with mice and chicks. The falconer/bird relationship is built upon the human as food provider. What grows from that foundation is a mutual respect between both living things, where bird recognizes falconer as provider and falconer recognizes the wild nature of bird. At any time during a hunt, a bird is free to fly away, but a strongly forged relationship strengthens a bird’s bond with its human counterpart. This is what enables falconry to exist and continue.
What I enjoy most about falconry is the connection to the natural world it provides. I get to experience the bird in its natural environment. I can observe its natural behaviors firsthand. I can marvel closely at its grace and beauty. To be a falconer is an honor I cherish.
The National Aviary is offering a series of one-day falconry camps for kids and teens this summer. Adults can learn more by attending our adults-only “Falconry — The Sport of Kings” program 10 a.m. Saturday, which includes more fascinating insight and live bird demonstrations. Visit www.aviary.org for more information.
Cathy Schlott is the National Aviary’s curator of behavioral management and education. She received her falconry license in 2013.