Nature Boost Falconry
>> Hey there and welcome back to another episode of Nature Boost. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
This month we are learning about the ancient practice of falconry. You ever see those massive hawks sitting along highways or atop the trees? Some people use them to hunt. I've always thought working with a wild bird to hunt small game was fascinating and it just so happens that one Missouri Department of Conservation employee, my new friend, Meagan Duffe-Yates is a master falconer.
How cool is that to have your on resume?
Hello! Good to meet you!
>> Hello, nice to meet you!
>> Thank you so much for having me out here.
>> Yeah, no problem!
>> I have something funny to tell you. I was driving down here and I can't identify them, but I saw some huge hawks!
>> Yeah? Probably red-tailed.
>> That's what I was wondering. They were so big! I saw them and I was like, "it's like they know I am coming down here to talk to you."
It's like they knew!
>> It's all prairie from here on over. So we get some cool species out this way. Actually, on Friday, I got a call from some landowners about a snowy owl.
>> This winter, Meagan invited me out to her property to meet her birds and learn more about this fierce way to hunt small game.
>> Oh my God!
>> That's the peregrine.
>> This is the peregrine falcon?
>> Yeah, and then my red-tailed, she's old so she can't chill out. She has West Nile, so she is partially blind now.
>> Oh, wow. I remember you saying that in our meeting.
>> Yeah, she hates people.
>> Oh, she doesn't like people?
>> Yeah, that is why she is being a freak. Chill out!
>> Wow, she is massive!
>> These are probably the hawks you saw on the way down?
Red tails and about that size? Chill out!
We used to hunt squirrels and rabbits with her. But her depth perception is really off now so she can't see as well.
I can't release her.
>> My gosh, this is nuts!
So this is the peregrine?
>> Yes, the fastest animal on the planet is the peregrine falcon.
>> Right. What do you call her? Do you have a name for her? Do you name them?
>> Yeah, we name them. They don't know their names. They are not like a dog or cat.
>> Of course.
>> My husband named her Sidewinder, it is a type of US air missile. It's air to air combat short range which is pretty fitting for what they do as a species.
>> The mission of the day was to capitalize on Sidewinder's agility and speed, and take her duck hunting.
The only issue, in mid January with colder temperatures, many ponds where Meagan normally hunts were frozen, meaning the likelihood of ducks on the landscape was pretty slim. I remained optimistic but let's be honest, I was just psyched to be in the presence of the fastest animal in the world.
While Meagan was preparing Sidewinder for the hunt, she explained to me what a huge responsibility it is to be a falconer and maintain your birds.
>> Falconry, first off, is the most highly regulated hunting sport in the United States. You have to have state and federal permits for it. Our birds are not like a gun or a bow. Most hunters when they are done hunting for the day can just throw their gun back into the closet, especially for the season. We are done with it, we don't have to do anything more with it. My birds, it is a everyday thing. The cool thing with American falconry is we are allowed to trap birds from the wild. They have to be juveniles, because they are not part of the breeding population. 70-80% of all juveniles born in the spring will be dead before their first birthday. We are allowed to trap them and utilize them for falconry. But we are also allowed to release them back into the wild.
If it is a good hunting bird, a lot of times we want to keep them for another season or several seasons. In the summertime, if you are going on vacation, you got to find somebody who can take care of your birds while you are on vacation. We have to plan a lot of our trips around who can watch my birds for me.
Food prep, especially when I go away for work trips, it is my husband's responsibility. It is prepping food for him for a week or two.
>> Were you doing this before you met him?
>> No, actually the year I met him is the year I decided to do this. I was like, "This is what you get! This is what we are doing!" [laughing.]
>> I was going to ask if you had told him about that. "Hey, this kind of comes with the package!"
>> I am from Texas and born and raised hunting and fishing. He knew I was really big into hunting. I have bow hunted for almost my whole life. That is pretty primitive. But then it was the thought of, "what is more primitive than bow hunting?" It is falconry! It has been around for roughly 5,000 years, probably older than that, we just don't know. Written record shows out to 5,000 but we are assuming it is older than that. It predates the bow and arrow. People were hunting with birds for thousands and thousands of years.
>> Yes, you can't get more ancient than it is here. This is as primitive as it comes. Oh my gosh.
>> That is a rouse. So what she just did is they fluff out all their feathers and shake their bodies to readjust themselves. That is a sign of contentment.
>> Oh, so she is comfortable! Oh, Sidewinder, I am so happy that I'm not making you anxious or nervous in any way.
>> We are going to weigh her now. We weigh our birds. Our motto is that a hungry hawk and a hunting hawk. They are motivated to hunt. In falconry, it is all about food motivation and food association. So, we want them at a weight where they are hungry enough and motivated enough to hunt, but not where they are starving.
When we trap a bird, and when we are training birds, it is all about food motivation and it is all positive reinforcement. Just like with a dog, you only reward it for the good behavior. It is the same with our birds. We are rewarding her for good behavior, while reducing her weight to where she's hungry enough and motivated enough to trust us and hunt with us.
I log her weight in a log book. I weigh her probably 2-3 times a day. Then I will weigh her food in a minute and we will log that. Then, we will start getting her equipment ready for hunting.
>> Meagan has only been working with Sidewinder since the fall after trapping her down in Texas. She explained that falconers are federally allowed to trap wild juvenile birds because 70-80% will be dead before their first birthday.
>> As a falconry bird, they get a good life. They get food everyday, they are getting medical care if they need it, they are getting hunted every day and they have a safe place to come and stay at night. They learn that. Most birds figure out the system. Actually, I think they kind of prefer that to staying outside when it is -10 outside like last year.
>> Oh my gosh I can imagine. Yeah, the life you give them I think is probably a lot better than what they would experience in the wild.
>> They do. I get a lot of people that think that the birds love me, and they don't. They are not like dogs or cats. I call them my coworkers. We have a mutual partnership with each other. I get to enjoy hunting with them and hunting in a way that is very primitive, and what a lot of people don't get to enjoy. She out of it learns that humans actually can produce more game for her and more ways for her to hunt game and she gets a meal everyday, versus out in the wild she may not eat for 2-3 days if she is not successful. It is kind of a mutual thing for both of us. More for her than me.
>> Oh sure! She's got the life. She really does.
>> She's a spoiled bird.
>> Another thing that comes to mind is, okay, you can release them back again into the wild? They acclimate well back to the wild?
>> Yeah, they do. The ones we trap in the wild and can go back to the wild at any given time. They forget about human interaction pretty quickly - a day or two, maybe a week at the most. The ones you buy, you can't release those. Those hybrid falcons and the ones bred in captivity, you can't.
There is another way that people raise birds. It is called imprinting. They will take a baby, a chick, and raise it.
The thing with that is that the birds think we are either a bird or they are human. They cannot be released because of that. With these passage birds, the ones we trap from the wild. I've had guys that hunt a red-tailed hawk for the season and let them go every year so they have the summers off.
With her, I had never flown a peregrine before and I hear they get better with age. I will probably keep her and hunt her again next year and make a determination then if I want to release her, or fly her again. It is up to the falconer, what they are flying, and whether they want to try something new.
>> I see. If you do decide to capture a wild bird as your hunting partner, initially, what is their demeanor like? Are they aggressive towards you?
>> Yeah, so, any wild animal is afraid of us. Their first line of defense like any animal, instead of biting us, most animals would try to bite us. Our birds of prey's first line of defense is their feet. They will flip on their back and try to grab us with their feet. We have tools that we utilize for the birds for training.
The first thing that goes on is the hood.
>> The hood kind of looks like a helmet.
>> Yeah, I call it the battle helmet.
>> Yes, it does!
>> Like a little battle helmet that goes on their head. They are all handmade. So it is such an ancient sport so everything we utilize is Arielle pretty much unchanged since the beginning of the sport. Say for you know, modern technology with the leather. But that was handmade by a falconer out of Oklahoma. It is an art. It is not just an hunting sport. It is an art form on how they make these things and mold it.
>> It is beautiful, it's all really cool.
>> It is all a training tools. When we trap a bird, I put that on their head because, you know, a bird of prey can see three times better than us. So, they are really scared, and their first line of defense is to try to grab us. When that hood goes on their head, it blacks everything out and helps them calm down, but they can still hear everything that is going on. We put the equipment on.
There are anklets on their legs here called jesses and then the leash. When we are flying, all this comes off. Nothing keeps my bird tethered to me while question one flying. I get a lot of people that are against falconry because they think we are enslaving birds of prey from the wild.
>> Which is fine, but it's not. You know, these birds have their free will. They are free to leave. So, when we are training them, a freshly trapped bird. This hood only comes off her head when there is food present. I want the bird to start associating me with good things. Food is their most favorite thing on this planet.
>> So the first couple of times the hood comes off their head, they will always try to fly away from us. But there is always food present. I want her to learn, "okay, this human is not here to eat me. She is acutely bringing me Food." I ask her to bend down to eat food. Once she is doing that, we try to get her to take a step onto the glove. Then we try to extend that distance every time until we are flying outside the length of a football field. Then I cut her loose and we do it free flying. Then we go hunting.
>> Have you ever been training a bird like that and they just fly off and you never see them again?
>> I have done this sixteen years and I have only ever lost one bird. It was a red-tailed hawk and she was trapped pretty late in the season. It was the end of December when I trapped her. They get more independent the later on that they are kind of out in the wild. We were actually just a mile from the house, hunting rabbit. She missed a rabbit, and went up into a tree and didn't want to come down. So I drove back here to get some live prey to get her down with and she was gone. Which is fine. We use leather because it is a biodegradable material that will break down over time. She didn't have jesses then so she can't get snagged anything. The anklets would come off over time and I wasn't really worried about it. There is removable anklets. You can actually take them on and off with your bare hands. I have birds that take them off all the time. I kjnew she was fine and I wasn't too concerned with her.
>> I guess that is a risk you are taking on becoming a falconer. They are wild birds. They can still be maybe unpredictable.
>> Yeah, so even though you have birds trained up to a certain point, there are some birds that just aren't meant for falconry. I am fine with that. There are some birds that are like, "this isn't my thing" and they take off on you.
>> It wasn't meant to be.
>> We will discuss more on falconry and the process to become a falconer after the break.
You are listening to Discover Nature Notes with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
A speedy wanderer has returned to Missouri skies. The peregrine falcon was nearly wiped out from pesticide poisoning over 50 years ago. Biologists and falconers banded together to return falcons to places they had disappeared.
Falconers bred the birds and hatched the eggs and biologists raised the chicks until they could live on their own. Now the world's fastest bird of prey can be seen soaring above large cities and waterways.
Peregrine falcons hunt from high up in the sky and go into deep aerial dives at speeds topping 200 mph to snatch their prey. Common feasts include pigeons, shore birds, and ducks. They often nest on skyscrapers in large cities. The word peregrine means wanderer. Look up Missouri's speediest wanderers the next time you're in the city.
Discover more at discovernotes.com.
The Missouri Department of Conservation, serving nature, and you.
>> Welcome back to this primitive episode of Nature Boost. The sport of falconry, hunting small game by partnering with a bird of prey is the oldest form of hunting.
You can employ a variety of hawks and falcons to hunt with, but it depends on your status as a falconer. MDC's Meagan Duffe-Yates has been hunting with her birds for 16 years, so she has since gained the title of master falconer.
>> So anything is allowed in falconry. We have a class system. There is an apprentice, there is a general, and there is a master falconer. You are an apprentice for your first two years in falconry and you have to have a general or master class falconer to be your sponsor. They will teach you everything for your first two years. Missouri used to be a bit more restrictive in allowing an apprentice to only fly a red-tailed or a kestrel.
Several years ago we opted some new regulations and they can fly more birds now. A lot of sponsors still require them to fly the red-tailed or the kestrel because they are so readily available in the wild.
You know these birds are here anyways and they are suited for the habitat that we have. We have game for them. Squirrels and rabbits definitely for the red-tailed hawk. House sparrows and European starlings for the kestrel.
I make all my apprentices still fly a red-tailed hawk as their first bird. They are a little bit more forgiving and they are just a good bird to learn from.
Then as a general falconer, you can fly pretty much everything except endangered species and Golden Eagles.
So you become an apprentice for two years, then a general for five years, and then after that you become a master falconer. That allows you to fly, if you wanted to, an Golden Eagle. But there are specific regulations and it is a pretty hard system to get into to get a Golden Eagle. There is only one falconer here in Missouri that is flying one right now. Most of the guys that fly them are out west, and it is a very small group of people, probably 20-30 people that I know of that have a Golden Eagle, maybe, maybe not even that.
They are choosing big jack rabbits.
>> I was going to ask what type of game you would be . . .
>> Yeah, jack rabbits for them. You just got to have the game for the bird. So, a lot of guys here in Missouri fly red-tails, Harris' hawks, Goshawks, and then we have guys that fly falcons. We fly those mostly on ducks. There are some guys that go up to Nebraska and will hunt pheasants and prairie chickens where it is allowed.
Some guys go out way out west and hunt sage-grouse with their falcons. It kind of just depends on what you have game for and what you want to hunt.
>> So getting back to Sidewinder's duck hunt. You may be wondering how Meagan ensures that Sidewinder comes back to her after she flies off in pursuit of prey. That is where food motivation and a falconer's special tools come in.
>> So they get a weight amount of food a day. Then so what we will do is she gets about 65 to 66 grams of food per day. I know about this time tomorrow she will be ready to hunt again. We weigh our food everyday and weigh the birds everyday. Then we get everything ready to go and then we will go attempt to hunt.
She has what is called tidbits, little pieces of meat I will trade her off of if she makes a kill, if we find ducks today. She will get traded off of the kill after she eats a little bit of it. She has what is called a lure. This is my insurance policy.
All falconers use a lure. A lure is just a piece leather or something that mimics some kind of prey item. They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
This one looks like a bird. I have some that looks like starlings. This one looks like a squirrel.
>> Oh sure!
>> This is for my big bird. These are for little kestrels and my merlins that I had. This for her is just about the right size. It has little wings cut out on it.
This lure is my insurance policy. She knows she gets her full size meal on the lure. When we are done with the hunt, she gets rewarded with this no matter what. She will come down to this if we are not successful and know she will get her full meal.
>> No matter what, she is getting fed.
>> Yeah, so no matter what. I have had birds like my big red-tail outside, I have called her down to the lure from half a mile to almost three quarters of a mile away to this thing. My big red-tail knows what pocket it is in my game vest, if I am reaching for it, she knows we are done hunting for the day. She is getting excited.
>> That is kind of the message to them that, "okay, we are done."
>> Yes, we are done and this is when you are getinf fed. She should come down. Peregrines are known for their long flights and sometimes she will catch a pocket of hot air called a thermal and she will want to go up. We will have to do tail chases on her. It is a natural instinct to want to catch a hot thermal. She will catch that on and go on a joy ride. She has only done it once this season, so hopefully she doesn't do it today if we find ducks. But, the other thing I have for her which is kind of sad. It is a duck. So, this is her best best friend. The way I work with her is that if she has a successful flight on a duck and she misses it, she gets the frozen duck. That is to allow her to pluck it and kind of get rewarded for pursuing that bird.
>> I see.
>> The lure comes out if we have had an unsuccessful flight and she dd'rt get to chase anything. For her, we found she really likes this nasty. She is excited. She is ready to go.
>> That is the same one you have been giving her everyday.
>> It is a frozen duck. I like it frozen because she is able to pluck it but not eat a lot of meat off of it.
>> It is an instinctual thing.
>> Yes, mentally she thinks she has caught a duck and she has been highly successful.
>> So she doesn't get discouraged.
>> Yes, because they do. She is still learning. We have not had an official catch yet. She has taken a drake mallard to the ground. She only weighs 710 grams and a Drake Mallinder weighs 12-1300 grams. That is almost two times bigger than her.
>> That is significant.
>> She has taken a Drake mallard to the ground but she wasn't able to hold on to him on the ground. She has hit two hen mallards. One she hit into the reeds and she winged over to land on it, the hen got up. The second one she hit into the water. When ducks get hit into the water, they just go under the water and hide.
>> We haven't had a successful kill yet. It is just a matter of time.
>> As we have learned, falconry is an ancient sport that over the course of years, has remained relatively unchanged. However, it has adopted some modern twists such as telemetry. Sidewinder is equipped with a small GPS transmitter that connects to an app on Meagan's phone. Through this technology, Meagan is able to see sidewinder's location while she is flying and even track how fast she flies too.
>> This flight here she was at 200 ft. This was a good duck flight. 200 ft and she went 65 mph. Her total distance flying was 1.5 miles. It allows us as falconers to see our birds. When she is up in the air, I don't have to be worried about where she is at. I can look at my phone and see she is right here. It has saved us a lot of trouble knowing. There is guys that have these hybrid falcons.
For example, in November we had a big annual field meet for the nation. I went out with some guys who have some hybrid falcons. One went up to 1600 ft. You can't even see a bird. You can't see it. I am like, "Where is this bird at?" She is at 1600 ft. She is right there. I am like, "Are you sure? I can't See her." I think she was at 170 mph when she came down on a duck. She hit a duck and it was stone dead in the air. It was pretty cool.
>> That is like a meteor coming down.
>> Yeah, you can hear it.
>> It hit the duck and it was over.
>> Wow, what an experience.
>> She is not that exciting yet, she is still learning.
>> She has all the potential though.
>> Pretty much used to it now, riding along.
>> Not only is this my first time seeing a peregrine falcon up close, but riding in a car with one.
>> It is funny. Before I had the perch mate, I would sit her on a little block perch in the front seat of my car and we would drive to Texas. We would be in traffic and people would be double looking. Is that a falcon in the front seat of a car? Yeah. You just act like you don't see them.
>> Oh my gosh. This is awesome.
>> I am from Texas so I go home a lot. The turnpike I take to get down there you always have to pay a toll. They will always be double taking. You know they want to ask but they are don't know what to ask this girl. That girl has a bird in her car.
>> If I saw it, I would want to be friends with her. I have so many questions.
>> You will have people that will come up beside you, speed up, then slow down and do a double take. That is a falcon in the car.
>> Meagan, what made you want to become a falconer?
>> Pretty much I had hunted with an gun and a bow and I thought that was pretty cool. But as a child, there is this place in Dallas called Medieval Times.
>> I have always wanted to go to one of those!
>> I would go a lot as a kid for birthday parties or whatever. They have there the royal falconer. It is like the Dolly Parton Stampede. You are eating with your hands and there is a show. But before eighth knights come out and joust, this falconer comes with his birds andflies them around the building. They are not hunting but he is lure flying them. As a kid I thought that was the coolest thing on this planet. As I got older and I came here to go to college my freshman year, I was like, "I could do that now. I am not at home with my parents and I don't have to ask their permission. What do they know?" I lived off campus. I had met my husband. I told him I wanted to do falconry. He didn't know what that was. He said I can either have a dog or a hawk. I went the falconry route and I don't regret it one bit.
>> We will do a driveby on this pond.
This pond is either going to have birds sitting on it or it won't. Gosh darn it. I don't see any. Oh! There is a mallard there.
>> You see the little brown spot? There are 2-3 mallards sitting on it.
>> I will trust you. I don't see them.
>> I could come in right here.
>> We have to be really quiet. You can get out to watch. When you get out, don't slam the door. I got to get all her stuff geared up. I might actually go right here.
>> This is on exciting!
>> Don't get too excited, she probably won't do the best on it.
>> This is the first time I have ever seen any of it.
>> I kind of want to take her to another pond.
>> In order to not scare off the ducks, we parked away from the pond so Meagan could start gathering up her gear, her lures, and turning on Sidewinder's GPS tracking system.
Meagan is allowed to hunt on some landowner property around her house, but I stayed behind since I didn't have those permissions. As I watched from the car, Meagan quietly walked towards the pond, unclipped sidewinder's leash and let her fly from her glove.
The falcon flew away from the pond, gained some altitude and speed, and circled back towards the ducks after Meagan flushed them. I was mesmerized as it cut through the air, then dove straight down to its prey.
>> She had that thing. Did you see her hit it in the water?
>> I saw her dive down but the way I was positioned I couldn't really see if she had gotten it or not.
>> She grabbed it and then it went back in the water. Did you see her try to go back and get it again?
>> Yeah, I saw her circle around a second time.
>> You noticed that mallard waited for her to get out of position before it flushed again. Mallards are smart. That was a good. Did you see her just?
>> It was like a rocket going straight down. I was filming it on my phone. I was like, "oh, she is going down!"
>> She was in a good position because she had that southwest wind behind her. She used that wind. Going crazy.
>> Can you tell how fast she went on her app?
>> The app says she was at 50 ft but I think she was more like 150 ft. It says she was going 50 mph. That is not too bad. She did good.
>> She was going fast.
Are you pleased?
>> That was good. I haven't been able to find ducks for several days because it's been frozen. That was a good flight. She connected and hit it. When I got her on the fish, she went and saw bait. She is amped up again and wants to go again.
>> I was wondering if she is just anxious to fly more and try it again.
>> It is one and done.
>> Do you breathe a sigh of relief every time she comes back?
>> Yeah. With her, I always go, "come back to me, " Like she can understand it. My friends always make fun of me about it.
>> Do you have anything else you would like to add about falconry? Any final thoughts you want people to know about it?
>> It is not pet keeping. Harry Potter came out years ago and people wanted owls. Everybody wanted owls. It is just, falconry is not pet keeping. These are predatory birds. You have to be okay with working with dead animals and skinning dead animals. There is heartbreak to it if your bird gets electrocuted, strikes a fence or gets sick and dies. It is not pet keeping. These birds don't love you. It is a hunting relationship and a hunting partnership. I always try to stress that to people. People are always like, "do they love you?" no!
>> You are just a source of food for them.
>> That is all we are. A source of food.
>> For your side, it is rewarding.
>> As a human, you love your birds. I love all the birds I have hunted with. That is the human aspect. I love her knowing she does not love me back. I love that I get to go hunting with this bird and utilize one of the oldest forms of hunting. It is an art and a sport. It is ancient. We are lucky we still get to do it.
>> This episode truly just scratched the surface with falconry. There is so much more to cover with equipment, the cost of becoming a falconer, wild versus hybrid birds and even more about the process of becoming a falconer and finding a mentor. If you are up to the challenge and responsibility of hunting with birds of prey, contact the Missouri Department of Conservation for a falconry packet or reach out to the falconers association.
This was a wild a fascinating episode to record and I want to extend a big thank you to Meagan Duffe-Yates for showing me the ropes.
I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation, wishing you a happy holiday season and encouraging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.
>> There is the rouse again. It is just like a dog shaking themselves out. She is readjusting feathers and it is just a sign of contentment. Her preening is another sign of containment. If she stands on one foot it means she is super relaxed. It is just how they chill.
>> Like they are leaning against the wall.
>> It is just their way of hanging out.
>> I will relax this out with a one footer. A lean.