Avian Ally

By Larry R. Beckett | December 13, 2011
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2012

Every time we step outside, there is an opportunity to see something that we have never seen before. Sometimes you have to look to find it, but in my 25 years of outdoor obsession I have rarely been disappointed. On this particular day, I stood next to Meagan Duffee, a falconer from Nevada, Mo., and watched a red-tailed hawk loosen his powerful talons from her leather gauntlet-covered arm and fly to a nearby limb. I knew I was in for something special.

Falconry is the art of training raptors to capture wild game, and it can be traced back to 700 BC. Yet it remains one the most mysterious, and often misunderstood, forms of hunting. Technically, falconry and hawking are two separate activities based upon the type of bird flown, but both are more commonly referred to as falconry. I find myself all too often immersed in a society that seems to prefer to keep the outside out and the inside in, so when I was invited to get up close and personal with raptors and tag along on a hunt with Duffee and Tom Schultz, president of the Missouri Falconers Association, I “flew” at the chance.

The Hunt

We started the day working Duffee’s female red-tailed hawk, Autumn, along the tree line next to a local prairie in search of rabbits. Duffee and Schultz kicked brush piles as Autumn kept a close eye on them and followed along, flying limb to limb. “It’s a partnership,” said Duffee. “She trusts me and knows that if she hangs around me long enough, I can kick game up for her.” We didn’t turn up any game on this pass, but Duffee and Autumn both had that “we’ll get them next time” look in their eyes as the hawk returned to Duffee’s outstretched arm.

Then Schultz, an O’Fallon resident and falconer for 39 years, brought out his peregrine falcon, a species that only hunts other birds. If there were any quail hiding on the prairie, we were determined to find them. Unlike the limbhopping method of the hawk, the falcon circles overhead waiting for the game to flush and then stoops (folds its wings and dives at its prey).

“The falcons that I fly will circle at about 800-1,000 feet,” said Schultz. “If we are by a pond, the bird will circle and pin any ducks on the pond until I can get over there and flush them for the bird. We are basically the dog for them.” Falcons can stoop at speeds more than 200 miles per hour and will hit the game in midair. “A few years ago, The North American Falconers Association put devices on falcons to measure G-force,” said Schultz. “In a stoop, they were exceeding a force of 25 G’s.”

Our search for quail ended as empty-handed as the rabbit quest, but it was still fascinating to watch. We weren’t giving up yet. We decided to drive to a patch of timber behind a local mall. It was a tangled mess of ice-broken trees, brush piles and arm-thick vines. We were certain there would be a few squirrels in there.

Becoming a Falconer

As we traveled, Schultz explained what it takes to become a falconer. “There are three classes of falconers: apprentice, general and master,” said Schultz, a master falconer. Since falconry involves the use and care of a living animal, becoming an apprentice involves more than just buying a permit. “An apprenticeship is a two-year program where you are sponsored by someone who is a general or master falconer. You have to find a sponsor willing to take on an apprentice, build a mews (housing for the raptor), have the mews inspected and pass a written test. Then you can apply for the permits.”

“Falconry is one of the most highly regulated sports,” said Schultz. “Currently, you must have a permit from the state and federal government. An apprentice can only have one bird, and it must be a red-tailed hawk or an American kestrel, as they are very common and more easily trained than other species. After the two-year apprenticeship, and with sponsor approval, a falconer achieves the status of general class. This allows you to have two birds of any species that are not endangered or threatened,” said Schultz. “Then after five years as a general class, you can become a master falconer and can have up to three birds of any species.” The Missouri Department of Conservation keeps close tabs on the birds. Periodic visits by conservation agents ensure that the birds are well cared for and that the standards are being met.

As Schultz’s apprentice, Duffee spoke more about the benefits of a sponsor. “Your sponsor is going to teach you everything you need to know about falconry and show you how to make equipment, but they are also there for moral support,” said Duffee. “They are like a mentor. They show you what to do and how to understand your bird. If my bird acts a weird way that I have never seen before, I call Tom and ask him what is going on. It’s usually a behavior that is completely normal, but I have to reassure myself.”

The sponsor also ensures that the aspiring falconer knows what he or she is getting into. “When someone watches us hunt, they usually don’t realize all of the time, work and commitment that has gone into training and caring for that bird,” said Schultz. “You have to fly your bird every day during the season and make sure it is getting the proper care all year,” added Duffee. “If you keep your bird for the summer, you can’t go on vacation. It’s not like a hunting gun. You don’t just clean it and put it up. It’s a living creature.”

Public Response

Raised in a time and place where raptors were most often considered “good-for-nothing chicken hawks,” I was anxious to hear what type of reaction Schultz and Duffee got from the public. “Falconry is historically a reclusive sport,” said Schultz. “When I first got involved, falconers were very reluctant to even let people know that they had these birds. That has all changed and falconers have become more social and open to the public, because the public has become a lot more receptive to falconry. Most people who see me with my bird are curious and ask a lot of questions. When looking for new places to fly the birds, I always invite the landowner to join me on the hunt and watch.”

As we reached the wood lot behind the mall, and Duffee placed Autumn once again on her leather gauntlet, I could hear the excitement in her voice. “My favorite game to go after is squirrel,” said Duffee. “With rabbits, you walk and you hit brush. Squirrel hunting is more three dimensional. It’s more of a challenge for me and my bird, because you have to keep the squirrel running. The bird has to figure out the best way to catch the animal.”

We approached the timber and began maneuvering our way through the maze of woody obstacles. It wasn’t long before we saw a flash of red scurrying along a limb high in a hickory tree. Autumn flew to a limb on a nearby tree and watched intently as Duffee worked her way around it. As planned, the squirrel scampered to the other side. Autumn’s response was immediate. She dropped from her perch and sliced through the air with complete silence. At the last second, she leaned back and extended her talons in preparation for snatching the prey, but the old red squirrel moved just in time. Autumn flew to another tree to regroup, saw where the object of her attention had gone, and made another attempt. Once again, the prey escaped.

Autumn retreated and waited. Her piercing stare was apparently more than the squirrel could handle. It ran to the end of a limb and leapt through the air. Autumn stooped quickly and attempted to interrupt the squirrel’s 20-foot free fall into the brush pile below, but the bushytail made it to the cover. Despite the hawk’s head-first dive into the brush, the squirrel emerged from the other side, ran up a tree and into a hole. The old red squirrel had won this time, but barely.

What a thrilling experience. And as we walked out of the timber, I found myself once again saying, “Well, I never saw that before!” I’ve discovered that there’s no limit to new adventures in Missouri’s outdoors. I hope you will find the same.

For more information on falconry in Missouri, visit the Missouri Falconers Association website  or contact the MDC regional office in your area (phone numbers on Page 3).

Falconry Regulation Changes

The Missouri Falconers Association has been working with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Missouri Department of Conservation on falconry regulation changes for Missouri. “The U SFWS is the main organization governing falconry in the United States, and we get our authority to regulate falconry through them,” said Kurt Kysar, protection field chief for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “A few years ago, they announced that they wanted to revamp the falconry regulations that we currently operate under. They wanted to eliminate the need for falconers to have both a federal and a state permit and also gave us a set of standards that we had to adapt to our regulations.”

A committee was formed that included MDC Protection Division and Resource Science Division employees, as well as members of the Missouri Falconers Association. They began meeting in the spring of 2009 and compiled a new set of regulations and a new test for aspiring falconers. “The changes would eliminate the federal permit, but we also clarified some rules and made it easier for falconers to operate while still protecting the birds,” said Kysar. “We hope with the regulations being easier to understand, we can get more people interested in falconry.”

The regulatory changes took effect March 1, 2011. A complete listing of falconry regulations is available upon request from MDC, or they can be found online in Chapter 9 of the Wildlife Code of Missouri.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler