Falconry is an ancient art used to hunt wild animals in their natural state with a trained bird of prey, and it has captivated many for thousands of years across the globe. Today, falconry is used by many as a sport to hunt small game like rabbits, but it is also often used in conjunction with bird abatement. Falconry-based bird abatement is the use of trained falcons and hawks to intimidate and scare off nuisance birds that have negative impacts on farms, landfills and airfields. Many people are drawn to this type of pest control because it is quiet, discrete, organic, environmentally friendly and sustainable.
Becoming a falconer is no easy feat and requires serious dedication of time and energy. There are many state and federal permit requirements, like passing a written exam approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, inspection of equipment and facilities, and a minimum of two years as an apprentice under a licensed falconer. After two years of apprenticeship, it takes at least seven years to become a master falconer.
Falconers typically fly a bird of prey or “raptor,” such as red-tailed hawks, Harris’s hawks or peregrine falcons, however, owls and golden eagles are sometimes used as well. When I first connected with Adam Baz, a 33-year-old Portland, Oregon-based wildlife biologist, he was training his wild-caught red-tailed hawk named Jess. For the first two years under apprenticeship when working to become a falconer, one must capture a wild hawk less than 1-year-old and demonstrate the ability to safely obtain, raise and train a wild raptor.
This past winter, I traveled to Madras, Oregon with Baz, and his birds, Kalani, Marble, Apollo and Mars, to learn more about how his falconry process had evolved through his new job doing bird abatement and to return to one of his favorite places to fly, the high desert.
Q. Where do you work and what do you do?
A. I work for a small falconry company called Integrated Avian Solutions. We fly our birds at a variety of agricultural and commercial properties, basically anywhere that has a problem with flocks of nuisance birds, such as starlings or pigeons. Vineyards comprise a large portion of the work we do since grapes are a valuable crop and starlings love to eat them. I perform a variety of conservation-oriented research and wildlife monitoring, and use trained falcons to help manage invasive species and nuisance birds. The industry term is “falconry-based bird abatement.” In a nutshell, we take advantage of a raptor’s ability to pursue prey and the prey’s instinctual fear of raptors. Our birds are trained to fly around, chase prey and then come back to us, and in doing so, they scare flocks of pest birds off the job site.
Q. How did you get started with falconry? Where did your interest and education come from?
A. Falconry has lingered on the edges of my consciousness for many years, drawing me in from time to time. As a wildlife biologist, I have always been drawn to raptors and other top predators, and the thought of having a close relationship with one was alluring. A couple years ago I said, “Fuck it. Why not?” and decided to dive in. I met another falconer who I really respected and started as his apprentice.
Q. Why do you think falconry and bird abatement is important from an environmental and cultural perspective?
A. Falconry is the single most effective means of controlling nuisance birds. Pest birds can adapt to things like scarecrows, pyrotechnics, sound bombs, lasers, reflective tape, etc. Those deterrents are static and don’t pose a real threat. A living, breathing, dynamic predator like a falcon always poses a legitimate threat. Pest birds cannot learn to ignore a falcon. Doing so could cost them their life. Besides being effective, I also think falconry-based bird abatement is the most sustainable and ethical option for dealing with wildlife problems. It is no secret that humankind has severely altered the dynamics of the landscape and predator-prey relationships. We have removed naturally dynamic ecosystems and replaced them with unbalanced concentrations of resources. Vineyards, while important, produce a concentration of grapes. Landfills and dumps create a concentration of garbage. Airports and golf courses host a concentration of open grass fields. And some animals, such as starlings, crows, gulls, pigeons and geese, have learned to exploit those unnatural concentrations. The result? An unnatural concentration of pest birds. Essentially, we have created a situation that we now need to remedy. And introducing a natural predator back into the environment is the most ethical and effective way of changing the balance.
Q. What does it feel like to fly a bird?
A. The first time a hawk dropped out of the sky, folded back its 4-foot wings and torpedoed straight onto my fist, I knew I was addicted. It was a rush unlike anything I had felt before, and it completely overtook me. If it weren’t for the tremendous, frightening creature now perched on my glove staring at me, I might have lingered in that suspended disbelief forever.
Q. What is your technical process?
A. The technical process of training a raptor is immensely complicated in some ways and remarkably simple in others. Basically, I use operant conditioning, food rewards and positive reinforcement to train a desired behavior. I start by building trust with my bird, which includes long hours of sitting together calmly and offering food on the glove until the bird understands that I am not a threat. Then I start asking the bird to work for their food–step to my glove to eat, then hop to my glove to eat, then fly to my glove to eat, and so on. Pretty soon you have a bird that is conditioned to come back to you in exchange for an easy meal. Then I start training them to really “work” the job site. I want them to actively chase the pest birds, so I start rewarding that behavior. They catch on very quickly.
Q. How do you house the birds, what kind of food do they eat and how often?
A. The birds live in an outdoor aviary called a “mews.” It is essentially an open-air shed with a covered roof, hardware cloth walls and places for the birds to perch, bathe and eat inside. I fly the birds five to six days a week and they get high quality food everyday, usually farm-raised quail.
Q. What kind of tools and supplies are essential for falconry?
A. The tools we use today for falconry are basically the same tools used 4,000 years ago. A basic set of supplies would include a falconry glove, anklets and leashes for the birds, hoods to keep the birds calm in transport, perches for the birds to stand on, watering pans, and a lure, which is a bird-shaped leather sack that is garnished with meat and is how I call the birds back to me.
Q. How does being a falconer impact your daily life?
A. Being a falconer is all-consuming. The birds need to eat every day of the year and they need to fly as often as possible. Taking a vacation is nearly impossible, unless the birds can come, too.
Q. What does it look like to build a relationship with a wild animal?
A. Falconry has offered me unique reprieve from the stresses of modern life. Any concerns I have about the “real world” are forgotten the second I untie my bird and set it free. But the opposite is not true. The things I learn while flying my birds don’t disappear when the flight is over. These creatures are persistent, patient and forgiving. They do not lie or deceive. They care only about the things that truly matter and there is so much we can learn from them.
Q. Do you feel like through your profession you have any spiritual or deep connection to the environment and natural world?
A. Absolutely. That is why I do it. I get a front row seat to the timeless interplay between predator and prey, and every aspect of the natural environment affects the job on a daily basis. The wind, rain, temperature, season, landscape composition and species dynamic at each job site changes how the birds fly, and my job is to intake all that information and make decisions that help my birds most effectively pursue their prey.
Images by Amanda Leigh Smith.