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The Hunters of the Sky

The art of falconry, the oldest and most demanding of all the field sports and one that very nearly died out with the development of the shotgun, is burgeoning again. Surprisingly, the greatest growth has been in the U.S., where several hundred falconers use the same training techniques that have been part of the sport for thousands of years and a poetic Old English vocabulary. The paintings on the following pages are of a falconers' field trial held in South Dakota. They evoke much of the drama of a contest in which man shares a tenuous affinity with some of the wildest of nature's creatures.

Old English in South Dakota

During last year's North American Falconers Association meet held near Centerville, S. Dak. a prairie falcon hurtled down from a height of 300 feet and clouted a cackling cock pheasant in midair. The falcon quickly banked over, landed on the downed pheasant and deftly severed its backbone at the base of the skull. Then, spreading its 20-inch wings protectively over the kill, it waited until the falconer walked in and coaxed the bird onto his fist with a piece of raw meat.

"Fine stoop," said a falconer in the crowd. "She was really sharp-set. Rings up beautifully. An intermewed eyas, you know, and she was just jumped a few days ago."

Having absorbed all of that, a farmer standing nearby remarked: "Now I can see where these fellows get a kick out of watching them chicken hawks catch pheasants and rabbits. But tell me something. Why the heck don't they talk English?"

In English, the falconer was saying that the prairie falcon had made a fine diving attack on the pheasant, that she was hungry and ready to kill, that she gained altitude for the dive beautifully, that she was taken from the nest before she could fly, that she had molted at least once in captivity and that she had broken off some of her flight feathers and the falconer had grafted on new ones.

The falconer was, of course, using English, the same archaic English that has been a traditional part of falconry since the Middle Ages, when the sport was at its peak and a man's rank determined which of the raptors, or birds of prey, he could own. There have, in fact, been only a few major changes in this dramatic and highly complex sport since the first man trained a falcon around 1200 B.C. The modern falconer uses postal scales calibrated in ounces so he can maintain the best flying weights for his birds. He uses modern drugs to cure disease and infection. Most important, he spends much of his time fighting for recognition of a sport that in the U.S. is still compared—wrongly—to bearbaiting and cockfighting.

When falconry first made inroads in the U.S. after World War I, few states extended any protection and thousands of raptorial birds were killed. Today 19 states extend full protection to them, and other states are slowly following suit. Protected or not, they do occasionally raid chicken coops, kill stray cats and pet rabbits and regularly take game birds and small mammals. Farmers, ranchers and not a few hunters will greet any "chicken hawk" they see with a hail of shot. Despite all this, falconers fly their birds legally at game or at crow, ground squirrels and other such quarry in 40 states, over the objections of conservationists, humanists and ornithologists.

Says Frank Lyman Beebe, a professional ornithologist and falconer from Victoria, B.C.: "Few of nature's creatures are so misunderstood. When they have a choice, hawks and falcons will single out the quarry that is clearly different from the rest, which quite often means the sick or the weak. They rarely leave cripples—the quarry is either taken or it escapes, usually with nothing more than superficial flesh wounds. The bag taken by all the birds of prey does not even begin to make a dent in the continent's wild game population."

Beebe also insists that falconers are not endangering the stock of wild hawks and falcons. Eyas birds are preferred because they are easier to train and rarely try to escape. Thus the falconer takes the nestlings from the wild only infrequently. For every five birds trapped as passagers (first-year birds flying and killing for themselves) or haggards (fully mature birds), at least two eventually will escape or be released. In his ambitious book, North American Falconry and Hunting Hawks, co-authored by Harold Webster of Denver, Beebe writes: "A man does not hunt with a falcon, but...the falcon hunts with the man.... This refusal to be dominated by, yet willingness to work with man is perhaps the greatest charm of falconry and its highest reward."

At last year's meet in South Dakota there were a few who wore their falcons as though they were coiffured poodles on a leash. ("What kinda hawk is that?" the farmer asked. "She's not a hawk," said the falconer, raising his eyebrows in obvious disgust. "She's a falcon, a peregrine, and she bites.") But the majority of the falconers came not to flaunt their birds but to fly them at fair game. "The true falconer," says Robert Widmeier, an artist from Duluth, "is not a zoo keeper. He flies his birds constantly, at the crack of dawn before he leaves for work or even at night under lights, not just to keep them strong and healthy but because he owes them at least that much. The moment a falconer takes a bird from the wild he buys himself a year-round obligation to man it, train it, care for it and worry constantly about it. Every time he casts it off his fist he faces the possibility that it may never return. Nothing more than mere tolerance, and often precious little of that, ties a falcon to a man."

The man who must always return from the field with game in the bag had best stick to a shotgun. British Falconer Philip Glasier puts it well in As the Falcon Her Bells: "As is so often the case, the best flight of the day ended in the quarry getting away. Only the hungriest of hunters would have any regrets."



The largest and most powerful of the traditional longwing falcons is the gyrfalcon, and the most highly prized of all are the white ones, like Lena (right), who is shown "feeding up" on a cock pheasant. The falconer is Donald V. Hunter Jr., a farmer from Centerville, S. Dak. with a law degree. Hunter had to travel deep into Canada's barren Northwest Territories to capture his rare bird.

Tricked by a twisting, turning pheasant flushed from a snow-covered South Dakota cornfield, a peregrine falcon recovers from a dive and starts climbing up for another try. A falconer considers it a good day if his bird makes one successful flight at game. At right: Frank Beebe, of Victoria, B.C., one of the foremost authorities on falcons and other birds of prey, holds his European goshawk, Fritz.

Bundled up against the icy wind sweeping across miles of cornfields, the gallery gapes as a peregrine falcon swoops down and—at the last split second—extends her long curved talons to strike a pheasant. Braking with her tail and wings, the falcon rides the pheasant to the ground and kills it by breaking its neck, in competitions like this one the falcon is unhooded and thrown off the fist to "wait on" high above and upwind of the falconer until he calls for a bird to be released from an electronic trap. The falcon is judged on how high and fast it spirals up to wait on as well as on the quickness and finesse with which it kills its quarry.

Speckled breast feathers ruffling in the wind, Miss Blitz, a European goshawk (left), contentedly rests on the gauntleted fist of Jim Mills of Grand Rapids, Mich. Like all short wing hawks, goshawks do not wait on. Instead they are carried unhooded on the fist and slipped when a rabbit or squirrel is flushed. These hawks depend on surprise as well as speed and maneuverability to catch the prey. At right: Joe Piatt, a student from Pocatello, Idaho, strokes his haughty golden eagle, Chrys, which he took from its nest before the U.S. government made it illegal for anyone to capture golden eagles.

Tied to a falcon block with a leather leash and jesses (short leather strips permanently fixed to a trained falcon's legs), a Peale's falcon (left) spreads its powerful wings and tail and glares defiantly, exuding the special wild quality that has for centuries attracted men to birds of prey. Falcons and hawks seem to take readily to automobile riding and will perch for hours on the back seat {below). Most falconers prefer to hood up their birds when they are traveling. The ornate hoods act like tranquilizers and prevent the birds from thrashing and breaking wing or tail feathers.