Monday, August 3, 2015

Window to the Wild: Working with Falcons and Hawks

Ready to hunt pigeons
Two weeks ago I shared the experience of going on a “hunt” with falconer Matt Mitchell, and last week I talked about raising falcon and hawk chicks. Here’s part three of the series.

There are 70-80 falconers in New Mexico, and a few thousand falconers in the United States, most with only one or two birds. The sport requires education and dedication, and is expensive, with food, veterinary bills, and the cost of gas for daily hunting trips.

During hunting season, Matt is out with his birds twice most days. He has two falcons and a Harris hawk on his falconry hunting permit. (The other 10 birds are on a breeding permit.) “I take the two falcons out in the morning, usually before sunrise,” he says. “I’m out looking at ponds, and I get those after ducks. If I don’t find anything to hunt with the birds I take homing pigeons out.”

Homing pigeons are a challenging quarry – usually too challenging to kill, but they give the falcons a workout before flying home. “Taking a pigeon out of the bag and throwing it isn’t falconry,” Matt claims. “It’s just a training technique.” True falconry involves a trained bird hunting wild prey in nature. “But if I haven’t found anything to hunt, the pigeons give it a workout. Then in the afternoon, after work, I’ll take the Harris hawk out and fly that for an hour or so, chasing rabbits.”

It’s possible to lose a bird if it heads after distant game or decides to try migrating. Falconers use radio telemetry to track the birds, but sometimes the telemetry breaks or comes off. In other cases, it may be impossible to reach the bird. Matt had one that went into White Sands territory, and he wasn’t allowed to go after it. “I went out every day and tried to get the signal and hoped it would come off but I never got it back,” Matt says. “But a year later, the Audubon people at the Bosque del Apache saw a peregrine flying around down there with a telemetry unit on its leg. I like to think it’s mine, but for all I know it could’ve been some guy’s bird from Montana.”

Losing a bird is a reminder that these are not pets. “They’re really wild creatures that have allowed you to hunt with them,” Matt says. If the bird was raised properly, it should be able to survive on its own. Falconers have been known to get calls that their bird has been found nesting halfway across the country.

Birds can also die in accidents or animal attacks. “All the laws of the wild apply,” Matt says. “If something ever happens to them you’re heartbroken. With that in mind, you take your little warriors out every day and hope for the best.”

The chance to share a falcon or hawk’s life is worth the challenges. “In ideal conditions, you are basically seeing the bird’s natural behavior all the way,” Matt says. “With trained raptors, it’s a window onto what these birds do in the wild every day.”

This was excerpted from an article first published in the enchantment magazine by NMRECA, July 2012

What We Found is a mystery with romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. It features falconry as a subplot.

Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. In The Dead Man’s Treasure, estranged relatives compete to reach a buried treasure by following a series of complex clues. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page

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