An ancient sport with modern fans

Posted on: January 3, 2016 | Bob Frye | Comments

FalconJasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media

Master falconer Jeff Finch of Harmony shows off with his goshawk named Willow

Friends they are not.

A dog can be a friend, greeting you at the door by jumping and bouncing and wagging its tail and whining with excitement. A cat can be a friend, if a more reserved one. A longtime saddle horse can even be a friend.

But raptors? No.

Jeff Finch of Harmony attests to that. A master falconer, he’s had a Northern goshawk named Willow for 12 years. He’s trained her, he feeds her, he houses her, he cares for her much like a live-in personal trainer might a prized client.

But any affection is one-sided.

“You’re going to think this bird loves you,” Finch said. “But if she could pin you down and eat you, you’d be a goner. They’re never like a dog.”

A falconer and his bird can be “effective partners,” though. It’s that teamwork that makes falconry as appealing now as when it was first practiced by kings centuries ago, Finch said.

“I just love the thrill of it,” agreed Dave Farabugh of the North Hills, who hunts using a red-tailed hawk. “Raptors are fascinating birds to be around.”

Few understand that, here or elsewhere.

According to the Pennsylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust, there only are about 170 licensed falconers across the state, just two-thirds of them active.

That’s still enough to rank the state in the top three nationwide, Finch said.

The cost and work involved are the chief limiting factors.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission — in material designed to, if not discourage people, at least educate them — estimates the start-up costs of taking on a bird can reach nearly $5,000. That accounts for equipment, food, housing and more.

Then there’s the time factor.

Would-be falconers have to pass a commission-sponsored test, create housing that passes inspection, apprentice with a more experienced birder for two years and work with their bird daily, sometimes for decades.

Earl Schriver of Baden has had raptors for 68 of the past 72 years, excluding only when he was in the U.S. Navy. His golden eagles lived to be older than 40.

“A lot of people don’t realize, if you get a hawk or a falcon, you’ve often got a lifetime commitment on your hands,” Schriver said.

“What we always say is having a bird is not like hunting with a shotgun. You don’t just put it away at the end of the season,” Finch said.

Getting a bird to hunt —and return to your arm afterward — is no easy trick. It can take weeks with some species, months with others, Schriver said.

Farabaugh said that involves starting a bird on a leash initially, teaching it to associate its handler with food. Thereafter, monitoring the bird’s weight is critical. A bird that’s too well-fed won’t hunt. One that’s underfed won’t return, Farbaugh said.

That’s all relative to season and temperature.

“You might have to feed your birds two ounces a day in winter just to keep him warm. But if you feed him two ounces in the summer, he might not need to eat again for days,” Farabaugh said.

Willow, for example, hunts best at 33 ounces, Finch said. If the temperature at night figures to be around 40, he’ll put her to bed weighing 33 12 so she’s ready to go by morning. If it’s going to be 10 degrees, he puts her away at 35 to account for the extra fat she’ll burn.

“We manage them like professional athletes. We need them to be in peak fitness, but hungry,” Finch said.

At that point, the hunter — the human one — acts as the bird’s beagle two to three times each week. He walks woodlines and field edges, bumps into brushpiles and generally tries to spook out prey. The birds swoop in for anything flushed.

Different raptors hunt different ways. Goshawks are accipiters, or birds with short, rounded wings and tails that allow them to dodge and dart in thick woods. Once on prey, they follow close behind like they’re on a string until they score, Finch said.

Falcons, such as peregrines, soar so high as to almost be out of sight, then become “200-mile-per-hour missiles” that turn prey into a puff of feathers or fur, he added.

Redtails are what Farabaugh calls the “working man’s hawk,” well suited to Western Pennsylvania and its brushy habitats. Whereas some raptors might see a rabbit but only attempt to take it if they can find an opening in the greenbriars, redtails are “brush crashers.”

“If they have the height, they’re going right in there,” he said.

Not everyone likes these birds of prey, Schriver said. Some see them as competitors for game, a feeling he called misguided. Raptors are “killing machines” but eat no more than their share, often singling out old, sick, weak prey at that, he added.

“A fat, lazy bird in the wild doesn’t fly around looking for food for fun. They don’t gorge themselves needlessly,” Finch added.

They are fascinating creatures, though, worthy of an ancient sport, he said.

“It’s not an easy hobby. It has to become integrated into your lifestyle. But if you get into it and stay with it, there’s nothing like it,” Finch said.

This story originally appeared at triblive.com/sports/outdoors.

 

Falconry news and resources

Just as hunters who go afield with a bow or firearm have to abide by specific seasons established by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, so do falconers.

The 2015-16 seasons began Sept. 1 and go through March 31. Legal game is squirrels, cottontail rabbits, bobwhite quail, ruffed grouse, ringneck pheasants and snowshoe hares. Waterfowl also can be taken at times.

Falconers have one more thing in common with other hunters: They can’t pursue their sport in Pennsylvania on Sundays.

That may change, though.

State Sen. Mario Scavello, a Monroe County Republican, is prime sponsor of Senate Bill 1065. It would remove the prohibition on hunting with birds of prey on Sundays.

It’s a necessary change given that raptors — even those in the hands of trained falconers — are wild birds that need to fly and eat daily, he wrote in a memo to fellow lawmakers.

His bill passed the Senate by a vote of 50-0 in late November. It’s now before the House of Representatives game and fisheries committee.

In the meantime, anyone interested in learning more about falconry can check out two resources.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a falconry page here.

The Pennsylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust, meanwhile, offers loads of information here.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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Bob Frye is a storyteller with a passion for all things outdoors. He hunts, he fishes, he hikes, he camps, he paddles, backpacks and snowshoes depending on the season. If he’s not an expert at anything, it’s because he’s passionate to try a little bit of everything.