Falconry takes care, patience, work and time

Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2002

OGDEN, Utah (AP) -- Scott Saunders' falcon often screams while taking prey.

This time, it was different.

''This was a protective call,'' Saunders said.

The gyr-peregrine had just stooped on a pigeon in a Farmington field. Saunders and the dogs bolted to the spot to see what was wrong. When they got closer, Saunders saw a hawk coming in from the west, a peregrine diving from the east, and a fox dashing in from the north.

''Most people in Farmington don't even know that that's happening, and I got to be a part of it,'' Saunders, a Kaysville falconer, said. ''You literally become a part of nature. When your falcon catches something, they're trying to steal it.''

Saunders has been training birds for nearly five years.

Training a falcon to be an effective hunter is a mixture of complex training practices and allowing it to do what comes naturally.

''A lot of people just think that you get a falcon, go out, let it go and say ''OK, go kill something.'' It's not like that. It takes a lot of work,'' Saunders said.

Todd Ballantyne, Fruit Heights, says an effective falconer is a carpenter (building roosts and mews), a rock climber (taking young birds from wild nests), competent with radio telemetry (finding birds that chase prey for miles), a leather worker (making hoods, jesses and leashes) and a biologist (learning the skills and needs of the bird).

''You really have to be a jack of all trades,'' he said.

Before you can legally possess a falcon, you have to build a mews that will effectively block the wind, the elements and minimize distractions like traffic, children and dogs.

You need a bath, a perch, a leash and jesses -- leather anklets to hold the falcon.

John Christofferson, Fruit Heights, spent the winter of 1998 in his back yard -- sometimes through the night -- working to get his mews built in time to trap a bird that summer.

''I'd be out there in the middle of the night in my Neoprene waders, all bundled up, building this hawk house,'' he said. ''My wife would say, 'I can't believe you're doing this for a bird.'''

The sport is time-consuming, and ''addicting,'' Ballantyne said. When he describes watching the bird stoop -- wings tucked and diving hundreds of feet onto prey -- his eyes flame and his voice catches.

''Oh. There's nothing like it.''

For the first two years, you need a sponsor, an experienced falconer that can guide you through the care and training of your bird.

Christofferson recently graduated from that apprenticeship, which allows a falconer to possess only one bird, a red-tailed hawk or an American kestrel.

Last year, he hunted with a full-grown Harris hawk. The result: Two rabbits taken, a few frightened quail, a near-miss with a pheasant and two failed attempts at dropping a deer.

''The first time I thought it was just a mistake, but then he went after this four-point buck. It was hilarious, I don't know what he was doing,'' Christofferson said.

This year, working with an eyess, a Northern goshawk born in June, Christofferson is trying to train a new bird and get the Harris hawk ready for the season.

Most falconers leave their birds in the mews for most of the spring and summer, allowing for a strong and even molt. In the wild, birds of prey have to hunt while the new feathers grow.

Damaging the new, blood-filled feathers can cause problems over time, so captive birds just rest until they come in. Mid-August is when falconers begin getting older birds ready for the September to February hunts. Young birds, like Christofferson's goshawk, may start sooner.

One of the most important pieces of equipment in falconry is a scale. Any extra weight will leave a bird sluggish and disinterested. Even at a scant 3/4 ounce over weight, the goshawk refuses to chase Christofferson's lures.

''That's why the weight issue is so critical. There's no way I'd try hunting with him at this weight. He might make a halfhearted attempt, but he wouldn't really go after the prey.''

Saunders, a former gun hunter, said he gave it up after learning the art of falconry. The hunt is an immersion in nature, more complete than with guns, he said.

''With guns, nature runs from you. In falconry, you're almost invisible.''

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