High flying hunt: 'Hawkers' continue ancient tradition

Posted: Friday, October 29, 2010

His goshawk rested on a padded stump laying on his porch. Gary Penner brushed his fingers up the bird's chest. The hawk's head twitched side to side like a ticking clock.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Gary Penner uses a piece of meat tied to a small leather ring to "trade" a hare from Ariel after she was successful during a recent hunt.

"Imprints are taken at a young enough age to treat you as their parents," Penner said.

The hawk is more than a simple pet, and Penner more than the average bird lover. He practices an ancient form of bird hunting called falconry, which is when humans train birds to capture game. Falconers receive a permit dually issued by the Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Although standard hunting bag limits apply to them, the avian trainers must apprentice with a permitted falconer and provide adequate housing for the bird.

The oil field carpenter stressed that hawking is a time consuming hobby. Penner, of Sterling, works two weeks on and two weeks off. He claims that he couldn't practice the type of hunting without his wife. Caring, feeding and exercising the bird consume most of his downtime, the carpenter said.

"It's not for show and tell," he said.

Eric Fontaine, a falconer in Anchorage, considers the sport more of a lifestyle then a hobby. His appreciation for birds and nature led him to take up the sport.

"I work as an engineer in an office. Then I spend time in the woods," he said. "It's kind of a release from civilization."

Fontaine said, "a lot of us think of themselves as hands-on birders."

Penner tends to use female birds, like his current goshawk, because of they're bigger than males and possess greater hunting prowess. He captures new birds about 14 days after their hatching. At that point, it's easier to tell the animal's gender, according to Penner. Birds captured at this age are easier to acclimate to the trappings of civilization.

"It accepts dogs, trucks and cars," he said.

The bird has to be taught how to hunt, but Penner said that it's mostly about instincts. He feeds the bird fresh kills at first, but eventually gives them half-dead animals to eat. Penner said that older hawks are proven hunters.

Penner prefers the term hawking because of his chosen species. The Sterling resident primarily hunts hares, but said that hawks can be trained to hunt most small game species. His bird mainly hunts hares at the moment -- it caught more than 100 last year.

Hunting is the best form of exercise for predatory birds, he said. His goshawk needs to be in the right shape to hunt. If the hawk is too hungry, Penner said that it'll follow him around or fly too aggressively. If the bird is too fat, it's more likly to play with other birds or sit in a tree.

Hawkers often carry their birds around the hunting grounds on their hand or arm. To protect from the talons, Penner said that he wears simple carpentry gloves, but some traditionalists fashion leather gauntlets like medieval European hunters.

Once he or the bird has detected game, he lets the bird find cover while he and his canine flush out hares.

"We're both bird dogs for the hawk," he said.

Then the bird pursues its quarry. Penner said that he has used two species for hunting in Alaska: red-tailed hawks and goshawks. The former wait in trees and dive bomb their targets. He said that red-tails crash through the brush when pursuing their targets.

Penner primarily uses goshawks because of agile flying. He compared them to guided missiles because of their ability to pursue game through thick cover and stay airborne.

Blade North, Penner's neighbor, has gone on several hunting trips with Penner. He remembers the bird's bells when she dashed out of the tree. After a few minutes of searching, North said that they found the hawk sitting on top of a hare.

Jerry Metcalf has joined Penner a number of times, as well.

"The bird is smart enough to know what you're doing," Metcalf said. "You flush a rabbit then the bird comes out at 100 miles per hour."

Metcalf, a firearm hunter, said that the falconer acts as a hunting dog for his bird. Otherwise the sports are very similar.

He and Penner hunted waterfowl with a goshawk.

"The ptarmingan sit so tight when the bird is flying over," he said.

Most falconers use a radio transmitter to track their birds. Penner considers it a necessity in Alaska because of the wide open spaces. He has trained his hawk to come when he whistles, but the bird can stay in the tree for as long as it likes. Falcons fly higher, which gives their owner less control over the bird. Falconer Don Hunley said that a raptor of any species can take off whenever they want to.

"It's not like a dog," he said. "If they decide to go, they're gone. A bird can disappear up here in Alaska in three seconds."

The radio can be attached to different parts of the bird's anatomy. Falconers usually attach the device to the ankle, tail feathers, back, chest and neck. Penner prefers the back because it doesn't interfere with the bird's flying.

The falconers believed that a bond of trust keeps their birds coming back. Penner said that he convinces the bird that he will provide food and safe housing. That's part of the reason he captures young birds.

Hunley recently let his bird eat a grouse because he wants to hunt more of that breed. He said that positive reinforcement is the key to falconry training.

"Imagine you could catch Michael Jordan and put him on your wrist. That's a goshawk," he said. "You need to think about what it wants."

Falconers use specialized equipment for their sport. Penner makes his own leather jesses, straps that attach to anklets on the bird. Falconers can attach object bound tethers to the jess to let the bird fly around. Fontaine said that he prefers nylon products because leather breaks easily.

Once the Internet connected falconers, Penner said that sport related products changed for the first time in ages.

"The sport stayed relatively the same for the past thousand years," he said.

There are three classes of falconers: Apprentice, General and Master. Masters are allowed to capture more species and keep multiple birds.

Before becoming an apprentice, an applicant must pass the state falconry exam, find a General or Master to sponsor them, have state Fish and Game approve their bird's housing and equipment.

Penner said that he discourages apprentices to weed out the less committed ones. Would-be bird hunters should pester their sponsor with questions. Hunley said that he has dismissed apprentices who didn't follow his methods or couldn't handle taking care of the bird.



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