by Bill Marchel
"The most glamorous hobby I know of … is falconry," famed conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote. "It has a few addicts in America—a minority indeed. For two and a half cents one can buy and shoot a cartridge that will kill the heron whose capture by hawking requires months or years of laborious training of both the hawk and hawker."
Falconry is the sport of hunting wild prey using a trained raptor. The term falconer is generally given to a person who hunts with a bird of prey, whether the raptor is a falcon, a hawk, or an eagle. Sometimes, the term hawker is given to a person who hunts using any of the species of hawks.
Rare is the chance to witness in the wild a bird of prey making a kill. Falconry ups the odds of observing a raptor in action, since the falconer and the bird hunt as a team.
Become a Falconer
For those who have the time, desire, and dedication to become a falconer, the first step is to contact DNR falconry coordinator Heidi Cyr at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-259-5107 for a packet outlining the process.
The next step is to contact the Minnesota Falconers Association. The MFA can help connect you to a sponsor, which you'll need in order to complete your apprenticeship, pass your licensing exam, and build accommodations for your raptor.
Read Minnesota's falconry regulations.
This demanding sport requires year-round care of the bird of prey. A would-be falconer must go through an apprenticeship, obtain a joint state-federal permit, and adhere to strict regulations regarding the trapping, care, and training of birds of prey. Because it is so challenging, the sport of falconry has few enthusiasts. Minnesota has about 120 licensed falconers, and the Minnesota Falconers Association has about 80 members.
One of those members is master falconer Grant Anderson, an environmental chemist from East Bethel. Each winter he invites me to join him when he and his red-tailed hawk, Abbey, hunt for snowshoe hares. The two have been a hunting team for nine years.
Anderson trapped her as a passage bird, meaning she was caught during her first fall migration. Red-tailed hawks are popular among falconers because of their relatively tranquil disposition.
Raptors are born with the instinct to hunt. Anderson has groomed that instinct in Abbey so that she hunts in partnership with him. When Abbey succeeds during a hunt, the kill goes into the freezer to feed her at a later date.
For Anderson, falconry has become a way of life. He agrees with master falconer Ben Ohlander, who says, "Hunting with a bird of prey, we really are a part of nature. We are working in cooperation with the hawk to help the bird meet its goal—and that's hunting for food."
I recall one late-January outing in central Minnesota a few years ago. Anderson and I had chosen to hunt on a parcel of state property that had been logged a decade or so prior. Its young aspens were the key to snowshoe hare habitat, because the trees provide bark and twigs for hares to eat and cover to hide from predators, such as foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and red-tailed hawks.
Before we entered the woods, Anderson outfitted Abbey with a bell on each leg to help him keep track of her in heavy cover. He also attached a tiny radio transmitter and antenna to one of her legs. Should Abbey fly out of earshot, he could locate her via telemetry, using a directional receiver he carries on every hunt.
During this pre-hunt preparation, Abbey sat composed on Anderson's gloved fist. Her piercing hazel eyes displayed the fierce look of a predator, yet they also exhibited a certain calmness and intelligence. There was no denying that the long, sharp talons and heavy, hooked beak belonged to an animal that kills for a living.
Red-tailed hawks are large raptors: Abbey weighs about 2.8 pounds. The big birds are often seen perched atop telephone poles or overhead cutting lazy circles against blue sky—characteristic behaviors that may lead people to believe redtails are sluggish hunters. But on a number of occasions, I've seen Abbey display remarkable speed and agility in pursuit of prey. On this day, I expected to see another agile attack.
Under a hazy sky, we entered the woods, Abbey riding on her falconer's gloved fist. The air was mild for January—close to freezing—and a light wind blew from the southeast.
"Abbey will want to hunt into the wind," Anderson said as he extended his arm, a signal for her to lift off. Gathering herself by shaking her feathers and then defecating, the big hawk took to the air. Her demeanor allowed few clues to the predatory instincts that drew her skyward.
Abbey flew to a nearby bur oak, where she alighted on a high branch with a commanding view of her surroundings. It was up to Anderson and me to flush snowshoe hares from their daytime haunts, while Abbey watched and waited from above. We marched ahead through the thick aspens, dodging left and right, kicking downed trees and other possible hare hideouts. Abbey flew from tree to tree, using her acute vision to scan the ground ahead, waiting for her human counterparts to scare up game.
Suddenly a hare darted from its hideout and raced along the edge of a forest opening. Nothing escaped Abbey's sharp eyes, not even a white hare in snowy surroundings fleeing through thick cover. Like an arrow shot from heaven, the hawk left her perch and angled downward on an intercept course with the fast-retreating hare. As Abbey closed on her prey, she swung forward her feet and outstretched her talons. At the last second, the hare dodged left, leaving Abbey clutching only snow in her powerful feet.
Anderson and I stood still for a few moments, as we gathered our thoughts about the drama that had just unfolded among the frozen aspens. Abbey took a moment to compose herself. She stood on the icy snow, gazed about for a few seconds, then shook her feathers. Afterward, the big hawk flew high into a nearby tree to continue the hunt.
As Anderson and I resumed searching for hares, Abbey followed along, always assuming an elevated perch. Hare sign was evident: droppings here, chewed aspens there, and tracks left by outsized hare feet.
And so the hunt went. Abbey had chances for five different snowshoe hares, but she came up empty on each try.
Prior to that day, Anderson had been hunting with Abbey for three years. She caught her first snowshoe hare in these woods a year earlier, and I was fortunate to be along. On this day, though, the advantage went to the hares. The big-footed animals were aided by the crusty snow, which allowed them to leave their network of trails and run at will atop the snow's frozen surface.
It was nearly dark as Anderson and I trudged back to his truck with Abbey riding on his fist. Although Abbey had not made a kill, Anderson was not disappointed. The hawk had presented us with several dramatic flights and near misses. As falconers often say, "It's a good day when you get your bird back."