Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Falconry Road, So Far

It was a little under a year ago that I decided to actually become a falconer. It was something I had wanted for a long time, but like most larger-than-life passions you're not sure where to start or if a "normal person" can realistically do it. Since starting out on this path lined with impede feathers and kangaroo jesses, I can confidently say this much: Falconry is not for normal people. I'll explain this more as I tell you the story that got me to where I am today, which is just a few days away (I hope) from trapping my first red-tailed hawk.

My introduction to Falconry was back in 2008, at the British School of Falconry in Manchester, Vermont. I was staying at a local hotel while on a job interview for Orvis (at the time I still lived in Idaho)and when I saw for fifty bucks I could take a class and have a hawk on my fist, I jumped at it. When in my life would I ever get to be that close to a hawk?! It seemed like an amazing experience and I took the hour-long class on calling a bird to the fist, an explanation of the hunt, and learned about the beautiful Harris Hawks at the school. All of this was unquestionably awesome, but what most inspired me the most was the instructor. Her name was Dawn and talking to her about the sport, the hawks, and how many people actually participate at home was sending my notions of reality into hyperdrive. It was 2008 and I was talking to a professional falconer. That in itself was jarring to realize, that this was how someone made a living in this world! And that people did this from their rural and suburban backyards, on urban rooftops, and all over the world. This was something I wanted to be a part of. It felt correct the way sitting on a horse felt correct. It felt like something I did before, and had not done in a long time. So I asked Dawn how to get started and she handed me a pile of catalogs, resources and her email address. If I got the job I should contact her. She would help me.

Fast forward five years later: I finally own my own land, have property, and work from home. I had forgotten about Falconry, for the most part. I was so busy with horses, sheep, clubs, and such that it seemed to be something for "another time", slotted into that horrible mental filing cabinet we call "eventually". I hate eventually. It's a horrible place the scared parts of me go. But I didn't see how I could manage it. I of course, was totally ignorant of what that meant. I didn't know the first thing about what it cost, what it took, or what it meant to be a falconer. I just assumed it was for later. That was until I drove by a few people flying their hawks in a local field. I pulled over and watched them, normal, paunchy, Regular Joes. What did they have that I didn't have? What made this a part of their life and not a part of mine? Nothing, of course, but the effort to get up to their level. So that day I emailed Dawn, who I still had a contact with through a mutual friend. And I started. All it took was making up my mind to do it.

I asked if I could go hunting with Dawn and her husband, Mark. They both had red tails and told me I could join them on a rabbit hunt in late February. We went and I was hooked. Running through the woods with dogs and hawks, hitting brush with big walking sticks, watching the birds zoom and dart towards rabbits in the thick. It was grand. I took them out to lunch after as a thank you and asked them what my steps would be. How does someone join this club? Become one of them?! Turns out you ask. Shocker. I don't know why I am always surprised that this is how the world works. If you want something, you ask for it. If you're told no, you ask again in a different way. You need to always ask. Not beg, not plead, not expect.... but ask. Open yourself up to a strange new world and it wraps you in its arms. At least that has been my experience so far and I have the horsehair to prove it.

Taking Dawn's advice, I reached out to the internet and discovered a local Falconry Association. Through a few emails with their Beginner Coordinator, I was shown the first easy step (and my first interaction with my county's Special License Department). I called the Albany SL Department of the DEC and told them I was interested in becoming a Falconer. In less than a week a large package arrived in the mail (free) with a study guide, a phone list of all the licensed Falconers in the state, and the steps needed to get started. It looked like before I could do anything I needed to reach out to someone who was willing to take me on as an apprentice. That's how falconry works, it is still a mentor/apprentice relationship. A beginner needs to find a teacher who will get them started, and it is asking a lot. A mentor not only is responsible for you, but has to give up a lot of time and energy. I called the person who seemed to live the closest to me: Ed Hepp.

Ed is in his seventies, a retired Carousel Horse carver, and has a zero-tolerance policy on bullshit. He asked me to come over and introduce myself, and talk a bit before he agreed to any teacher/student relationship. I certainly couldn't blame him. I arrived at his farm house on a cold, late winter morning and not far from his driveway was what looked like a large chain-link dog run with a silver hawk on it. It turned out to be a Siberian Goshawk Hybrid, a bird I would get a closer look at later. Ed and his wife Patty invited me inside for coffee and a chat. I had with me all the stuff I hoped would prove to Ed I was serious. I had books loaned from friends, a leather gauntlet, hood, and other gear from a beginner falconry kit I ordered online. I had ALL the paperwork that came with my packet, including a form that the state wanted signed by my future mentor. I showed these things to Ed, talked with him, and pleaded my case. He was hard to read, but kind, and seemed willing to take on another apprentice - which is something he had not done in years.

So I had a mentor, I had a dream, and I had a giant-ass book to study about raptor biology, migration, health, and hunting. Time to grindstone the nose and hit the books. I studied for a few weeks, and signed up with the DEC to take my exam on an April morning. I needed an 80% or higher to pass the exam. I got a 91%, and when my score returned in the mail it also came with a "Facility Inspection" paper, a proper Apprentice License Application, and requirements to get such a listen. I would need the following to earn my Apprentice Falconer License in the State of New York

- An 80% or higher on my exam
- A licensed General or Master Falconer to sponsor me.
- A Mews (aviary) for my hawk or kestrel, inspected by the state
- A collection of Falconer gear (list in packet)
- A weathering area (hawk kennel) for exercising/fresh air
- A $40 check
- A signed letter of intent from my Sponsor
- A Small Game Hunting License
- Proof of passing a Hunter's Safety Course

And that, friends, is what you need to APPLY. It requires networking, gathering random and odd supplies like Kangaroo leather foot straps called jesses, special swivels and leashes, scales with perches on them and a collection of dead, frozen animals to defrost for hawk food. On the road to becoming a falconer you start picking up fresh roadkill in plastic bags. You grab the dead chipmunks and mice your cats killed. You set out mouse traps, and keep the dead mice. I was starting to answer my own questions about the type of people to pursue this sport. It isn't normal. There is absolutely nothing normal about it. I was asked to do more to get a permit to "possibly" trap a hawk than I was asked to get a 30-year mortgage. No wonder so few people do this, the red tape alone must weed out the average raised eyebrow. But if you know nothing else about me, know this. I am stubborn as steady as a steam engine. I don't care if I move slowly, I'll get where I am going.

And you do all this because of the vague hope of a relationship with a wild animal.

It took a little south of a year to collect the gear, build my mews, and get it inspected. When I finally handed in my application it took another month or so to get it back, but eventually a form that had my name on it and the word Apprentice Falconer was in my hands. What a rush! I made it! Time to trap a hawk and start training it. I felt like all this year I was clinking and chinking my way up a roller coaster, waiting for the big fall. This trapping was the fall, the joyful descent into a strange and wonderful world of partnership and a shared hunt. I had worked with dogs, horses, milked goats and galloped my horse across a mountain but to train a wild beast to know me, trust me, and work beside me was something so grand and terrifying just the pursuit of it was making me get out of bed in the morning. Falconry was making life exciting, really exciting.

Trapping day came and I drove over to a neighboring Falconer's house on a high. I was elated. I had my gear in the back seat, my license I worked so hard to acquire (thanks to a small village of helpers who made it happen), and now folks with traps and knowledge would invite me into their tribe. I'd be going home with a red tail hawk. I sang. I smiled. The cold morning sun filtered into the truck cab and I had a canvas bag of gear I never thought I'd buy sitting next to be on the passenger side. This was all a dream come true. Finally, the day had come!

And I was welcomed into Buddy's home as if he knew me his whole life. Ed arrived shortly after I did and there was a trap or three, bait pigeons they acquired, gear, warm coats and more. And just as we were getting ready to head out the door I was asked by Buddy, "Do you have your license and Capture Authorization?


I thought the license WAS my authority to capture. Isn't that what the whole process was for. I stood there, stupid and dumbfounded. Two men, five pigeons, and a Saturday afternoon had congregated for me and I messed up. As it turned out you need more than an Apprentice License to trap a bird. You need a Federal License as well, and ONLY when the state has proof you are on the government's books can you apply for authorization to trap a wild animal. The other guys assumed I knew this, because I should have known it. I didn't. My heart sank. Two agencies, another fee, possibly weeks of waiting and only a small window of time before all the juvenile hawks head south. Ed was quiet, and I asked him if I had a chance. He tactfully said if I didn't get my paperwork in order soon it would be next year. It was the Saturday of a three-day weekend. No offices would be open until Tuesday, at the earliest. That's three days already burned. I sighed a lot the way home, cursing myself for being so foolish and not checking all the fine print.

I went home and re-read the letter from the state. It explained there, plain as day, that I needed my Federal License to trap. It said nothing about a capture authorization, but that didn't mean I didn't need one. I also noticed I needed paperwork I didn't have anymore - like the approval of my facilities by the Game Warden, my letter from Ed accepting me as a sponsor. My heart sank deeper. What was going to be a painful wait and forms was now a wild hawk chase.

Yesterday I called the Feds and the woman Linda who worked there was wonderful. She explained to me exactly what I needed for my Federal Falconry Apprentice License. It turns out I didn't need a copy of my mews inspection (old form online) but I did need a letter from my sponsor, a check, and proof of my state license. I bothered Ed again, he wrote me a letter that morning, and I overnighted it through the USPS to the the Federal Migratory Bird License Department and I called back Linda to thank her profusely and tell her it was on its way.

So where am I now? I am waiting for my Federal License. I am waiting for a phone call back from the state to see if I need a Capture Authorization. If I do, then I will drive down there to Albany and have them sign one if I have too. And when I have those things I can take the Swedish Hawk Trap out to my pasture, load it with pigeons, and pray and pray a Juvenile Red Tail was stubborn and well-fed enough to last this long into the early November Cold. Technically, I have until January to trap but the longer I wait the harder it becomes. So here's hoping I get what I need, set my trap, and start training as soon as possible before the snow scares them off.

I feel patient and frustrated. I feel nervous and excited. I feel agitated and invigorated. I guess those aren't normal things to feel about trapping a hawk in your backyard, but I think we already established that I'm not very normal. Which is fine by me.

So stay tuned. There may be hawk feathers yet.