Skip to main content

The Lure of the Hunt

How Falconry is Faring in America

ISSUE:  Fall 2015

The first thing I notice, as if there’s anything else remarkable about this scrubby swath of suburbia, is the glinting network of 9,000 solar panels, cordoned off by a chain-link fence: not the setting I had imagined when I thought of hunting, but then falconry is an adaptable sport. On a cold and clear Saturday in late November, about twenty falconers have gathered for the Massachusetts Hawk and Falconry Trust’s first meet of the season—to take turns flying their trained hawks in pursuit of rabbits. We’re fourteen miles outside of Worcester, in the Blackstone River Valley, at a place called Hilltop Farm, which is not to be confused with Hilltop Farms, the housing development across the street. Beyond the panels, fields layered with patchy snow give way to gnarled scrub—briars and vines that border the forest in the distance. Not long ago, this was a functioning farm, but little by little the property has been repurposed—for the solar panels in 2012, and, this year, for a self-storage complex to be built on a portion of the nearby snow-covered field. All that’s left of the old farm is a weathered barn and silo, a few horses in a pasture. The electric fencing has a charge so weak that you can’t feel it through a winter glove. The rest of the property has succumbed to briars, beneath which burrow dozens of rabbits, or so it seems, judging by the pellets, piss, paw prints, and other signs that falconers clue in to.

Wendy Pavlicek, one of the more experienced falconers here, must raise her voice to be heard over the chatter of the group—mostly men in Carhartt gear, camouflage pants, and clunky winter boots. Those who are regulars at the meets stand and gab, catching up, cracking jokes, assessing the upcoming deer-hunting season. They point to the deer tracks in the snow and elbow one another, talking about doe permits, tree stands, and Pavlicek’s voice goes up a notch as she lays out a few basic rules: The falconers will release their birds one at a time, and everyone will work together to try to flush rabbits from the briars or grass, a process called “pushing through.” A line of “beaters” will enter the shrubs, thwacking bushes with sticks to scare out rabbits; “pushers” will then form a line perpendicular to the beaters. Finally, the whole entourage will move in V-formation across a patch of land, trying to flush a rabbit into the sight-line of the raptor. 

After Pavlicek’s instructions, we all crunch our way across the snow to an old concrete bay that likely once held farm machinery but has since crumbled into the ground. Next to it is a small dip of land filled with briar bushes, and beyond that, a stand of oak and hemlock. We won’t bother entering the woods, focusing instead on the patch of thorns. This is where the rabbits are.

The first falconer of the day is Austin, a high-school senior and the youngest falconer here. He’s flying a red-tailed hawk named Jason, after the mythical leader of the Argonauts. Under Pavlicek’s guidance, Austin instructs a row of beaters armed with sticks and ski poles to line up at the edge of the horse pasture. I shadow a man named Tony, dressed in a Carhartt jumpsuit. At Austin’s command, we hunch and start moving through thorn bushes in a kind of waddling squat, almost crawling through them, jabbing at the crowns of the bushes, smacking our sticks against the branches. Pavlicek’s instructions are muddled under the crunch of the snow and the sound of my jacket being ripped by thorns close to my head. Occasionally, we can hear the faint jingle of the bells tied to Jason’s leg—the falconer’s way of keeping track of the bird.

When I come to an opening, I can see the other beaters’ breath rising up through the branches. So far, no rabbits, but Pavlicek assures us that this spot is a jackpot. She points back to the thorns we’ve just crawled through, which were, admittedly, “loaded with bunny crap”—the Cocoa Puffs–shaped drops—as well as spots of orange urine bleeding through the snow, and thousands of little clawed footprints. “Guys,” she says, pointing, “the bunnies are all in that brush.”

The Massachusetts Hawk and Falconry Trust preparing to hunt.

Beating the brush to flush out prey.

When hunting, Pavlicek doesn’t bother to break for lunch. During meets, she seems almost supernaturally focused on pursuing quarry. Like a hungry raptor, the falconer has one goal when she’s hunting. Everything else falls away.

Pavlicek is the director of a science-education center in Burlington, Massachusetts, where she keeps and cares for a plethora of animals. She first started handling birds of prey while working at the museum of science in Boston, and now keeps several at her home for educational purposes. Just one, a red-tailed hawk named Fern, is used for falconry.

Pavlicek takes pride in being one of a growing number of women in the sport—in Massachusetts, eleven women make up about one-fifth of all licensed falconers; nationwide, women make up roughly 11 percent of the approximately 4,000 falconers licensed in the sport. But Pavlicek doesn’t dwell on the distinction of her gender; watching her in the field, coordinating the hunt, it’s easy to forget that many women still struggle to be respected in the sport.

Pavlicek has straight hair past her shoulders—mostly blond but black at the nape of her neck—and a redtail feather tattooed on her shoulder. On the morning just before the hunt, I noticed puncture wounds on her chin that had scabbed over, from when Fern had “footed” her—dug her talons into Pavlicek’s flesh—which has happened on more than one occasion. When I asked Pavlicek if she thought the bird had done so on purpose, she slowly shook her head. “I have no idea,” she said distantly, almost sadly. “I have no idea.”

I first met Pavlicek in the summer of 2014, at the end of the hunting season. Her hawk Rose, Fern’s predecessor, had already been “hacked back”—gradually accustomed to hunting for herself in preparation for living in the wild again. Falconers either keep or release their hawks after hunting season for various reasons. Releasing the bird frees the falconer from responsibility during the off-season and ensures the vitality of wild populations, though birds that are superior hunters are often kept from one season to the next. But even if Pavlicek had kept her bird over the summer, it would have spent the season molting—replacing its old feathers with a set of new ones—and falconers can do little with the birds during this time.

Though falconry is traditionally defined as the pursuit of wild quarry with a trained falcon, it can be done with any type of raptor: hawks, eagles, even owls. (In the United States, redtails are the most common hawks and therefore the most common falconry bird.) Massachusetts has a strict permitting process for falconers: a paper test to become an apprentice, two years as an apprentice under the guidance of an experienced sponsor, another test to reach the level of general falconer, and another to become a master. The tests are rigorous because, like a child or a pet, the hawk will always need your constant attention. A falconry bird isn’t a gun you can hang on the wall when you’re done, many falconers say. The bird makes the sport a way of life.

Early fall is the trapping season, when most falconers find their birds. During this time, Pavlicek says she’ll drive around looking for a perched raptor; perhaps she’s had an eye on a first-year redtail for a while, watching it perch and swoop from the same telephone pole for weeks. Good falconers are experienced naturalists, understanding both habitat and habits of raptors. Much of the sport is about watching and waiting. To catch her birds, Pavlicek uses a bal-chatri, a trap made of hardware cloth and rebar, with dozens of fine monofilament loops tied to the outside. Pavlicek will bait the trap with a live mouse, place the trap below the bird, then sit and watch from a safe distance. Enticed by the prey, the bird will dive and set upon the trap, becoming entangled in the loops. Pavlicek will then move in quickly before the bird can hurt itself or break a feather, gently grabbing the legs from behind to keep it from footing her hand, putting a hood over its head to calm it. She must be swift but delicate as she untangles the talons. It can be dangerous work handling a wild raptor like this, but the first priority is always the safety of the bird.

Rita, who has driven down from New Hampshire for the field meet, is the next hunter ready to go. Her red-tailed hawk, Scarlett O’Hara, waits on an oak branch above us. By now everyone is antsy: Not only did Jason not catch anything, but we haven’t even seen a rabbit yet. Some of the hunters are already comparing their battle wounds—the scratches puffing up on foreheads and cheeks, the drops of blood on shirtfronts. Pavlicek tries to choreograph the group—you beat, you push, and when the bird goes down everybody stay still.

Out of this chaos, someone starts shouting, “Ho ho ho ho ho!” The group pulls itself together and responds with, “Ho ho ho ho ho!”

Someone has seen a rabbit. The chant is protocol: It gets the bird’s attention, communicates action to the group, and hopefully startles the rabbit into confusion. We begin to run. With sticks. Then I see it: A rabbit careens out of a bush right in front of me. Scarlett O’Hara drops straight down out of the tree; the chanting stops as she dives. But she lands just a few inches shy of the rabbit’s back legs, and it scurries into the forest and disappears. Scarlett O’Hara sits on the ground, stupefied, all of her pent-up energy spent.

“I told you there’s rabbit in here!” Pavlicek shouts.

“Good slip!” says an apprentice falconer named Arthur.

Someone off in the forest says, “I’ll skirt around back, and try and push it back.”

Pavlicek stops him. “Hold up. Where’s the bird? We have to wait until the bird gets back up before doing anything.” Then she takes a position in the middle of the group. “So guys, listen to me. The rabbits are deep in the briar. You have to physically—I know it hurts—but you have to get in the middle and poke down pretty hard.” She demonstrates, then turns to Rita and instructs her to carefully walk to the bird, explaining it was a hard crash and that the bird will need some time to recover. She turns back to us. “Where’s the brush pile that the rabbit’s in?” She and several others calculate for a few minutes—how far the rabbit might have run, into which brush pile, and which direction they should push from. Eventually, Scarlett O’Hara comes around and “ladders up” the branches to a high vantage point. Then the beating and pushing resume.

About ten minutes later, Scarlett O’Hara does catch a rabbit, after several people corner it near a tree. When the bird dives, she seems to fall straight down, her wings cocked to the sides, flat and at a slight angle. She doesn’t plunge, but seems rather to flutter, twirling like a leaf in the wind on her way down, twisting through the branches without touching them, then extending her wings quickly to slow down as she descends upon the petrified rabbit. Her moves are elegant and efficient, her bulky body appearing suddenly weightless as she stretches out her legs, talons opening wide toward the prey. The rabbit is quiet. Once it’s clear that the bird has connected with it, everybody crowds around with cries of “Oh, man!” and “Good job, Rita!”

Rita is euphoric—on the brink of tears, breathing hard. She laughs. In the eight years she’s kept Scarlett O’Hara, this is their first rabbit. She holds onto the rabbit’s back legs and lets the bird eat. “We earned this puppy,” she coos. She looks up as we crowd around her and thanks us. “I’m going to bed with the biggest smile on my face tonight.”

“There goes the ear,” someone says.

As Scarlett O’Hara tears at the rabbit, the rest of us replay the push, the flush, the way the rabbit didn’t run until everybody stood still, the way the rabbit stood still when everybody ran, the way we worked together to steer the quarry into the bird’s line of sight. Rita shakes her head with satisfaction and watches Scarlett O’Hara have her fill.

Falconry is an ancient sport, but its exact origins are difficult to determine. Its oldest known depiction is in an Assyrian bas-relief dated between 722 and 705 b.c., in which a man is shown with a falcon on his fist. In 1943, historian Hans Epstein wrote that references to falconry in ancient poetry suggest that the sport was commonly practiced in Arabia by the fifth century.

Aristotle mentions falconry in his History of Animals. He describes men hunting in marshes in Thrace (an ancient region now divided between Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece): “The men with sticks in their hand go beating at the reeds and brushwork to frighten the birds out, and the hawks show themselves overhead and frighten them down.” This story, Epstein claims, was handed down from “academic generation to generation,” and no real evidence can be found of falconry being practiced “by the Greeks and Romans before the advent of Christianity.” Dismissing claims by other historians that falconry might be Germanic or Celtic in origin, he argues that the people of ancient Europe would have been too primitive to practice it, without the leisure and means that falconry required. What’s more, the marshy and forested lands of ancient Europe weren’t suitable for the sport. Falconry only could have evolved, he writes, in a place with “the wide open steppes and plains, the endless deserts and bare mountain slopes of the East.” Perhaps, as writer and falconer Stephen Bodio contends, it was in “the high valleys of the Atlai, where present-day Siberia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan come together” that falconry was born.

(A) Red-tailed hawk. North America’s most ubiquitous hawk—commonly seen perched along highways and on urban rooftops—is now in the canon of falconry birds. (B) Harris’s hawk Native to the southwestern United States, Harris’s hawks are one of few raptors that hunt socially and share prey. (C) Kestrel Despite being the smallest raptors in the United States, the kestrel provide stunning aerial displays when chasing invasive songbirds like sparrows and starlings. (D) Peregrine falcon Still one of falconry’s mos

The sport reached its peak of popularity in medieval Europe, where it earned monikers like “the noble sport” and “the sport of kings.” One of the lasting scientific treatises on falconry, still read by falconers today, is Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus, written in the thirteenth century. Legend has it that Frederick’s grandfather, Frederick Barbarossa, introduced the sport from the Middle East to Italy in the twelfth century, and that much of Frederick II’s knowledge was gleaned from expert falconers in the Middle East and honed via his own methods of scientific inquiry.

Inevitably, Europe’s royalty moved on to other pastimes. With greater access to guns throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, shooting game became a favorite sport. Mews that once held falcons and hawks were repurposed as game-bird pens. European noblemen began spending more of their leisure time chasing foxes with hounds, racing horses, and fishing. “By the eighteenth century,” writes historian Richard Grassby, “the propertied could choose between many diverse options for leisure, including foreign travel, gambling and the accumulation and display of goods.”

There is little evidence of falconry being practiced in North America before European colonists arrived. And by the time settlers were populating the Eastern Seaboard, the sport was already flagging in Europe. What’s more, writes Grassby, Puritans despised the “traditional rural pastimes” of England. Considering their utilitarian attitudes and the challenge of clearing dense forests for settlements and farms, it’s likely, in the face of such a hardscrabble existence, that falconry was considered a frivolous indulgence.

Wendy Pavlicek at home with her owl, Edison. Pavlicek keeps several owls, hawks, and falcons for both hunting and educational programs.

It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that falconry took root in North America, coinciding with the sport’s resurgence in Europe through various hawking clubs. Captain R. Luff Meredith, a retired military officer from New Jersey, is said to be the “Father of American Falconry,” starting the first clubs in the United States. (Meredith was later cited as a “vigilante” by the New Yorker, sworn to protecting falcon nests from egg collectors along cliffs of the Hudson River.) Following Meredith’s lead, a certain type of outdoorsman—young, educated, more interested in the study of natural history than hunting—began taking up the sport. Although exclusive, the American tradition wasn’t quite as elite as it had been in Europe. These pioneer falconers still glorified the peregrine falcon as a superior falconry bird, but that tradition eventually gave way to seeing other birds, like red-tailed hawks and kestrels, as perfectly suitable hunters.

But by the beginning of World War II, there were still fewer than 200 known North American falconers, and, until the middle of the twentieth century, despite the sport starting to take hold in North America, birds of prey—be they hawks, falcons, owls, or eagles—were treated with the same disdain as wolves, mountain lions, and coyotes. They were considered vermin in that they preyed on small farm animals, and were viewed as competition for wild game. Americans had a love-hate relationship with the bald eagle, despite it having been our national emblem since 1782. It was considered daring, distinguished, and beautiful, yet it was reviled for its predatory nature. (Benjamin Franklin once referred to eagles as having “bad moral character.”) Because raptors were perceived as being so injurious to poultry farmers, the hunting of the birds went unchecked, reaching a “fever pitch,” according to zoologist Keith Bildstein, after the Civil War, when breech-loading guns found their way into the general population. Pennsylvania codified the aggressive pursuit of raptors with the Scalp Act of 1885, placing a fifty-cent bounty on the head of most raptors (three species of owls were spared). Even after scientific evidence revealed that raptors’ digestive tracts didn’t typically contain poultry or signs of other farm animals, people continued shooting them for sport. The reputation of hawks as “killers” stuck, even among such environmental luminaries as John Muir. In Pennsylvania, a bounty remained on goshawks until 1951, and on great horned owls until 1965. In 1918, when Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protected most birds from human activity (killing, capturing, trading, etc.), raptors were excluded. It wasn’t until 1972 that hawks, eagles, owls, and falcons, as well as other species, such as crows, were finally shown some mercy, and the act was amended to include them.

The 1970s were a turning point in how Americans viewed wild predators. Just two years before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s amendment, a zoologist named Tom Cade helped found the Peregrine Fund, an organization dedicated to bringing the peregrine falcon back from the brink of extinction. The bird had been designated endangered in 1970, after its population suffered dramatically from DDT poisoning from agricultural pesticides: At that time, only thirty-nine pairs existed in the entire country. The organization became a nonprofit in 1975, and continues to work on bird restoration projects today. Everyone who worked for the Peregrine Fund also happened to be a falconer. Love for raptors “was in their blood,” Cade told me by phone.

Cade himself has been a lifelong devotee of falcons. In 1937, when he was just nine years old, he came across a National Geographic article, “Adventures with Birds of Prey,” by brothers John and Frank Craighead, who were among the handful of people who practiced falconry in the US at the time. (Their contributions to the various fields of wildlife biology are well noted, and in 1998, the Audubon Society listed the Craighead brothers among the top 100 conservation figures of the twentieth century. Their sister, Jean Craighead George, was the author of the 1959 novel My Side of the Mountain, one of the first books to introduce falconry to the general population.) Inspired, Cade read up on falconry, and one day, on his grandfather’s farm in Texas, he decided to climb a tree and take his first falconry bird—a young Cooper’s hawk—straight from the nest. He kept it only a short while, feeding it a steady diet of catfish from a nearby pond. But his passion for raptors had begun, and it would eventually lead him to become a professor of zoology at Cornell and other universities.

Cade explained to me how some of the techniques used in the captive breeding efforts of the Peregrine Fund were taken from falconry—hacking, for example, was used to prepare the birds for release. (In falconry, however, birds raised in captivity are not released into the wild—only those that are trapped.) Many falconers argue that they haven’t been sufficiently recognized for their role in peregrine restoration, though Cade seems to think they’ve received their due.

(A) Gauntlet. Whether a welder’s glove or made of ornately tasseled leather, the gauntlet’s purpose is always the same: to protect the falconer’s fist from sharp talons. (B) Bells. Typically tied to the raptor’s leg with a leather strip called a bewit, these specialized bells help the falconer find her bird. (C) Bal-chatri trap. A live-bait trap of Indian origin, the bal-chatri was traditionally made with horsehair loops to ensnare the bird’s feet. (D) Creance. A long, braided line that serves as a kind of

In general, falconers are frustrated by the sport’s reputation for violence and the idea that its practitioners are cruel—a reputation that felt pronounced, to me, when falconers were defending themselves against it. That governments at both the state and federal levels have been slow to recognize their contributions to peregrine-recovery efforts only adds to falconers’ sense of insult, since that prevents the general public from recognizing them as conservationists, as people passionate about wildlife. But Laura Simon, a wildlife ecologist for the Humane Society of the United States, says falconry is “ecologically irresponsible,” adding that trapping birds and holding them in captivity only “frustrates their natural instincts.”

Researchers have found little evidence that falconry has affected populations of wild raptors—at least in the US, where the sport is regulated. In the wild, raptors have a 70 to 90 percent mortality rate within their first year of life. As with all hunting sports, state and federal government officials create regulations intended to work with the biological surpluses of populations—the number of individuals that can’t be sustained naturally. In the case of falconry, regulators factor in both raptor and quarry populations. Some falconers consider it an asset to the bird’s livelihood for it to be removed from the wild during its most vulnerable year, especially if the falconer releases that bird back into the wild when the hunting season is over. But, “It’s just not the right thing to do to a healthy wild animal,” says Simon, pointing out that the federal government and state agencies prohibit people from keeping wild animals as pets. Why, then, is falconry the only exception?

Cade, who, at eighty-seven, still practices falconry and publishes scientific articles on the subject, acknowledged this contradiction. “It is almost unique that way,” he said. “And I think that’s a terrible mistake.” He didn’t mean that he thought the raptors shouldn’t be taken, but that there should be more occasions for people to interact with wild animals. “Most kids, until sometime in the 1900s, were on farmsteads where they could do anything like that. That was great.” Because of their experiences with wild animals—experiences that, except for falconry, are now considered illegal—“a lot of naturalists were born or created.” 

The second kill of the day happens in a low marshy area. We’re wading through waist-high, pale-yellow stalks, on the opposite side of the solar-panel field where Scarlett O’Hara caught her rabbit. I’m following Arthur, whose red-tail, Eli, is now hunting. Eli hasn’t been out for fifteen minutes when the chanting starts, a few falconers rallying to action behind us. Arthur and I turn quickly to try to sight-in on the rabbit, but Eli has already disappeared down into the stalks, his bells jingling lightly as he contends with his prey.

“He got it!” Pavlicek shouts. The rabbit emits repeating, piercing squeals, like air being squeezed out of a rubber toy. If, out in the woods, I heard the sound in the distance, it might not register as much at all—I’d mistake it for the cry of a perturbed squirrel, probably. But up close, it’s mechanical, a bizarrely un-animal sound. We all huddle around Arthur and Eli. The bird is mantling—spreading his wings in ownership over the kill.

Eli, a red-tailed hawk, with his kill. This is our second kill in less than a half-hour, and the excitement shows. Everyone congratulates Arthur, who thanks the group profusely. Pavlicek phones Arthur’s sponsor, Damian, who is already on his way to the meet. “Guess what? Your boy just got a bunny!” Until Damian arrives, Pavlicek assumes the role of sponsor, softly coaching Arthur on how much to let Eli eat and when to leash him. Arthur seems anxious that Eli isn’t digging into the rabbit. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Eli is still a little stunned.

“It’s okay. Trust me, he’ll settle down and he’ll break in,” Pavlicek says. Arthur nods and relaxes a little, following Pavlicek’s lead. “Let him break in. Let him break in,” she says, as we all watch the bird clumsily tug at the fur.

Soon enough, Eli has broken through the fur and is pulling at entrails. “There he goes,” Pavlicek says. “Good boy.” She expounds on the benefits of letting a bird gorge itself on its first five to ten kills. “It gives them that good experience; they look forward to it. Next time they’re going to remember that. Let him get into the blood and the lungs, and let him be covered in it. Let him have his first ritual; let him be covered in the blood.” 

Arthur nods along. 

“He hasn’t gotten to the cavity yet,” Pavlicek says.

“No,” says Arthur.

“Let him get there. He’s getting close. Here it is, here it is—he’s breaking in, hon. Here’s your ritual. This is the ritual when the blood gets everywhere. Look, this is it, right here. This is where the red comes in against the snow.” And the blood does get on the snow. Eli pulls the entrails out and casts them aside. If he was a little stunned when he first made the kill, he’s apparently come to, and he reaches into the rabbit’s thoracic cavity again and again, pulling.

“Thank you, rabbit, for your sacrifice,” Pavlicek says. “There we go, there’s the heart, hon. It’s coming. Lungs.”

A peregrine falcon.

Look at the skull of a raptor, and you will notice that about two-thirds of it is dedicated to the eye sockets. What space is left is for a brain mostly devoted to processing what the bird sees. Birds’ brains are too simplistic for object permanence: What they don’t see doesn’t exist to them. Thus, limiting what the animal can see controls it. Seeling—the gruesome practice of sewing a bird’s eyes shut—was once a common way to tame a bird, as it ensured its blindness during training. A more humane alternative is the leather hood, of Arab origin, which was introduced to Europe during the Crusades, and which is still used today. When hooded, the bird becomes sedate, and the falconer can carry it on the fist without it “bating”—leaping off the glove in an attempt to flee when something startles it.

A raptor’s visual capabilities are far superior to those of humans. They are tetrachromats—meaning they have four cones in their eyes, compared to three in humans, allowing them to see ultraviolet light. From a distance, trails of urine and blood glow. By the time humans catch sight of “sign,” it’s likely the bird has already detected the prey, or at least its general whereabouts. Raptors have fourteen cervical vertebrae in their necks, which means they can keep their focus fixed while moving their bodies—between branches, say, for a better launching position. They watch the hot spot, and when they see movement, they launch. Waggle the butt end of a dead baby mouse, and your hawk, even forty feet away, will see. Probably, she will come floating over for a bite.

Most raptors live a feast-or-famine existence in the wild, and their diets typically include insects, birds, and small mammals. Redtails and Harris’s hawks are generalists—they don’t depend on any particular prey to survive; they can eat rabbits, rodents, or even reptiles, including a variety of snakes. They are heavy birds with a lot of surface area, with broad wings and fan-shaped tails (hence their nickname “broadwings”). Falcons, on the other hand, primarily eat other birds—pigeons, waterfowl, game birds, and songbirds—and have more weight compared to their surface area, with long, narrow wings (hence the name “longwings”). They are specialists, their bodies sleekly engineered to plummet from great heights rather than to float and soar. Prey is often still alive when a hawk begins to eat, typically after it has landed on the ground. (Falconers will often move in and squeeze the prey to help it die more quickly.) Falcons kill their prey in flight by biting at the base of the neck, crunching, and turning; they then eat their prey on the wing “like an ice cream cone.” Peregrine falcons are the fastest known animals on Earth, capable of plummeting at speeds of up to 250 miles per hour from more than 1,000 feet in the air. From that height, they can spot flushed game and can see a swinging lure and plunge in after it. Occasionally, though, one might catch a wind current and drift up and away, never returning to the falconer. 

I learn all this from falconer Chris Davis, who takes me hunting in a location almost as unlikely as the solar-panel field—in a stretch of oak trees at the University of Massachusetts– Amherst, a campus home to almost 30,000 students. “It’s a little like my own private reserve,” he says. For him, hunting with a raptor is like being in “an altered state of consciousness. You’re in the moment. You’re in that hunt. And it’s kind of the awareness, and the openness to things that are going to happen, that you don’t anticipate.”

Davis hunts with Harris’s hawks, a species native to the Southwest that hunts socially. Unlike most raptors, which are solitary hunters, when a Harris’s begins to feed on its prey, others flock in to share the feast. They are a little smaller than redtails, dark reddish brown, and when three are poised in a tree branch overhead, the effect is eerie—like congregating vultures.

Davis, a biologist, has been practicing falconry for more than thirty-five years and operates New England Falconry, a sort of falconry-tourism operation where the general public can pay to wear a glove and hold a bird on the fist or go on guided hunts. Davis has startlingly blue eyes and a shock of white hair; small and wiry, he readily admits to eating and enjoying the squirrels and rabbits his birds catch. He might let himself wax philosophical for a moment about being in that “altered state of consciousness,” but otherwise he’s restrained and rational in his practice.

We park by a collection of dormitories, and before we start hunting we take out an older bird, whom he calls 95, so that I can experience a bird flying to the glove. We do a few practice runs in the parking lot, and from where we stand, we can see the university’s W. E. B. Du Bois library tower, atop which sits a peregrine falcon nest. Davis helped to put the original nesting box on top of the tower in the 1990s. Falcons traditionally nest on cliff faces, but they just as easily take to building rooftops and bridges. Restoration efforts for peregrines include installing artificial nesting platforms to encourage repopulation, and most of Massachusetts’s nesting pairs have lived in urbanized settings—the control tower at Logan Airport, the Braga Bridge on I-195, the Goliath Crane in Quincy Shipyard.

Many endangered species decrease in number because of habitat loss, but peregrines can adapt to a rapidly changing landscape, making niches for themselves in urban and suburban settings—where they could still, however, be at risk of ingesting poisons, as they once were with DDT. The same goes for raptors like kestrels and redtails. These birds previously flourished in the Northeast, which, by the turn of the twentieth century, was vastly deforested. As farms slowly disappear, the land either returns to forest or turns into suburbia. Oddly enough, kestrels take well to suburbia, where they’re safe from larger, forest-dwelling hawks like Cooper’s and sharp-shins, and where there is a plethora of invasive songbirds, such as starlings and house sparrows, to feed on. 

Davis does not believe in naming his birds and instead refers to them by number. “Numbers are easy,” he says, whereas naming is a “chore.” The “anthropomorphic association” of a name is “a layer of something that I don’t need between me and my experience with the bird,” he says. He thinks of his relationship with the bird as a partnership based on work, not love. All falconers will admit their birds do not love them, but not so many dismiss a spiritual connection as readily as Davis does. Fascinating? Absolutely. Spiritual? Not at all.

“That’s my philosophy. That’s how I think about wildlife.” He shrugs. “There’s a whole, Walt Disney, you know …” He sighs. “All those movies drive me nuts.” He whistles, and 95, on a tree at the edge of the parking lot, hops up to a different branch. I wear a large leather glove, which falconers call a “gauntlet”; Davis tells me to raise my hand, and by the time I do 95 has already seen Davis’s hand go into the bag for a piece of beef. Ninety-five swoops in, the bells on his legs jingling lightly as he lands for his reward. We put 95 back into a cage in the back of Davis’s van, then take out the three birds we’ll be hunting with: 85, 47, and 55. 

As we prepare to hunt, Davis hands me a pair of chaps to keep my pants from getting shredded by thorns. His shirt is clearly a designated falconry shirt, looking like it once covered a scratching post. “There’s a rhythm to the hunt,” he explains. “Your job today is going to be to watch these birds.” If they do fly away, he has transmitters on them that he can track through radio telemetry. He explains how we’ll read the birds’ various postures, saying that even when the bird is in a vertical position, which means it’s relaxed, there is always a portion of the brain that is on, hunting. “If the birds go horizontal, and particularly if they shake that tail, they’ve seen something.” When they see something, they cannot keep themselves from going into ready mode. In order to diffuse their pent-up energy, they shake their tails back and forth. That’s our signal to whack on a tree or to beat the brush.

Chris Davis’s three Harris’s hawks, from left to right: 85, 55, and 47.

It’s bitterly cold and windy—the kind of day when squirrels sit tight, refusing to come out of their nests, because the wind makes it hard for them to hear. As we start into the woods, picking our way across a small stream, 85, 47, and 55 follow us, leap-frog-style, flying to a branch and puffing up and waiting until we’ve passed, then flying ahead again. Despite the wind and cold, and despite the fact that the three birds remain mostly vertical—that is, relaxed—throughout the hunt, I feel myself succumb to that other state of consciousness. For nearly three hours I stay focused on the birds, on the brush, on any stirrings I hear in the tangles of bittersweet.

We reach the corner of the lot—flanked by a busy road on one side and a quieter campus road on the other—where there is a stand of tall oak trees that would normally be bustling with squirrels. We don’t see any, but we bang on the trunks anyway. Across the street, a bus squeals to a stop and two backpacked students disembark and cross the road. When they hear us banging, they peer curiously into the woods, but Davis is inured to such curiosity. At one point, he points out a cavity in a tree, about twenty feet up, where 85 recently caught a squirrel. She plunged her feet into the hole, grabbing one that was nestled there, and since Harris’s hawks are social hunters, 55 and 47 flew right over to share. He could see 85 “pluming” the squirrel, tail fur raining down on the ground below, and 55 was attached to 85, and 47 to 55, like a daisy chain of hawks. “I had never seen anything like that,” he tells me.

Later, as we’re crawling through a tangle of vines, 55 dives—fluttering lightly, not plunging too hard, a style of hunting Davis calls “mousy,” and sure enough, she’s caught a mouse. Eighty-five flies over and lands nearly on top of 55. This is where it becomes dangerous to hunt with Harris’s hawks—their social nature makes them more susceptible to unintentionally hurting each other. Two birds can sit on either end of a large rabbit with their wings outstretched and never touch, but when the prey is a mouse, they can accidentally foot or bite each other. Davis manages to transfer 85 off, and 55 tips her head up: The mouse disappears in two, three swallows. We sit in the afterglow of the hunt, 55 winding her neck in circles, working the mouse down her throat and into her crop where acids will begin to dissolve it. Later this evening, in the safety of her mews, she will cast up an ovoid pellet, fur and bones all bound together, which Davis will find in the morning when he returns to feed them.

In the US, falconry has never been affixed to the upper class, as it was in Europe. The people who practice it today are information-technology professionals, science educators, high-school teachers. More and more women have taken up the sport in the last decade or so. And just as raptors have adapted to new landscapes by finding niches among buildings and hunting across suburbs, so has the sport of falconry evolved around the human landscape.

Falconer Kimberly Meiners, whom I met through Pavlicek in the summer of 2014, described another adaptation of the sport, which she calls “microfalconry”—hunting with smaller raptors because they are better equipped for certain urban settings. Invasive species of songbirds, such as house sparrows and starlings, thrive where there is human settlement, and Meiners enjoys hunting them with Ruby, her kestrel, especially among the warehouses and back lots near Westford, Massachusetts, where she lives.

Meiners, who has been working with birds of prey for the better part of twenty years, takes me hunting one afternoon in nearby Chelmsford. We meet at an Agway—a lawn, garden, and farm supplies store—to hunt for sparrows among the stacked grain sacks and dusty machinery in a warehouse. The owners are happy to have Meiners and Ruby hunt there because the sparrows are a nuisance, shitting on everything and slipping into layers of rotting insulation below the aluminum roof. As we enter the warehouse, the sparrows flush from the empty pallets stacked outside the door, up toward the roof. Meiners and I spend thirty minutes banging on pallets of wrapped grain sacks with rakes, and the birds fly higher, up into the rafters.

When searching the pallets of grain proves unsuccessful, we climb up to a small loft. At one point Ruby lands atop my head; she is so light I hardly notice when she flies off. Meiners rustles through some plastic for a moment, and one sparrow flies up and disappears into a dark crawl space beyond our reach.

We move outside, where a dead-animal smell wafts up from some mysterious place. We rummage around a weed-choked dumpster, and Ruby sits in a tree, distracted by bumblebees, then by the popping seeds of the waist-high jewelweed I walk through. The dead-animal smell makes Meiners nervous, because she assumes it’s a rodent that probably ate d-CON. She never lets Ruby go after rodents in a lot like this if she can help it. Eventually I crouch behind a stack of pallets and find the source of the stench—a dead sparrow inside a Havahart trap, two dark cavities where its eyes used to be.

After forty-five minutes of sparrow-chasing antics, we end the hunt—Meiners rewarding Ruby with a quail leg she’s been harboring in her shoulder bag, Ruby rewarding Meiners with a deposit of stringy shit on her glove. Meiners smiles and shrugs.

Parking-lot hunting, warehouse hunting, stalking the dumpsters of Burger King—for Meiners, the setting is irrelevant; what’s important is the bird, the aerial display, the hunt. “I never grow tired of it. Doesn’t matter how bad I’m feeling, how many briars I have to go through to push game for my bird. I don’t want to say it’s almost like a religious experience, but it kind of is. There is just something there. It’s the one time the cares of the world are gone. I’m with my bird, and I’m out hunting.” And if a warehouse happens to be the landscape to do it in, so be it.

Kimberly Meiners with her kestrel, Ruby.

After World War II, Americans changed in terms of how we viewed and connected to the environment. Legislation like the Wilderness Act, and coinciding movements like Earth Day, did much to protect our wildlife. Certainly, some species would have gone extinct without such legislation. But these measures also had the effect of making our wilderness a very hands-off place. There was a time when Tom Cade could climb a tree and handle a wild hawk without anybody thinking much about it. Today, possessing an eagle feather can result in a $5,000 fine. While these steps have been crucial in protecting our natural resources and open land, they’ve also had the effect of making the wilderness—and all the wild animals within it—a realm to admire from afar. Admiration is better than revilement, yet this hands-off attitude has, perhaps, created an unintended rift between humans and wild animals, leaving outdoorsmen such as hunters and falconers in an ethical gray area.

Cade told me that falconry is on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. He laughed when he said it. “You can try to figure out what that means.” While the US isn’t included among the countries UNESCO credits with supporting falconry, the fact that the sport is considered a “living human heritage” is an important one to falconers, who tend to be worried about appearances, and for good reason. They often feel that the media misunderstands their sport, hyping it up as a bloodsport, and are relieved when falconry is also acknowledged as culturally and historically important. It might be difficult to defend the importance of trapping a wild bird, but most falconers I met are committed conservationists. It’s one thing to watch birds and wildlife; it’s another to know them well enough to be able to guide them and participate in their pursuits. Cade and Meiners and several others referred to falconry as specialized bird-watching. “I’ve always kind of considered falconry an aspect of natural-history study,” Cade said—one composed of close, intense observation of these birds’ habits. To be able to go hunting with a bird requires a level of awareness—of the animals, of the surroundings—unlike any other. 

At the November meet, after we’ve exhausted the hunting hot spots at Hilltop Farm, we head to an old orchard a few miles away, where last year’s group caught a few rabbits. Many decide to call it a day, and only a handful of falconers remain. Pavlicek releases Fern, a big female redtail who flies long and far, always perching high up. We follow Fern along a line of trees bordering an orchard, then pass through a patch of woods. On the other side is a patch of corn, and next to that, an old orchard, the trees gnarly and suckered. Beside the orchard is a patch of overgrown evergreens in straight rows, likely an old Christmas-tree plot, forgotten now. Up a hill is a heap of farm trash: pallets, bits of random machinery, old plywood, and hundreds of busted bushel baskets—a heap that the land has started to absorb. I can feel how rickety it is when I step out onto a patch of snow, like my foot might plummet through and I’ll land up to my waist in bushel baskets. But in ten years it will be reclaimed, and then, ten or twenty years after that, the orchard will barely be a remnant of what it once was. Someday it will be just two or three knobby old trees in a forest, or just another Worcester subdivision. Until then, the rabbits have the run of the lot.

I scramble up the heap of orchard trash. It’s loaded with sign—so loaded I can smell the animals nestled down within the manifolds below. It could be home to mice, voles, squirrels, rabbits, weasels, raccoons, foxes, or coyotes. The gamey smell wafts up as I jab at the heap with a stick, sure that something will come out if I jab hard enough. In the distance, Fern makes a large, slow swoop from one tree to the next.

Suddenly a refrain of “Ho ho ho ho ho!” rises up nearby, and in the day’s waning light I make out a rabbit fleeing from a tangled mess of undergrowth. This boy is big, we all agree. I run up and around, toward a crumbling stone wall trying to cut the rabbit off on the outside edge and flush it back beneath Fern. My pulse quickens and I join the chorus—impulsively, the instinct in me all along. I make my way through a patch of weeds and toward the top of the old orchard, panting now, trying to push the rabbit back toward the bird that waits.



This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Steve Bodio's picture
Steve Bodio · 8 years ago

A serious and fair piece of research--well done!

Jack Spencer's picture
Jack Spencer · 8 years ago

It was fun to read and I learned a made me understand a sport I would have just thought was awful,very clearly written,liked the descriptions and also the questions raised about our lackof direct connection to wilderness and wild life.Plan to read more of your articles.Glad to learn you are in the area.Would love to have coffee with you some day


Recommended Reading