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Birds of Prey


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It’s Tuesday but just barely. I’m meeting Andy Hall and his ferruginous hawk, Tony Stark, at a Starbucks. The sun won’t show up for at least another hour. In this early part of the falconry season, Hall explains, it’s best to start sooner rather than later for several reasons: There’s less wind and less heat in the morning, which makes it more comfortable for Tony Stark to hunt rabbits. And walking in the Pawnee Grasslands while it’s cooler, we’ll be less likely to encounter rattlesnakes. That’s good to know. We hop into his Toyota mini-van and drive 70 miles to somewhere out in the vast grasslands of Colorado. Falconry, as I’ve discovered, is not just a sport. It’s a lifestyle.

The sport of falconry—the training of raptors (e.g. falcons, golden eagles, hawks) to hunt game—has its origins in the Middle East. Nearly 3,000 years later it arrived in the U.S. where today there are about 4,000 falconers. It’s regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and for the 200 or so Colorado falconers, the Division of Wildlife further regulates with state specific requirements. All potential falconers must apprentice for two years with a sponsor—a master falconer—and pass a written test before they can become licensed. It’s at an apprentice meeting that I learn how much there is to this sport.

Dr. David Remple, a veterinarian and falconer, leads off the Colorado Hawking Club’s apprentice workshop with a discussion about everything from how tobacco smoke affects a raptor’s sensitive lungs to disease prevention to the art of “imping” (feather repair) with superglue and baking soda. Another member gives a live demonstration on “coping”—trimming a bird’s beak and talons. And Andy Hall talks about behavioral training for raptors like it’s a management course on Maslow.

Hall, a Fort Collins native, has spent the last 15 years working with more than 250 species of birds in rehab, education, training and eventually earning his falconry license in 2002.

“It’s a full-time commitment,” says Hall, who tends to Tony Stark daily whether it’s feeding and weight monitoring or exercising him—which means having Tony Stark spring from the ground up to Hall who is positioned on a ladder. His birds, as required by federal law, are kept in specially built “mews” at the home he shares with his wife and two kids. “Right now it’s a big balancing act for me to be able to hunt during the winter and take care of my kids.”

Tony Stark hasn’t made a peep on the drive out. “He’s probably sleeping,” Hall says. When we stop at a field, Hall opens Tony Stark’s box, he’s chirping loudly in the characteristic raptor high-pitch.

Out on the Pawnee Grasslands, there’s nothing for miles in any direction except some black cows and a golden eagle perched on a power line. The rolling yellowed short grass seems endless—a perfect place to hunt it would seem.

Hall puts on a vest and crams every available pocket with gear—food for his charge, a video camera, tracking receiver, granola bars. Then he slips on his leather glove and with raw meat, entices Tony Stark to hop on, carefully disconnecting his leash and attaching the small leather jesses, which help secure the bird on his glove. With his free hand, Hall attaches a small tracking transmitter to his tail feather in case the hawk decides to fly off.

The hunting idea is simple: spot a cottontail or jackrabbit and Tony Stark will fly off the glove and catch it. As we walk across the short grass, I keep one eye out for rattlesnakes, the other watching the duo at work. Tony Stark perches on Hall’s fist, occasionally flying off to grab a piece of meat Hall throws out to keep his attention. Sometimes he flies to an unsuspecting grasshopper on the ground. But today’s there’s not a rabbit in sight. Falconry is often like that.

As we’re walking back to the van, Hall tells me a story about Tony Stark taking two rabbits—his only two ever—on Christmas Day last year. They were finishing their day when a raggedy “60s” pick-up pulled up. “They get out with their shotguns and go out into the field; we hear a couple of shots. And by the time I get the gear loaded up, they come back with like four rabbits in their hands, throw them in the back and head off.”

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