Falconry, the taking of wild quarry in its natural state, helped Taranaki Daily News columnist Rachel Stewart get through a dark patch in her life.
Some years ago, after a five-year period of intense personal loss, something had to change. There was a yearning for a deeper connection with nature, and a closer bond with all things feral than hunting with a rifle provided.
Hawks were captivating and falconry intrigued whenever I'd seen it practised on television. Other than that, it appeared entirely foreign and far away - which, of course, it was, given New Zealand's complete non- history of the ancient sport.
The first task was to research which nation had the combination of regulation, landscape and falconry culture that would best suit my personality.
Emails were dispatched to five Californian Hawking Club enthusiasts for advice on how best to learn the basics. Two replied, but one guy went the extra mile.
He suggested attending the North American Falconers Association (NAFA) meet in Colorado which would give me a first-hand feel for what the sport was really about - as opposed to the fantasy he suspected I may have been indulging in.
A few weeks later master falconer George Bristol picked me up from San Francisco Airport and, together with his apprentice falconer and a truck full of birds, we trundled southwest to Alamosa, Colorado.
We stopped for a break in a small Arizona town. The first bird, a California Redtail hawk, was taken from its travelling box and placed on my gloved fist. My job was to feed it some fresh quail. I was mesmerised, reverent and passionate all in one warm, rolled up ball of sensation.
Why choose the US out of all the countries that legally practise falconry? In an initial email to George I wrote: "being a New Zealander simply exacerbates the romance of falconry. Our Wildlife Life Act (1953) forbids particular birds being kept in captivity for any purpose other than rehabilitation. Of course, the only three raptors New Zealand possesses - the Australasian harrier hawk, New Zealand falcon and ruru (owl) - are all firmly caught by the Act."
New Zealand's then-prohibitive law, and the general dearth of knowledge because of it, was a huge factor. So too was the desire to be close to birds of prey in an environment that both supported and educated. The US falconry community has the fortune of being highly regulated but entirely legal within certain parameters. It is practiced by a small and dedicated few (about 4000 - within a population of 350 million) who are both bird conservationists and experts in the field of raptors.
Because the birds are federally protected they cannot legally be held or possessed by non-licensed people - it is illegal to possess as much as a feather from a bird of prey. Nor can certain species be taken if their numbers are threatened or endangered. For instance, wild peregrine falcon take has only been allowed again recently and after many years of their numbers needing to build up.
Anybody wishing to become a falconer must first pass a strict test, get a sponsor and spend a minimum of two full years as an "apprentice falconer" before gaining "general falconer" status. Five years must be spent as a "general" to get "master falconer" status. The system has a tendency to sort the novelty seekers from the highly committed - because you need to be.
It felt back then, and has been completely borne out since, that American falconry was truly egalitarian. Unlike Britain, for example, where they still experience a class war hangover from the days when only royalty and noblemen were allowed to do it. It is also highly unregulated. In the Middle East and parts of Asia women are often banned or actively discouraged.
North American raptors are another factor. To fly falcons (kestrels, merlins, peregrines, hawks), western red tails, goshawks and coopers is one thing. Golden eagles are quite another. Couple that with vast American landscapes as the backdrop to hunt against and it became a complete no-brainer.
Falconry is many things but it is not the domestication of a wild bird. They are not pets nor should they be. It is essentially a food bond between us and the bird learns quickly that life is easier with a human around. The birds do not love us but a rapport can, and often is, established.
Hawks generally take prey on the ground - rabbits, voles, prairie dogs, rats, mice and snakes. Falcons, in the main, take their game on the wing - ducks, pheasants and quail. Truth be told, we become the two-legged equivalent of a dog as we spend inordinate amounts of time flushing the game for them.
A big draw to falconry is the huge focus on conservation that is inherent in our training. Fact is, only one in four birds hatched each year in the wild survive through their first year, and when they do they rarely reach 4 to 6 years of age. Those in the care of a falconer often live 30 to 35 years.
The four major causes of mortality in the wild are electrocution (transformers on power lines), poisoning, gunshot, and collisions (cars and fences mostly). Add to this, the perils of disease, infection, starvation and being eaten by larger predators and it's easy to see why life in the wild isn't long. Reduction of habitat is a major concern for many species too.
Birds of prey live very much in the moment and seek the easiest way to get a meal for today - which is why we see so many hawks in New Zealand sitting on road kill. No mess, no fuss, no risky kill - unless they get hit by a vehicle in the process. Some days they're lucky and get a larger meal but, for the most part, wild birds are hungry all the time.
To be hunting partners with such a majestic and unrivalled predator is a totally unique experience. It is a privilege to be with them while they do exactly what they do in the wild. The thrill of a raptor catching wild game for the dinner table, even if these days it generally ends up in the bird's stomach, is beyond compare.
It is a hybrid of art form, visceral killing and Zen-like state. There are feathers, fur flying, blood, and shining eyes all around.
How did it save my life? It put me back together again. It gave me a lever out of grief and into the place where the wild things are. A place we all belong even if we've forgotten.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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