/ The Atlanta Traveler
Atlanta — By Linda Erbele on February 25, 2010 at 8:38 pm
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Sport of Kings is alive and well in Georgia

Humans have always been fascinated by the ability to teach an animal to work alongside us. It’s all the more interesting when it is a truly wild animal that does our bidding.

I joined about 20 other people for a falconry program recently organized by Smithgall Woods State Park in Helen to learn about the sport of kings. Buster Brown, Secretary/Treasurer and Department of Natural Resources Coordinator with the Georgia Falconry Association was there with his Harris Hawk, Rico and red-tailed hawk, Patsy.  Brian Kurtzman, a second-year apprentice working with Brown, was there with his young red-tail Maddie.

Although it may appear that a raptor hunting alongside a falconer is a pet, nothing could be further from the truth. The bird has learned to associate the human with the appearance of food, but it never looses its fear of man. The birds hunt from instinct and out of hunger and at any time can (and plenty of times do) take off for the wild.

It takes a combined state/federal license to be a falconer. Brown went over some of the requirements for becoming licensed. The bird’s housing, which is called a mew, must be large enough that the bird’s extended wing tips will not touch the walls (he said the smallest he’s ever seen was 8 x 8.) In addition there must be a 10 x 10 weathering area that the bird can get out in and fly around.

A Master Falconer can have up to two birds. Brown explained that he and his wife are both Master Falconers, (so they could have a total of four) but they’ve never had more than two.

“This sport takes a lot of time,” he explained. “you owe it to the bird to take it hunting two or three times a week.” He said that many people think what they see at a raptor show is falconry. But it actually involves hours and hours of gaining the animal’s guarded trust, and teaching it the you can help it find food.

Falconers weigh the bird to determine its optimal hunting weight. Obviously, when the bird’s hunger is sated (and that is indicated on the scale) it won’t hunt. It’s likely to fly up into a tree, admire the clouds, and refuse to come back to the falconer no matter what kind of food he tempts it with. It may not come back to the human for hours and hours, and then only when it gets hungry.

Some breeds of birds can be purchased, such as Brown’s Harris Hawk. Because it is not native to this area, it can’t be released. Harris Hawks are the only raptors that hunt in packs — Brown told us they are called the wolves of the sky and we saw a brief fascinating video where the birds worked together to capture a jackrabbit.

Most falconers in our area start by catching a young red-tailed hawk. It may seem cruel to capture this wild animal, but falconers often are helping the birds. Only a small percentage of hatchlings survive to breeding maturity. Life is tough out there for these birds. Believe it or not, squirrels, the main diet for red-tails in our area, also represent a large threat. If  a squirrel that has been captured by a hawk can twist around and bite the hawk’s foot, the wound can become so badly infected that the raptor won’t be able to hunt. Falconers generally capture birds old enough to hunt on their own but not old enough to breed. They don’t have to release the bird at the end of the hunting season, but many do, capturing another every year.

Our group divided up and half went with Buster and his bird Patsy. I went with the group following Brian. His bird Maddie is so-named because one of her eyes is off-color, so the name refers to her “mad eye.” We walked through the woods with our eyes in the tree tops looking for squirrels or squirrel nests. When we spotted the tell-tale cluster of leaves we would bang on the tree or wiggle a vine to rattle the nest, all in the hopes that a squirrel would poke its head out. (I have seen falconers shoot squirrel nests with a slingshot to get them to come out.)

Maddie watched the amateur hunters with fierce interest. When Brian got a little further away she would lift into the sky and glide through the trees until she was at a better vantage point. She had bells on her legs to help Brian keep up with her. I hunted with a falconer several years ago and his bird didn’t have bells. It was incredible to have this large silent bird pass overhead in the forest, looking for game as intensely as the people.

Maddie found a squirrel’s nest on her own and landed on it, poking around. Brian said proudly that when he caught her just last September, she didn’t know to do that. But she’s seen squirrels come out of those jumbles of leaves, so she’s learned to knock on their door.

At one point, a pair of hawks screamed warnings from overhead. Maddie had apparently wandered into territory they believed to be theirs. Even though it’s been less than six months, Brian has earned Maddie’s trust enough that when he whistled and held up his gloved hand, she returned to him.  We left that area to avoid any chance that the other birds might attack. We climbed up and down hills for several hours – although the beauty of man and animal working together made the time short.

Buster called on the cell phone and told us that the squirrels were on his side of the park, so we packed up and drove over there. Maddie finally got her squirrel. And we got to participate in a little bit of nature.

Our state parks offer a number of interesting programs, from a spring wildflower walk to  full moon suspension bridge hike at Tallulah Gorge. You could find yourself kayaking the marshes in St. Mary’s, or hunting with a wild animal by your side.

(Photos: personal collection.)

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