Watching birds of prey hunt is nature at its core. They’re apex predators with keen eyesight, laser sharp talons, and lightning-fast reflexes. Training a wild bird to put those tools to work is a lost art with a few participants keeping it alive.
The origin of falconry revolved more around necessity than fun. Possibly as early as 6,000 B.C., civilizations around the Middle East, Arabian Gulf, and Asia were training birds of prey to hunt for survival. As time went on it became a sport of royalty. The possession of falcons and other birds of prey was considered a status system.
During the 1600s, England set up laws to govern the sport. Certain birds were strictly limited to various social ranks and crimes involving birds were sometimes treated as severely as crimes to humans.
As firearms increased in use for hunting, the decline of falconry began. Some countries, like Australia, have banned the sport. One state, Hawaii, also deemed it illegal. Across the world it is believed about 10,000 individuals still participate in the practice, with 5,000 in North America. One of those is 23-year old Georgian John Goforth.
Goforth, an apprentice falconer who works full-time as a lumber yard worker, is now seeing his childhood dreams come true. “When I was little, maybe seven or eight, my dad asked, ‘What kind of hobby would you like?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘What about birds, you like birds.’ Soon after that I discovered falconry and was enamored with it. I never had the time to take it up until last year when I finally decided I was going to do it.”
Now in his free time Goforth is currently in the process of working with his own red-tailed hawk named Echo. He’s spent almost every moment of time away from work training Echo since capture in August.
“As an apprentice I can only have one bird at a time,” Goforth said. “Apprentices have the choice of two species, red-tailed hawks and American kestrels. Both are easy to train, but red tails are the most common.
“Trapping passage, or wild birds in their first year, is probably the most popular amongst falconers because they have already learned to hunt on their own. A falconer needs to gain the bird’s trust via food and acclimating it to people.”
For Goforth, trust was earned with his bird over the period of a few weeks. “I found trust by spending every spare moment with the bird on the fist and offering it food until it takes it. I then gradually increased the distance between food on the glove and the bird. As it loses its fear and hunger takes over, it will begin to come farther and farther to the glove until it can be taken outside and free flown. This took me three weeks, but four to five is the average. It really depends on the personality of the bird and how hungry it was when trapped.”
One key factor in the falconry sport is the weight of the bird. At too light of a weight, the bird will be too hungry to be active. Too heavy and the desire to hunt is gone. “She hunts best at 1130 grams. They drop and gain weight really, really fast. Different species even more so. For beginners, weight is a real challenge,” Goforth explained.
In terms of what Goforth’s bird hunts, it’s mainly squirrels. “There’s not much else here,” he said. When his bird captures a squirrel, he will freeze it to later feed her when they aren’t hunting.
Being wild at heart, Echo is not a pet as Goforth discovered early on. “I’ve learned what to expect after years of study. She isn’t a pet and doesn’t want my affection. I was petting her one day and holding her a little too close and she hit me with her foot, leaving a few good bloody marks, one dangerously close to my eye.”
“Since then we’ve come to an understanding. I don’t treat her like a dog, and she won’t attack my face. Every bird differs in personality, but no raptor will ever be man’s best friend like cats and dogs, they are too wild at heart and even the captive raised, gentler looking specimens have a little primeval glint in their eyes. I think that’s why I like them so much.”
For those interested in participating in the sport there is a written test required to begin in most states. A state permit is required to practice the sport. Apprenticeship lasts for at least two years.