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Hunting with a Hawk

While it takes years to become a falconer, enthusiasts say it's worth the effort.

By Russell A. Graves

Wading through this field of rocks and three-awn grass is a bit paradoxical. While the overgrown meadow has a distinctively rural feel to it, about 10 miles to the south I can see the Fort Worth skyline jutting from the Trinity River banks. Hiding in the rocks and the dank pockets of twisted grasses, rodents abound. Twenty yards away Krys Langevin, Brandi Quick and Brannon Jackson serve as spotters and ease up to the rocks while Kurt Reineck closes in with his Cooper's hawk, Hercules, perched on a homemade pole. Krys sees what I can't so I stop to watch. Within seconds, a fat eastern cottontail darts from the rocks and weaves in predictable back and forth fashion into a stiff southerly wind. I glance back at Hercules quick enough to see him lean from the pole and then make a quick dive into the grass. The wiliness of the rabbit and the strong southerly wind conspire against the hawk, and he makes a clean miss.

"Let's walk over this way," motions Krys to another rock pile. "There'll be more rabbits over there." Two or three more times, rabbits run and the hawk misses. Still, what impresses me is the synergy between the spotters, the trainer and the hawk as they demonstrate, time and again, the skillful way in which they harness the hawk's wild instincts.

While I watch from a distance, it's clear that each person in the party understands his or her role in this hunt and executes it precisely. Langevin cherishes the privilege of being a falconer, and before the hunt, he invites me to his house, where he shows me his hawk houses (mews) and muses about each of his two birds and how much time he spends working with them.

I admit that bird identification isn't in my wheelhouse, so Krys patiently explains how to distinguish his male Harris's hawk from his female Cooper's hawk. Their given names are Dingus and Turbo Dog respectively, but Krys is quick to point out that while his birds have catchy names, they aren't pets. He says that it's a mistake to assume that you can make a pet out of a hawk. Affection isn't something you'll get out of these birds, as they still have their wild instincts intact.

While we tour Krys' home, hawking memorabilia is scattered throughout. He talks about his training regime, and I am struck by how much time he spends taking care of his birds. He makes it clear that hawking and falconry are commitments that can't be taken lightly. By the time we head afield, I have no doubt how serious Krys is about the sport of falconry and that he takes his role of both ambassador and steward seriously.

Becoming A Falconer

By day, Krys is a veterinary technician, but just about every weekend during the fall, he takes to the field with his own birds and hunts rabbits, rodents and "anything else that's legal to hunt." When he's not hunting, he spends his free time training his hawks. For the past five years he's been a licensed falconer but was involved with falconry even before that.

"I've always liked animals and have been interested especially in animals other than dogs or cats," he says. "I had never even been a hunter before I got into falconry, but once I started I found that it was a really natural way to hunt. So about five years ago I started the process to become a licensed falconer."

Becoming a falconer involves an apprenticeship program and licensing from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as well as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Predictably, a host of both federal and state regulations govern the trapping and possession of both wild and captive-bred raptors. However, the aim isn't to squelch hawk and falcon possession. Instead the guidelines are meant to ensure that for the well-being of the birds, only the most committed and serious falconry enthusiasts can legally participate in the sport.

"The permitting process can be a drawn-out affair – something that helps weed out those that probably wouldn't be that committed to their bird. It can take an individual three to six months to get their apprentice license – depending on how prepared they are – and longer if they don't know their falconry regulations," says Sheldon Nicolle, vice president of the Texas Hawking Association.

"It's definitely not a short or easy process and it's not an inexpensive hunting sport," he adds. "However, when you consider the costs of a deer lease or guided hunt, after the initial investment falconry can be a very affordable and very rewarding way to experience and enjoy the outdoors."

For licensing, apprentice falconers are tested on their basic knowledge of falconry and raptors and related regulations (with a minimum 80 percent correct classified as passing). They must have an inspection by a Texas game warden to ensure their facilities are adequate to keep and house raptors. Finally, a general or master class falconer must sponsor the apprentice for two years and, ultimately, approve of their advancement beyond the apprentice level.

Sport Born From Nobility

Historical records indicate that the practice of falconry started as far back as 722 B.C. in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and the sport made its way to Europe's nobility in 400 A.D.

Traditionally, falconry has been a sport for society's upper crust. In Japanese samurai culture, for example, strict restrictions were in place as to who could hunt with falcons. As time passed, falconry lost its luster as a sport for society's upper class and became more accessible to those wanting to put the time and effort into it.

In the 1930s the first North American club was formed for falconry enthusiasts but folded during World War II. It wasn't until the 1960s that the North American Falconers Association was formed, and about 10 years later, its affiliate the Texas Hawking Association was organized. Now with 257 members, the THA is an active group with a deep interest in raptor conservation.

"The purpose of the Texas Hawking Association is to promote the sport of hawking and falconry and assure that participants practice the art both legally and ethically," says Nicolle. The association is also proud of its work with TPWD and touts its cooperation with the department. Its ultimate aim is to support the sport and to work positively with regulating agencies to ensure that rules are in place to protect captive and wild raptors.

According to Nicolle, one of the association's key missions is educating the public about the challenges and rewards of falconry through outreach programs and the Texas Hawking Association's annual meeting.

"We have members particpate in everything from local school, Scout, and church assemblies to the Dallas Safari Club's Shooting Archery Field Excellency Trials for Youth extravaganza, which hosts over 250 youths from around the state twice a year. The event introduces outdoor field sports, including falconry, to young people that wouldn't otherwise have the chance to see the sport," Nicolle says. "We also have a booth at the annual Texas Parks and Wildlife Expo in Austin, where we try to educate the public about the importance of wise conservation and protecting the raptors we use in the wonderful sport of falconry."

Each January, the Texas Hawking Association convenes in Abilene for its annual three-day meet. Open to the public, the event gives participants a chance to talk falconry and hear about the sport from some of the community's premier experts.

During the meet, members actively hunt their raptors and share their experience with others in attendance. "We're a community of hardworking people who love their birds and love sharing what we do with anyone who is interested."

Today, though, I am glad that Krys and the others are willing to share their sport with me. In my first experience with falconry, I can see why they are so passionate about the sport.

"I'll be honest with you," Krys confides. "Taking game is secondary to the experience. I really enjoy the interaction with my birds. Some of the best flights I've seen ended with the quarry escaping." While we talk, his Cooper's hawk sits quietly on his arm and remains there even though no tethers keep the bird from flying away. "Every time you cut your bird loose, they can choose not to come back to you. So it's really a special bond you form with the bird."

"Besides," he says, grinning. "It's an adrenaline rush every time you go out hunting with your bird."

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