As we saw last week, falconry is quite likely the most heavily regulated activity involving animals in the U.S., at both the Federal and state level. The barrier to entry is deliberately kept quite high as very few are willing to dedicate the time and resources necessary to properly care for and successfully fly a raptor over time.
First and foremost, falconry is a hunting sport - falconry birds are not pets and you are legally required to hunt with them for a minimum of 4 moths per year, although 3-5 days a week for 6 or 7 months of the year is more typical of the time commitment required. Indeed, in many states you will be required to file an annual report with your Fish & Game department detailing days afield and game caught for each bird you have on permit in order to keep your license.
There are three classes of falconer:
-Apprentice (first 2 years, one bird allowed on permit)
-General (next 5 years, up to three birds on permit)
-Master (after 7 years, unlimited number of birds on permit, only 5 may be wild-caught)
In order to become an Apprentice falconer you must:
-pass a written exam (at 80%) on regulations, husbandry, training, hunting, and medical care for raptors
-build an indoor or outdoor (or both) raptor enclosure , which must pass inspection by fish & game
-obtain equipment from the minimum equipment list, which will also be inspected by fish & game
-obtain a sponsor (a general or master falconer with 4+ years of experience) willing to tutor you for those first two years
Convincing an existing falconer to sponsor you is usually the tallest hurdle to clear and it may take a year or more to convince a prospective sponsor that you're serious about this. Sponsoring an apprentice is a major undertaking and falconers are used to having excited people come out of the woodwork every time there is a raptor in a TV show or movie only to have them fade away a week or a month later. The Harry Potter years were particularly trying for potential sponsors in this regard.
Given all of these requirements, the number of licensed falconers in the U.S. has remained steady at only 4,000 for decades, with falconers heavily concentrated in the Central and Pacific Flyway states as that's where the most diverse hunting opportunity is located.
So, we've made it this far and have our permits - what do we want to fly? Not so fast grasshopper! If you're an Apprentice, you're likely to be flying either a Red Tailed Hawk or American Kestrel for those first two years.
Here's the breakdown on that:
- six states allow Apprentices to fly Red Tails only
-19 states allow Apprentices to fly only Red Tails or Kestrels
-seven states allow Apprentice to fly Red Tails, Kestrels, or Harris Hawks
-two states allow Apprentices to fly any of the 14/34 species on their approved species lists(s)
-15 states allow Apprentices to fly any raptor not listed as threatened by the USFWS
In all but six states you have at least some choice of raptor, so how do you choose? Remember, falconry is about hunting -- your choice of raptor is entirely dependent on the type and abundance of game you can consistently provide her the opportunity to hunt. The Peregrine and the Gyrfalcon are very cool birds but they require a lot of open space to hunt and they're almost exclusively avian predators. If you don't have access to game birds like waterfowl, pheasants, or grouse they are right out. Likewise, a Red Tail, Goshawk, or Harris Hawk is going to need either the same menu as above or abundant rabbits and squirrels to be happy.
In general, the larger the bird the more open space you'll need and the more highway miles you'll travel. We live in ideal hawking habitat but still average 12,000 to 15,000 miles a year driving the hawks to and fro - and some of my friends who fly Peregrines easily triple that. In fact, it made more sense for us to have a dedicated hawking car than to put that many annual miles on our primary vehicles.
Our hawking car , AKA the falcon mobile :
So is a suburban teenager or an adult that works until six every day out of luck? Not at all! European Sparrows, Starlings, field mice, and voles are ubiquitous and hunting them right in town with a Kestrel or Sharp-shinned hawk every day after work or school might be just the ticket. Add in some nearby farmland with Starlings and Pigeons and Merlins, Aplomados, and even Cooper's Hawks become feasible as well. Again, the game you have realistic access to dictates the species of bird you should consider flying.
I'll wrap this up with a series of videos showing a variety of hunting styles, from suburban to rural. Note how, as the birds get bigger, so does the space needed to fly them.
Kestrels can be flown nearly anywhere, from city parks to fence rows on the edge of town:
Tonks & Dora hunting jackrabbits in the sage from their T-perches
My friend Missy soar-hawking her Ferruginous Hawk Skully
My friend Caleb flying his Peregrine Fighter Pilot
Next week: How to train your dragon (part 1)