It was something I'd wanted to do since a dear friend, now departed, described her experience bonding with a falcon as full of wonder and joy. We tried to book with a falconer while staying at Ashford Castle in Cong, but our itinerary was too tight. We tried to arrange another date in Kenmare, near Killarney National Park, but the falconer was totally booked. We finally succeeded with "Willie the Birdman," a traveling falconer outside Waterford.
|Willie the Birdman|
Falconry has been around since 2000 B.C. It became the most popular form of hunting in the aristocracy, both for sport and for supplementing the table. An aristocrat's status could be determined by his bird of prey - a king had a golden eagle, for example; a duke, a falcon. Other birds used by falconers today are hawks, kites, and owls. Owls, however, are very difficult to hunt with because they find their prey with their hearing and hunt at night. They are mortal enemies of diurnal (daytime) raptors.
We met Willie outside the mews he'd built for his birds, their chambers where they remain tethered unless they're in the falconer's house. The mews looked like over-sized open cages. Eagles had blocks or stumps on which to stand; owls and falcons had limbs or branches.
There are stringent laws regulating falconry in the U.S. A falconer must pass an exam, build facilities, get them inspected, serve a 2-year apprenticeship, keep records on the birds, catch a wild bird, and get it licensed. In the UK there is a lack of laws regarding the birds' mews. The only regulation states their mews must accommodate their wingspan. Taking a bird from the wild is illegal in the UK. However, the survival rate of wild immature falcons is only 10-20%, compared to 90% for those captured and trained.
One by one Willie introduced us to the owls, starting with an immature barn owl called a passager, which he tethered with a leather leash (jess) from the baby's anklet to my gauntlet by wrapping the jess round and round my little finger and securing the end into a ring on the gauntlet. The young one just sat there and stared at me. I stared back at him. After a few minutes of mutual admiration, he started swiveling his head around in a circle. "You can touch his back," Willie said. Touching his feathers was like sinking my hand into a bowl of white cotton.
I wanted to take him back to the States with me, but Willie reminded me these are NOT pets, but birds of prey. A full-grown owl eats mice, rats, or quail each day. Willie stocks three-month supplies in a freezer, along with shredded raw chicken for the larger species. The falconer must measure each bird's diet to control its weight. If it gets too heavy, it can't fly high and fast; too light-weight, it can't pick up the prey. Their beaks are hooked and their feet are either three or four talons, depending on the species. Those with four have two talons facing forward and two backward.
|Coming in for a landing for food on my glove|
The birds are trained to accept the falconer as a hunting partner who will facilitate his hunting for food, since birds of prey are carnivorous. The falconer creates positive reinforcement with his voice and with offers of food in small bits at the blow of a whistle. When fully grown, the bird is given freedom from the glove while the falconer helps flush out prey and lets the raptor dive, sometimes up to 200 miles an hour. A bell on its leg alerts the falconer as to its position. At times the raptor is so high the falconer needs a radio tracking device. Sometimes the raptor doesn't come back at all.
As each owl was released from its mews to my glove, my arm got heavier and heavier, especially with the Snowy White.
Charley was given the great horned owl, who put on a show after he was released by targeting fresh pieces of chicken on Charley's glove from across an indoor hanger when Willie called.
Finally Willie took out a kestrel (small falcon) and removed its leather hood . Willie tethered him to my gauntlet while I stared at his beautiful yellow eyes and beak. He wore an ID band and bell on his leg. He just sat there immobile, as if he were waiting for me to ask, "What's up?"
The time had arrived! Willie took a lure (a simulated dead animal) and swung it round and round on a little lasso, then let go. That's when he released the kestrel's jess from my gauntlet. That falcon was in the air in a blur. Within seconds he had the lure in its beak as Willie whistled him in. He landed just where he'd begun, on my gauntlet, and was fed the real thing.
What a thrill! Nature is truly remarkable. That's my idea of a date on the wild side these days.
|Red-tailed hawk, one of two species allowed trapped for falconry in NY State. |
Photo courtesy of Alamy