According to the Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, the word falconry refers to the art of training hawks to hunt in cooperation with a person or the sport of hunting with hawks. To Geist resident Roger Chastain, falconry means so much more.
“Falconry is more of a lifestyle than a hobby,” says Chastain, officer (secretary) of Indiana Falconer’s Association who has been hunting with hawks for eight years. “Whereas bow and gun hunters put away their equipment at the end of their hunting season, we (falconers) care for our birds 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, or 365 days of the year. Besides hunting with them, we train them, feed them, house them, and care for their needs. We protect them from predators.”
Although Chastain normally traps his birds in the fall and then trains them for hunting, he received his current bird, Briar, a red-tailed hawk, from a rehabber in late August of this year. Briar had come into rehab a couple months earlier, starving as a result of the drought this past summer. After a couple months spent fattening up in rehab, time she would have spent learning to hunt on her own, she needed to be placed with a falconer in order to ensure she could successfully hunt on her own prior to her release back to the wild.
Weighing in at 37 ounces, Briar typically hunts for squirrels, rabbits, and other ground quarry. Less than a year old, she is described as mellow, sweet, and yet aggressive on game. Last week, she managed to pull a raccoon out of a tree! Chastain reminds us that this hawk is not a pet, but a hunting partner. At any time, he may be subject to inspection by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR.)
He asserts, “In excess of 70% of raptors die during their first year of life due to getting hit by a cars, electrocution, predators, starvation, or disease. For this reason, the DNR mandates that birds being captured for hunting purposes be less than one year old.” In a sense, falconers actually help preserve the life of these birds taken from the wild because most of them wouldn’t have survived anyway.
HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT OF BECOMING A FALCONER?
Falconry is a sport regulated both by the DNR at the state level and the Fish and Wildlife Service at the federal level. Birds are very protected by the DNR. If you find an injured bird of prey, instead of taking it “under your wing” you should contact the DNR so they can direct you to a licensed rehabber to care for the animal. The only legal way to obtain a bird of prey is to become a licensed educator, licensed rehabber, and/or a licensed falconer. Here are the main steps to becoming a licensed falconer:
- Observe a licensed falconer by accompanying him/her on a hunting trip to get a feel of what it’s like. This step is not required but highly recommended. Most aspiring falconers inherently follow this course of action since one of the people you meet may become your future sponsor.)
- Obtain a commitment from a general- or master-class falconer to sponsor you during your two-year apprentice period. The sponsor guides you through the process, teaching you everything you need to know about maintaining and hunting your bird.
- Build housing facilities/equipment. Complete a DNR inspection of your housing facilities/equipment.
- Pass a written examination issued by DNR by scoring 80% or higher.
HOW DID CHASTAIN’S PASSION BEGIN?
Chastain began volunteering at Eagle Creek Park in Northwest Indy. He would clean the cages of reptiles and answer questions from the public. Eventually, he moved up to doing these same chores for owls and hawks. One day when he was surfing the internet to find answers to anticipated questions from the public like, “How fast do they fly?” or “What do they eat?” he stumbled on the topic of falconry. He instantly gravitated to this whole idea.
“I couldn’t believe that I could have a relationship with a hawk where we could hunt together as a team. Unlike hunting with manmade equipment like bow hunting or gun hunting, falconry is the purest form of hunting. It’s predator and prey.”
TRAP IT,TRAIN IT, HUNT IT—FALCONRY CYCLE
As a falconer, Chastain will tell you, “We’re passionate about the sport and we like people to get excited about it, but the birds we employ in the sport are protected by the Migratory Bird Act. This sport is not whimsical; it takes a lot of time, money, and commitment. Everything we do must center on the best care of the birds.”
On a typical hunting expedition, once the hawk catches its prey (a rabbit, for example) the falconer rewards it with some type of raw meat (such as day-old male chicks, mice, or something caught on an earlier trip). The falconer then decides whether to let the rabbit go free, providing there are no injuries, or to butcher it for future rations of food such as during the spring and summer during the molting period. Here in Indiana, hunting season is normally limited to fall and winter when the DNR establishes prey-species seasons for all types of animals (periods for hunting squirrels, rabbits, ducks, etc.).
Generally, once falconers improve the hunting prowess of their birds (after two to three years), they set them free and are ready to capture a new one. By this time, the raptors are sexually mature and are ready to pair up with a mate.
“By releasing them into the wild, they can hunt for their future offspring and live happily ever after,” says Chastain who has owned several birds. He plans to go on a hunting trip to Kansas November 9-16. In addition to shaping Briar’s hunting expertise, he also hopes to trap a prairie falcon or ferruginous hawk which would become his second hunting partner. (His wife, however, doesn’t know this yet!) www.IndianaFalconersAssociation.org