This fall, Alabama will open several of its state parks to falconry, a sport in which trained birds of prey are used to hunt squirrels or rabbits — and a sport that can be controversial, as Get Out writer Sunny Montgomery learned in 2014.
That March, in an effort to better understand the ancient practice, which some historians believe originated 10,000 years ago, Montgomery joined one local falconer on a hunt in Harrison Bay State Park. Her story, which follows below, originally published in Get Out Chattanooga on May 31, 2014.
The falconer, Vivian Anderson, a high school senior at the time, is now a first-year medical student at Mercer University School of Medicine in Savannah, Georgia. She is also a raptor volunteer at Savannah's Oatland Island Wildlife Center.
Yet the message she helped impart years ago still soars like, Anderson hopes, the red tail feathers of her former hunting partner, Onhekwensa.
The first time I spoke with Tom MacKenzie, media relations specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region, he was indignant.
"Does she have permits? What is her licensing?" he wanted to know. I had called Tom to get some facts on falconry after being invited on a hunt with local falconer and Notre Dame High School student Vivian Anderson. I tried to assure him that, in fact, everything was in order; she had a license. But he remained gruff.
Falconry will be permitted at the following Alabama State Parks: DeSoto, Joe Wheeler, Lake Guntersville, Lakepoint Resort, Chewacla, Buck's Pocket, Lake Lurleen, Monte Sano, Oak Mountain, Paul M. Grist, Wind Creek, Frank Jackson, Cheaha, Cathedral Caverns, Rickwood, Meaher and Blue Springs. Park entrance fees apply. To learn more, including falconry season dates, visit alapark.com/faclonry.
"I like hawks — I like hawks in the wild," he said tersely before informing me he was going to look into the matter.
I hung up the phone feeling nervous. I'd been so intrigued by the potential story it never occurred to me that perhaps I was against falconry in the same way I was against wearing fur, patronizing the circus and eating factory-farmed meat. With reservation, I went forward with the story.
I met Vivian at Harrison Bay on a blustery afternoon. She immediately struck me as not your average high school student. Eighteen years old, extremely poised and articulate, she wore mud-colored coveralls, chunky silver jewelry and had faded red streaks in the front of her hair. She stood at the trunk of her car tearing apart a dead squirrel with a pocketknife. "I'm doing the yucky part right now," she told me casually.
When finished, Vivian shoved the meat into a side satchel, reached into her back car seat and emerged with a torso-sized red-tailed hawk perched on her fist. The bird's name was Onhekwensa, which means "blood" in Iroquois, I learned. "I call her 'Kwen' for short," said Vivian.
Vivian was actually only guessing that Kwen is a she. Red-tails are not sexually dimorphic, which means the only real way to distinguish a male from a female is through DNA testing. "She's in the female weight range but it's possible she's a large male," Vivian said.
The first thing a prospective falconer must do is learn nearly everything about regional raptor populations. Vivian already had an advantage. After all, she'd been researching raptors since grade school.
"My third-grade teacher did a unit about birds. We were allowed to focus on one and I chose the Golden Eagle. I found out there were people in the world that could train these eagles to hunt with them. I was absolutely fascinated humans had figured out a way to interact with such creatures. I was like, that's it, I'm going to become a falconer," she said.
So she dragged her mother to the library to do research and discovered that one has to be 14 years old to obtain an apprenticeship license. "Of course, when you're in the third grade that just seems like an eternity," she laughed. But Vivian had grit. Upon reaching the eighth grade, she drew up a checklist.
First she had to pass a statewide exam covering everything from a bird's ecology to its behavior to the history of the sport and all its equipment.
Next, she had to build the mews or birdhouse complete with weathering yard. A weathering yard, Vivian explained, is the open area where the raptor will experience natural elements: rain, wind, cold. "Without the bird having natural weather through its feathers, basically, its feathers become unhealthy," she said. The enclosure and yard must then be inspected and approved by a state game warden to ensure it was constructed with proper materials, perches and water bowls.
Finally, Vivian had to find a sponsor, a licensed adult falconer who would commit to taking Vivian under his or her wing (pun intended) until she was ready to graduate. Again, she did her research and discovered that the Georgia Falconry Association hosts an annual picnic. She went and ended up finding a sponsor who lived just 10 minutes from her home.
When she turned 18, Vivian could apply for a state license, but only after her sponsor confirmed she was ready, which he did.
With license in hand, last autumn, Vivian went to trap her first raptor as an official falconer.
"Trapping is one of my favorite things to do," said Vivian, who catches a new bird each season then releases it the following spring. She prefers red-tails for their laid-back demeanor as well as their family values.
"Red-tails mate for life. I think that's beautiful," she told me. "They have very strong bonds and you do not want to break up a mated pair."
So it is extremely important to understand the bird's biology so that only appropriately aged birds are taken, birds that are hunting on their own but have not reached sexual maturity. The ideal time to trap a red-tail is between the vulnerable ages of 4-5 months.
The mortality rate of raptors in the wild is grim, with 70 percent of the birds dying before turning 1 year old and 90 percent before the age of 5. Vivian guessed Kwen was around 1 year old.
"You can tell she's immature because she doesn't have adult red feathers yet," said Vivian. "When she molts this spring, she'll get her new tail feathers and her chest will turn a dark caramel color. Right now her nose is kind of blue because when she was young and out on her own she probably ate a lot of bugs. It will turn more yellow with the more rodents she eats," she added.
The birds are trapped using a device called a bal-chatri. It is a wire dome made of many wire nooses. In its bottom is a weight and a trap door where live gerbils are placed. "The hawk never actually gets to those gerbils. We've actually used the same gerbils a few years over," Vivian assured me, perhaps sensing my bleeding heart. The trap is placed on the ground near where a raptor has been spotted. The falconer's hope is that it will attract a hungry bird.
"We'll watch from a distance with binoculars. If it is hungry, it'll go down to the trap and walk all over it trying to get those gerbils, and sooner or later, its talons will get tangled up in the nooses. At that point, we run over as fast as we can and put a towel over its head. When it's dark, the bird will calm down. You do not want it to be a traumatic experience for the bird," Vivian explained.
But, she admitted, it is rather traumatic. After all, the bird has likely never been that close to a human. She remembers the first red-tail she trapped. "I was nervous too," she said. "I read a blog written by another falconer who said the first time you have that bird on the end of your glove it's like having a dragon on the end of your fist. And it really is."
BONDING WITH KWEN
Training the bird is known as "manning" and typically takes about three weeks. It involves everything from getting the bird accustomed to the feel of your glove to getting it to eat out of your hand, which Vivian calls "a battle of the wills."
"Basically you sit in a room with a piece of food on your glove until the bird gets hungry enough to take it," she said. It took Kwen two days to take the food. "That is the first bond and it symbolizes a lot for the bird," said Vivian. "A, you're not going to kill them. B, you're providing food for them. And C, you're not in competition."
Vivian feeds Kwen, on average, about 60 grams a day, or a third of a squirrel. One of the most important parts of keeping a raptor is understanding its weight. First of all, its weight is the primary indicator of its health. Moreover, in order to have a successful hunt, the falconer must pinpoint the bird's ideal hunting weight.
This involves a creance, which is a light leash about 100 feet long. Creance training, typically performed in the forest, tests whether the bird is focused on the falconer. Before each session, the bird is weighed. Vivian uses a postage scale with a perch attached.
"If the weight is too high then the bird isn't going to pay attention to you because it's full. If it's too low then the bird will feel weak," said Vivian. Kwen's ideal hunting weight is 985 grams. This is when she is hungry and responsive, yet with enough energy for a hunt. "We call this her 'yarak,' which means 'extreme blood thirst,'" Vivian said.
"A lot of people think that I stand there with a bird on my glove and command it to bring me back food," said Vivian. "But I try to make it very clear that it's a partnership between me and the bird."
As we headed into the forest surrounding Harrison Bay, Vivian untethered Kwen from her glove. Kwen immediately flapped into the high branches of a nearby tree. "We're going to try to find a squirrel's nest. But you have to be careful. Sometimes a hawk nest resembles a squirrel nest," Vivian told me.
We trudged through the woods with Kwen keeping pace above us. Soon, Vivian spotted a nest. First, she tried rattling the trunk, Kwen watching keenly from the treetops. Nothing happened. She stomped at its base. Nothing. She removed a slingshot from her satchel, loaded it with a marble, aimed for the nest and fired. A squirrel popped out.
The hunt was on. The squirrel bounded for the nearest tree as Kwen took flight. The squirrel somersaulted over limbs, leapt from branch to branch; Kwen dropped and lunged. We ran beneath the chase, twigs snapping beneath our shoes. I didn't know who to root for.
"Sometimes young squirrels will get nervous and just jump out of the tree," said Vivian.
I decided I was rooting for the squirrel, which was frantically scrambling over thin branches cracking beneath its weight. Kwen swooped again, her talons stretched. I suddenly found myself rooting for Kwen. But the squirrel dodged her grasp. It flounced onto the next tree where it found sanctuary in a hollow.
We stood and watched for a while. Vivian shot a few marbles at the high opening. Nothing happened. The forest was still again. Finally, Vivian said, "The squirrel survived the chase. So we will let it go." She motioned for Kwen who flapped down from the trees and perched on her fist. The two seemed to share an intimate moment then, looking deeply into each other's face.
"The true bond between the falconer and the bird comes when the bird realizes you complement its hunting style. The hawk follows me not for affection," Vivian said. She reached into her satchel and offered Kwen a hunk of the pre-cut game.
This was Vivian and Kwen's final hunt together. Over the next couple of months, Vivian would begin the unmanning process, starting with a final health check followed by feeding Kwen enough to increase her weight. "This will trigger her natural body system to start to molt," Vivian said.
As a bird molts, falconers collect the feathers to donate to zoos or raptor rehabilitation centers. These feathers, Vivian explained, can be used to replace broken feathers on injured raptors, a therapy known as imping.
In the final stage of unmanning, Vivian will stop feeding Kwen by hand. She will enter the mews with less frequency and eventually altogether. Then, Vivian will start piping food directly into the enclosure. When she finally releases the wild-again raptor, the healthy red-tail will have an edge, having survived that critical first year.
A few weeks after the hunt, Tom from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called me back.
"I'm really glad you asked about this," he said. "It's fascinating, really. I'm going to forward you some documents."
The documents Tom shared included the opinion of USFW Southeast raptor coordinator Resee Collins.
Resee's opinion: "In addition to being kept fed on a daily routine and given medical attention when needed, the conservation benefit could be the flying and hunting skills that a young bird acquires through falconry in a controlled circumstance. Surely, these are beneficial when it is released to the wild. And let's not forget that falconers were pivotal in the recovery and reintroduction of the Peregrine Falcon throughout the U.S."
Resee also pointed out that, in fact, many of the techniques falconers used in reintroducing peregrines have since been adopted in helping recover other endangered raptors — the Bald Eagle, for example. A balanced ecosystem is dependent on thriving raptor populations. Not only do the birds control small game populations, Vivian added, but those species and others fare better because of it.
"If you have too many squirrels, you're going to run out of space for the chipmunks. It has this cascading effect," Vivian explained.
"It is thrilling to be part of the predator-prey relationship. This is a natural relationship that has been around since the beginning of time," she added, brushing a lock of fading red hair from her face.
This fall, Vivian will attend UGA, where she plans to continue her study in wildlife science. By that time, Kwen will have grown her red tail feathers, the rest of her life stretching before her like the infinite horizon.
"I will miss the camaraderie that comes with being a partner to the bird. But I have to keep in mind the bird was never mine. I took her from the wild and I will return her to the wild. I hope that she will settle down and have offspring," said Vivian. "That is always my dream: for the birds to have a nice life."