Into the Wild

Experience the ancient art of falconry.

Falconry may be the sport of kings, but only kings eager for an adrenaline rush. It is also the sport of a select group of Virginians whose dedication to the pursuit makes it no mere hobby—it’s a lifestyle. Today there are about 4,500 falconers across the U.S., bird-lovers all, brought together by a passion for hunting.

Though falconry gained popularity in the Middle Ages, it is in fact much older. Where it originated is a mystery, but historical accounts indicate that the art dates back to at least 2,000 B.C. Falconry is said to have come to the Americas via the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s, but it wasn’t until the 1930s, when twin brothers­ Frank and John Craighead—who would later become well-known wildlife conservationists—published an article in National Geographic about their experiences with falconry, that the sport began to grow in the U.S., according to the website of the North American Falconers Association (NAFA).

My own brush with falconry was thoroughly modern. On a sunny, late spring day, I loaded a guest shuttle from the iconic Homestead Resort in Hot Springs—which has offered guests the opportunity to try their hand at falconry in a controlled environment for more than two decades—and headed to its bird facility nearby. One Saker falcon, three Harris’s hawks and one Eurasian horned owl—a few of the several birds on rotation—greeted the group. Only Harris’s hawks, one of the safest raptors for beginners due to their more social nature and adaptability to different terrains, are used for lessons. In the wild, Harris’s hawks hunt in packs, much like wolves, so cooperation comes instinctually.

We were met by a couple of screeching and squawking baby birds (the bird of prey equivalent to a toddler’s whining) who were, explained falconer Linda Spence, 38,  “exhibiting childish behavior.” (Most raptors may be trained after their first molting.) Though noisy, the birds were gorgeous, with plumage that came in a spectrum of brown and gold, and sharp, well-defined lines.

Spence began by explaining that the basic idea behind falconry isn’t friendship. Say a raptor, whether a hawk, falcon or owl (all are trainable) catches you a Virginia Bobwhite. It won’t release the quail unless you present something in return. You, the human, are at the distinct advantage in this situation because you understand size. Not realizing that a chicken foot is smaller than a whole quail, the raptor will make the trade. Falconry is not about domestication, you see; it is a form of respectfully coaxing a wild animal to, in Spence’s words, “use their natural instinct for our benefit.”

A raptor never hunts out of love or loyalty.

A lifelong hunter, Spence has practiced falconry for more than five years, but this has been no flight of fancy. Falconry is a serious commitment. A state-recognized apprenticeship requires the apprentice to be at least 12 years old and to undergo two years of training, after which comes a permit test. The test includes 100 multiple-choice questions, spanning everything from raptor identification to laws and regulations. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the probability of passing the test without study is less than one in a million. Spence trained with Cody Morgan, a falconer with about 15 years of experience and a falconry instructor at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. But no matter how long Morgan or Spence have known particular raptors, they say they will never confuse them for pets.

“I’ve been taking care of these fellas for years and it doesn’t matter,” Spence said. “They don’t like me. They don’t even like each other. That’s why we can’t put two to a cage unless they’re both tethered.”

After the other guests and I gathered in a clearing behind the mew—the structure where the birds are housed—Spence emerged with Remington, a Harris’s hawk with plumage of deep brown and chestnut flecked with creamy white. Remington wore a leather hood that covered his eyes (raptors do not require a command to chase quarry; if they see it, they go after it). The moment Spence slipped off the hood, Remington was already appraising his surroundings.

For such a fierce predator, the born hunter was extremely light, weighing about two pounds. Such a modest weight is not unusual for raptors; like all birds, their bones are hollow. Because raptors are so light, a weight gain or loss of even just two ounces can mean the difference between feeling famished and feeling full. Spence weighs the birds every morning to discern which birds must be fed and can be used for falconry demonstrations. Remington was this afternoon’s winner.

When it came my turn to feed Remington, I pulled on the thick leather glove that extended about halfway up my forearm, grabbed a chicken foot from Spence and outstretched my arm. Focused on the foot, Remington dropped down from the tree and soared directly to my arm. He nabbed the foot and landed on my arm in the same motion, gulping it down so quickly I thought he had dropped it. Then he flew back to the mew. Remington, like other raptors trained in falconry, had been conditioned to trust the falconer. He did not consider Spence a threat and knew that, regardless of his success in the field, Spence would reward him with food (his primary reason for returning despite the opportunity to fly to freedom).

To further demonstrate Remington’s hunting prowess, Spence pulled out a piece of deer hide on a string and tossed it to the ground. Remington immediately seized it and lifted his wings to create a shield around his “meal.” He had pinned down the hide so tightly that when Spence pulled the string to mimic struggling prey, the hide did not move. He picked at the fur until Spence threw him a dead baby chick. Only then did he release the hide. Once Remington devoured the chick, a lump poked through his neck. Eating any more could rob him of his ability to fly.

The official falconry hunting season in Virginia begins in October and lasts through the end of March, and is open only to licensed falconers on land where they have permission to hunt. But it is not a sport for anyone with just a casual interest in birds: The costs are substantial. Though a falconer with a permit may trap birds in the wild (some falconers will release them after a single season, some will keep them for years), there are the costs of constructing and maintaining a mew and buying equipment like leather gloves or a radio transmitter in case the bird gets lost. Add the annual permit fee, a hunting license, veterinary expenses, access to hunting land, plus food like frozen mice or small birds, and the price tag is hefty. Only falconers with permits may own a raptor legally whether trapped or purchased; for those who buy a bird, they can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars each.

But for serious falconers like the members of the Virginia Falconers’ Association, the only falconry club in the Commonwealth, the cost is worth it. Formed in 1983, the VFA collaborates with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland fisheries to ensure legal and ethical falconry practices across the state. About 70 members, including falconers, apprentices and enthusiasts, belong to the club. Lee Chichester, 57, president of the VFA and a falconer since 1992, estimates that 35 to 40 are permitted falconers. Even fewer have earned a master class license (as Chichester has), which requires a commitment of five or more years of study and practice after apprenticeship.

Chichester, a freelance writer living in Meadows of Dan, says it was reading Jean Craighead George’s (younger sister of Frank and John Craighead) novel My Side of the Mountain, a story about a boy who runs away from home and befriends a hawk, as a child that tipped her off to the world of falconry. But it took her 20 years to find the time and place to pursue an apprenticeship. Now she owns two birds—a red-tailed hawk named Cascade and a hybrid falcon, CJ (short for Crow Joe). Over the years, Chichester has trained three apprentices.

“You have to be passionate about falconry to be a falconer,” she says, cautioning that the sport goes well beyond the realm of hobby, requiring daily interaction and care of the bird. Plus, she says, the romance of the sport, as portrayed in the media and books, belies the fact that there are equal parts frustration and excitement: “Be prepared to have stuff die in your hands. It is a hunting sport. It’s not just about the birds.”

She emphasizes the intimacy with nature the sport brings: “It reminds me that our environments, food sources and habitat are interlinked such that we lose a piece of our humanity when we mentally break or ignore those links.”

Andrew King, 38, treasurer of the VFA and a falconer since 2000, is a Ph.D. student living in Keswick. He became interested in the sport while living in England.

“I practice falconry because there are few ways as exciting to commune so completely with nature,” he says. “We have the privilege to build a partnership with a wild raptor and become an impermanent yet integral part of their otherwise solitary life. That partnership allows us to build a tangible understanding of the cycle of life.”

He adds that the sport challenges falconers on many levels, requiring that they learn the basics of bird psychology and develop handicraft skills from woodworking to leather craft. It “keeps us engaged year-round,” King says.

Dr. Dave McRuer, 38, director of veterinary services at the Wildlife Center of Virginia and a resident of Kents Store, became a falconer in 2012. Growing up taking care of kestrels, barred owls and other birds of prey, McRuer, who is one of the VFA’s directors, now treats injured raptors for a living.

“While it is rewarding to work with raptors in a captive setting,” he says, “this pales in comparison to witnessing these amazing birds interact with the natural world in a way that is foreign to most of us.”

The VFA hosts two meets each year: the Harrisonburg Field Meet, which takes place the third weekend of January, and the Winchester Field Meet the third weekend of February. The meets feature Q&A sessions and demonstrations followed by hunts. A limited number of non-falconers may join hunting parties as guests in the field. Each summer, the organization also hosts its summer picnic, which is open to all members and their guests. The picnic has also historically been an opportunity for potential apprentices to meet falconers.

Year after year, event after event, Chichester considers falconry a sport beyond compare.

She says, “Under no other circumstances can an American handle a bird of prey in as close to natural a manner as falconry requires, getting to see the rawest form of nature’s relationships—predator versus prey—and being able to make that awareness of our wild neighbors an integral part of our everyday lives.”,,,

A beginner lesson at The Homestead costs $89 per adult (ages 12 and up) and $74 per child (ages 5 to 11). At The Greenbrier, registered guests under age 12 are free; adults pay $120 or may participate in private group lessons at differing rates.

This article originally appeared Jan. 7, 2015

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