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with Mike Farley, Master Falconer

By Michael Byrne - March, 2014

As hunters, we are fortunate to experience nature up close and personal, as we sit silently in the woods and marshes, waiting for our prey to reveal itself for the inevitable demise that awaits it. We are after all, descendants of primordial beings whose basic instinct was to hunt for food. However, we are not the only hunters in the woods. There is another among us whose instincts run much deeper than ours. Her skills have been honed through generations of descendants that have come before her. She is a trained killer, a master assassin, the tip of the dagger. She does not have the luxury of coming home empty handed and hunts as if her life depended upon it.  Her name is “Buteo jamaicensis” more commonly known to us as the red-tailed hawk.

The red-tailed hawk is a bird of prey that breeds throughout most of North America, from western Alaska and northern Canada to as far south as Panama and the West Indies, and is one of the most common raptors in North America. red-tailed hawks can acclimate to all the biomes within their range. There are fourteen recognized subspecies, which vary in appearance and range. It is one of the largest members of the genus Buteo in North America, typically weighing from 690 to 1,600 g (1.52 to 3.53 lb.) and measuring 45–65 cm (18–26 in) in length, with a wingspan ranging from 4-1/2 to 5 feet. The red-tailed hawk displays sexual dimorphism in size, with females averaging about 25% heavier than males.

The red-tailed hawk occupies a wide range of habitats and altitudes, including deserts, grasslands, coniferous and deciduous forests, tropical rainforests, agricultural fields and urban areas. It lives throughout the North American continent, except in areas of the high arctic. It is legally protected in Canada, Mexico and the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The red-tailed hawk is a popular bird in falconry, particularly in the United States where the sport of falconry is tightly regulated at the federal and state levels. There are fewer than 5,000 falconers in the United States and fewer than 50 who practice the sport on Long Island. Because they are so common and easily trained as capable hunters, the majority of hawks captured for falconry in the United States are red-tails. Falconers are permitted to take only passage hawks which have left the nest and are on their own, but are less than a year old, so as to not affect the breeding population. Adults, which may be breeding or rearing chicks, may not be taken for falconry purposes and is illegal to do so. Passage red-tailed hawks are also preferred by falconers because these younger birds have not yet developed adult behaviors, which would make training substantially more challenging.

mike with red-tailDuring the course of a hunt, a falconer using a red-tailed hawk most commonly releases the hawk and allows it to perch in a tree or other high vantage point. The falconer, then attempts to flush prey by stirring up ground cover. A well-trained red-tailed hawk will follow the falconer, realizing that their activities produce opportunities to catch game, benefiting both the falconer and the hawk. Once a raptor catches game, it does not bring it back to the falconer. Instead, the falconer must locate the bird and its captured prey, carefully approach and trade the bird its kill in exchange for a piece of offered meat.

I was fortunate to be able to accompany Mike Farley on a recent hunt, on Long Island’s east end, at the DEC Ridge Hunter Check Station. Mike is a Master Falconer with nearly 20 years of experience working with these majestic birds as well as other species of raptors to include Peregrine Falcons, Saker Falcons and Lanner Falcons.

Mike stated his eureka moment came while taking a class on ornithology in the spring of 1997, at Nassau Community College. A group of local falconers were guests in his class giving a demonstration about the birds and their use in falconry. He was so taken with the experience, he obtained his falconers license that same year. After receiving his license, things moved very quickly for him. Shortly thereafter, he was offered a position giving instructional seminars on birds of prey at the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center in Oyster Bay. Mike explained, given the complexity of working with wild raptors, it is mandatory for beginner falconers to work as an apprentice with a Master Falconer for a period of 2 years before they can be upgraded to a general class falconer and no longer be under the guidance of his/her sponsor.

From the ages of 19-25, he held jobs dealing entirely with raptors. Mike stayed with the nature center until 1999. After leaving the sanctuary, he worked for the Queens College Environmental Center as a naturalist, specializing in birds of prey, focusing on research and education. His depth of knowledge and experience would lead him to Kennedy Airport where he was hired as a professional falconer, to assist with controlling the bird population at the airfield. While at Kennedy Airport, he took the exam for the Port Authority Police and was hired in 2006. Although his career path would guide him in a different direction and he would never again be paid as a professional, he never lost the thrill of hunting with his birds and continues to do so to date. He yearns for the next shot of adrenaline he gets from watching a falcon several hundred feet above, waiting for the flush, when the prey is chased from cover. knowing his partner is high up in a tree above, following, watching, and waiting for the moment to strike is what satisfies his need for adventure.

Mike says hunting with birds of prey is a fulltime commitment. While in captivity, his birds are completely dependent on him for exercise, food and general health needs. During the hunting season, which runs from October 1st. – March 31st., he flies his birds 6 days a week to keep them flying at peak performance, or as Mike puts it, “flying at their fighting weight”.

mike with hawk2During the hunt, Mike says he is just an observer in the battle of predator versus prey and is merely a pawn in the game of seek and destroy. He has always had a tremendous amount of respect for what could only be described as the perfect killing machine. He revels in the hunt and thrives on the excitement of the chase. Mike explains, “there is nothing like the adrenaline rush I get when her prey is flushed and she launches from her perch in full on attack mode. It is truly awe inspiring to witness nature’s raw, visceral and unbridled power.”

As our hunt progressed, we managed to flush a few rabbits, but like a skilled fighter pilot, she methodically engaged her targets by calculating which flush would afford her an optimal kill without injury to herself. The cat and mouse game continued for a while until one of the rabbits made the costly mistake of scampering into the open, giving her a clear line of site. She lunged from the tree top, folded her wings and with lightning speed and grace latched onto her prey with razor sharp talons. Her grip was like a black hole where nothing could escape. For a brief moment, one couldn’t help but feel compassion for the rabbit, who so unwittingly gave its life to fulfill the cycle of life. But, this is a game that has been played out for eons, with or without man as an accomplice. It is one of nature’s cruelest ironies; in order for one to flourish, another must perish.

After observing this hunt, I can honestly say, I understand what drives and compels Mike to do what he does. It is beyond question a gratuitous labor of love with tremendous emotional reward. As I walked through the underbrush and gazed upon her gliding from perch to perch, I would glance down at the traffic hastily moving by, on the nearby highway, not more than a few hundred feet from us. I kept thinking to myself, how lucky I was to be able to toss life aside for a while and simply cherish and enjoy this gift. The privilege of being part of a world that most will seldom experience first hand seems almost selfish. When I am caught up in moments like this, I like to refer to a favorite quote of mine by Ralph Waldo Emerson - “To the dull mind, nature is leaden, to the illumined mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light.” Emerson was certainly wise to know that there are things in this world that are larger and more significant than ourselves and we would do well to set out and discover them for ourselves. I have always loved and admired birds of prey and will forever peer skyward in the hopes re-living the experience.

Furthermore, I have a new found respect for the dedication and commitment that falconers must posses in order to pursue their passion. These birds are not pets, they are wild animals that have learned to adapt to life with a human partner. It is not an easy task to coerce nature to bend at one’s will, but with skill and patience, a symbiotic partnership can be cultivated, albeit short lived. For the most part, falconers will keep a wild bird in captivity for a period of 3 to 4 years before releasing them back into the wild. On that final flight, I can’t help but wonder how gratifying it must be to know that for a brief time one can create such an indelible mark on nature and it, in turn, can leave its sustainable mark on us.




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