MIDDLEBURG — Millennia before guns were invented a man hunted wild game with a trained raptor, or bird of prey.
Falconry is the ancient art and sport of hunting with a bird of prey as the weapon, Mike Dupuy told an audience of about 200, gathered at Christ Community United Methodist Church in Selinsgrove.
Dupuy, a master falconer, presented a program on falconry at the Snyder County Conservation District’s annual awards banquet March 7 at the church.
With a trained falcon perched on his fist, Dupuy walked among his audience, keeping up a steady banter that was part education and part humor, but all reflected his sheer enjoyment of the sport.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there. I try to educate people about the bird of prey,’’ he said.
As he mingled with the audience, an almost imperceptible movement of his wrist signaled the falcon to flex its wings, drawing “ooohs’’ from onlookers.
Although falconry is associated largely with European heraldry, it has been used for 4,000 years, he said.
A falcon is defined as any bird of prey of the family Falconidae and especially of the genus Falco. Females are called falcons while the males, one-third smaller, are known as tiercels. Both males and females hunt and are generally referred to as falcons, Dupuy explained.
“A true falcon has long, pointy wings and is a very distinctive bird of prey, with a very distinctive body shape,’’ the Middleburg man said.
Falconry, however, is a technical term, like an umbrella term, that covers a variety of raptors, including falcons, hawks, eagles and owls.
“It’s like saying you have a dog. There are different breeds, but they’re still a dog,’’ he said.
Dupuy owns three hawks now, a Saker falcon — which is a true falcon — a northern goshawk and a Harris hawk.
The Saker falcon, Hollywood, will be a year old in May and still has its mottled, immature feathers. It will have entirely different plumage as an adult.
Hannah, the goshawk, has brown, mottled plumage but will molt into her adult plumage. She will be 1 year old in June and will have a slate gray back and white front.
Copper, the Harris hawk, is mature and began laying eggs last year.
Dupuy is in the process of obtaining a propagation permit to have Copper bred. Then he will have to have a special permit to keep her offspring until they can be sold, then revert to his regular permit after the young birds are gone.
The difference in immature and adult plumage is natural to most species of hawks.
“The red-tailed hawk doesn’t even get its red tail til the second year,’’ he said.
Harris hawks “will scream at you, but they won’t bite,’’ Dupuy said. “Goshawks will look right at you and they’ll pinch.’’
He has owned kestrels, red-tails (sparrow hawks), a European goshawk and a hybrid Gyr-Saker falcon.
Vermin to sacrosanct
Hawks were considered vermin for many years in history, Dupuy said.
“Now, to have even one feather is illegal. From vermin to sacrosanct,’’ he said.
“If you have one bird of prey, you have very strict laws to live by.’’
Nor do you own the bird, even if it you caught it, took it from a nest or it was hatched in captivity and you paid thousands of dollars for it, he said.
“I can buy a $1,000 bird from a breeder, and it’s still the government’s. If a bird of prey is born in captivity, it’s still a wild bird,’’ he explained.
Laws regulating falconry and owning a bird of prey are very strict and there is voluminous paperwork involved in keeping one, Dupuy said.
Because all raptors are protected by state, federal and international law, all potential falconers must obtain necessary permits before acquiring a hawk or practicing falconry. This can take a lot of time, since the process includes passing a written falconry exam.
Becoming a master falconer is, at least, a seven-year journey that makes intense demands of time and energy on the practitioner. Finishing the apprenticeship alone takes at least two years, and many rules apply along the way.
After the apprenticeship, a practitioner may become a general falconer. The age of the individual and the permit itself dictates the amount and kinds of hawks that may be owned.
It takes another five years, minimum, after becoming a general falconer to become a master falconer.
A considerable amount of money is involved, in addition to that expended obtaining the falcon. Expenses include food, shelter, equipment, veterinary costs, permits and fees and travel.
Housing and equipment requirements are mandated by state and federal law, and the facilities must be inspected before the falconer may obtain a hawk. Access to expanses of land where appropriate game is available also is a must.
Dupuy said there is a movement afoot to change the rules, since the sport is becoming more widespread.
There now are about 4,000 falconers in the United States and some 30,000 worldwide, he said.
Dupuy initially became interested in falconry through reading the book, “My Side of the Mountain,’’ by Jean Craighead George. He did some research and became an apprentice to a master falcon.
He has been in falconry since age 16.
Hunting with a falcon requires a Pennsylvania hunting license “just like any other hunter,’’ takes place during regular seasons and normal bag limits apply, Dupuy said. The exception is hunting on a game preserve where paid hunting is permitted out of season.
The hawks wear bells on their legs to help the hunter locate them when they can’t be seen.
Dupuy hunts with a trained bird dog. He uses an English pointer and, occasionally, a dachshund, for rabbits.
He carries a game bag with two compartments, one for the game and one for falcon food.
The bird is carried on the falconer’s fist, which is protected by a heavy, leather glove called a gauntlet. The bird is hooded until the falconer sets it free.
During the hunt, the falcon flies at an altitude ranging from “20 feet to thousands of feet,’’ Dupuy said.
When the quarry is flushed, the falcon usually spies it first, or the hunter can signal the falcon. The bird swoops down, catches the prey and sits on it until the hunter arrives. The bird does not retrieve the game as a dog would do, Dupuy explained.
“The minute they start carrying it, you can’t fly and they’re at the top of a tree, eating.’’
The falcon catches its prey only about half the time, Dupuy said, adding, “The game, by nature, runs away and hides. Not every chase ends in a catch.’’
The game usually is fed to the falcon later, but he’ll keep pheasants for the family dinner table, Dupuy admitted.
A typical hunting outing with a falcon will be from two to four hours, Dupuy said. When ready to go home, he will call the bird back to his fist with a whistle. Then Dupuy will put it in a “giant hood,’’ which is a ventilated box with a perch where the bird can sit as it waits in darkness. This always is his method of transporting his birds.
At home the birds are free to roam in the falcon house, which is, according to law, 24 by 12 by 12 feet in dimension.
Obtaining a falcon
Falconry — or “hawking’’ — can be done legally in every state in the United States, except Hawaii, Dupuy said, adding that Hawaii is exempted “because of its unique and fragile ecosystem.’’
A falcon can be obtained by three methods: catching it, taking it from a nest or purchasing it from a breeder. A few can be trapped.
“About the only thing that gets me up early is for hawk trapping,’’ Dupuy said.
His primary method of catching wild hawks is the process he calls “skyfishing,’’ where the blue expanse of the sky is his “sea’’ and bait on a tether is his fishing gear.
This is accomplished as he tosses a piece of bait — he prefers a pigeon — with a fine tether attached, out the sunroof of the car as he drives along. The trick is to snare the hawk when it attaches itself to the prey.
“It’s similar to a hunt. You’re giving them an opportunity they can’t pass up. They’re predators looking for opportunities.’’ Dupuy explained.
“People think you're crazy when you throw a pigeon out of your car,’’ he quipped.
He added that some people use an animated, artificial dove as bait to trick the bird, but he prefers using live bait.
He occasionally uses still traps with pigeons in a compartment on the bottom, in which the pigeons never get hurt.
Taking a nestling from the nest can be a hair-raising experience, but it works, Dupuy said. However, the falconer always must leave at least one nestling or the parents will abandon the nest completely.
In his program, Dupuy offers his audience an opportunity to watch a video of his adventures in retrieving a goshawk nestling from a nest 45 feet high in a tree at an altitude of 7,000 feet in Nevada. He said he was exhausted from climbing in the thin air at that altitude, all the while fending off attacks by the mother hawk.
Go or stay
How do you know the hawk won’t fly away when released?
“You don’t,’’ Dupuy said.
“They’re wild birds and they have a mind of their own. I lost a few birds when I was first starting out — one of them never came back.’’
In his presentations, Dupuy launches into the tale of his prized Saker falcon getting lost last Halloween, after he had used her for a photo shoot for an advertisement. She was wearing a tracking device at the time.
Poking fun at himself and chuckling about encounters with law officers who asked why he was sitting in the dark in front of a house (where he’d picked up a tracking signal), he related the tale of “Hollywood.’’
The signal in a house in Juniata County turned out to be an electronic glitch. No falcon.
“I was all over the country in the middle of the night,’’ he said, adding that he told an inquiring law officer in Juniata County, “Oh, I’m just looking for a hawk.’’
Unable to locate Hollywood, he went about his planned business, but kept the receiver tuned to the hawk’s channel.
Five days after the falcon flew away, Dupuy received a call from a woman in southern Virginia. The falcon had been found sitting in the middle of a road near her workplace in Moneta, at Smith Mountain Lake, near the North Carolina border.
He said he was relieved to know that Hollywood was alive and apparently unhurt, although she was very hungry and had lost a lot of muscle tone.
Dupuy estimated the falcon had flown 365 miles, far beyond average. He drove more than 600 miles and spent more than $150 in gas to get her back.
He speculated that the young bird may have been chased by a red-tailed hawk and driven high into the sky where she may have joined a group of migrating birds. He has seen her catch a thermal and soar well above 3,000 feet, he added.
On April 6, as Dupuy entered his falcon house, Hollywood absconded a second time and has not been seen since.
Because she was not supposed to be outside, she was not wearing a tracking transponder or bell. She is wearing one leg strap with Dupuy’s name and reward information, he said.
Dupuy said the Saker falcon appeared to be waiting to escape and swooped out as the door was opened.
“I think she’s been thinking about the wild blue yonder where she flew before and decided she wanted to be there again,’’ he added.
Is the bird that valuable? Is it worth the effort to work so hard to locate and retrieve it? The answer is simple, Dupuy said, and it doesn’t have much to do with personal investment of time or money.
“It’s your bird. It is attached to you by license permit,’’ he said. “If I lose a bird, I’m committed to that bird. I’ll try to find it and get it back.’’
Just what do birds of prey eat?
In the wild, they’ll eat living critters up to the size of a duck, a small turkey or a jackrabbit, but usually they choose smaller prey.
In captivity, they need to be fed fresh food — quail, rats, mice, day-old chicks (cockerels). They average from 4 to 6 ounces of food a day.
The need among falconers for such food led to Dupuy’s ancillary business — Mike Dupuy Hawk Food — in which he ships frozen hawk food to about 400 customers all over the United States.
“We’re approaching a million individual units a year,’’ he said. “Some (customers) get as many as 10,000 units a month.’’
Dupuy raises his own quail and mice, gets day-old chicks from a hatchery and some animals from labs.
“I have quite a few people employed. And we have a couple of contractors for us,’’ he said.
Even as a frozen commodity, recently frozen food has the best nutritional value as raptor food, he said.
Hither and yon
Also a motivational speaker, the Haitian-born Dupuy travels all over the United States and internationally, teaching the benefits of falconry and related conservation issues.
Last July he was a speaker at the Falconry Festival in Reading, England, which was attended by falconers from 31 countries, including Poland, Japan and China, “and some countries I couldn’t even pronounce,’’ he said. He also has attended the British Falconry Fair in Newport, England.
He plans to attend the International Association of Falconers meeting in South Africa in July, as an appointed delegate from the North American Falconers Association.
Dupuy will walk along with another falconer on a hunt in foreign countries, but does not take his own birds on international jaunts, citing strict and complicated regulations for moving birds internationally. He described the process as “a big nightmare.’’
His speaking engagements range from university lectures to private parties — and a lot of Boy Scout meetings, he said.
“There are really diverse people who are interested in falconry,’’ he said.
Dupuy’s media credits include television commercials, films, videos, print and the Internet.
He has appeared in such diverse media as National Geographic magazine and the Washington Post newspaper.
Once, in a film, he said, “I was in a black beard with a hawk on my shoulder. That was a long time ago. I never have seen the film.’’
He now is in the process of making a TV documentary on falconry.
For the present
Right now Dupuy’s falcons are going through a period known as the molt, where they lose their feathers.
“For the most part, it’s like a vacation for them. They just sit back and (are) fed,’’ Dupuy said.
Some falconers fly their birds frequently, all year. He tries to get each one out a couple of times a week for most of the year. They can fly when they molt, but Dupuy prefers to let them rest, he said.
They don’t forget their training, he said, adding, “Once they’re trained it’s kind of like learning to ride a bicycle — you never forget.
Dupuy, a graduate of Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., lives with his wife, Christine, a graphic artist, and their children, Brooke, 15, and Marshall, 12, near Middleburg.
The children show an interest in his falconry but have not indicated any inclination to join in his sport.
“We don’t push them. That’s up to them,’’ he said.
For himself, Dupuy said, “Falconry is like a virus when it gets into you. It’s a passion.’’
Dupuy can be reached at (570) 837-1551, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is mikedupuyfalconry.com.