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Falconry, an ancient form of hunting, finds new devotees

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The red-tailed hawk sat perched on the twisted limb of an old, dead tree, its eyes locked on the woman traipsing through the briars and thickets below.

Wherever Jade Chen went, Candy Corn, the hawk, followed. Sometimes Chen, 33, had to blow a small whistle around her neck to nudge him.

“Come on, boy,” she said.

Chen wore a thick, leather glove called a gauntlet that extended up her arm, and when she raised it, Candy Corn swooped down through the forest in silence toward her. Little bells on his legs jingled when he landed on her hand. Then he was off again, looking for a tree from which to best look at Chen.

“Let’s find a rabbit,” she said to the bird.

Chen, a Lansdale native who lives in Mechanicsburg, Dauphin County, is a second-year apprentice falconer, one of just 204 people in Pennsylvania licensed to take part in falconry, one of the world’s most ancient forms of hunting. Falconry’s origins have been traced back thousands of years to Mongolia and Iran, considered both a high art and a way to find food. Falconry is unique in hunting because the bird, not its handler, is the hunter.

“I like to think of it as a working relationship,” said Courtney Douds, a master falconer who lives in West Philadelphia and acts as Chen’s “sponsor.” (Douds, a therapist, was profiled in The Inquirer in 2018.)

On this cold, dreary morning on a hilly property where she obtained permission to hunt, 13 miles northeast of Harrisburg, Chen is wearing thick chaps and boots and carrying a long staff that she’ll use to beat the brush and, ideally, flush a rabbit. Candy Corn would do the rest. For a hunt to be successful, the raptor needs to be hungry and weighed daily. Chen has brought bits of quail, which she also weighed, to feed the bird, along with a live quail in case Candy Corn’s hunt is unsuccessful. She warned the homeowner to put the chickens away.

“Oh, he’d take a chicken in a heartbeat,” she said. “That would be an easy meal for him.”

Unlike a hunting dog purchased from a breeder, falcons and hawks used for falconry are usually wild animals. Apprentices must trap, train, and care for them in home enclosures called mews during the season, which generally runs from late fall to spring. One of the most popular traps is a “bal-chatri,” an ancient, efficient design with nooses that ensnare the bird’s legs as it tries to get the live bait inside. The bird must be a “passage juvenile,” meaning it is about to enter its first winter and is generally smaller than an adult. Candy Corn, Chen said, is likely six to eight months old.

“You drive around, look for birds in open fields or on telephone wires, and you just pull over and throw the trap,” Chen said.

Apprentices become general falconers after two years of training and later are named masters. Falconers in the upper ranks are able to buy birds from licensed breeders or sometimes remove them from nests. Some raptors can be purchased for a few hundred dollars while others can reach six figures. Chen said most falconers trap them. The process is regulated by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and federal Fish and Wildlife laws apply to most of the birds because they are migratory. In some rare instances, with the right permit, falconers can keep large golden eagles, which can be used to hunt red fox, formidable predators on their own.

“To see the amount of power a 10-pound golden eagle can generate is a sight to behold,” said Patrick Miller, eastern director for the Pennsylvania Falconry & Hawk Trust, a statewide group that runs annual meets and advocates for hunting with the birds.

Miller helped Chen trap Candy Corn in the fall. He also keeps a red-tailed hawk, which is even-keeled, more used to humans and development, the “Ford truck” of the raptor family. He’s also worked with northern goshawks, which he likened to “Ferraris,” very fast and formidable, but also high-maintenance.

Falconry itself requires a degree of maintenance that weeds out the merely curious, Miller said. The hawks and falcons, no matter how long a falconer has worked with them, are never pets and require daily attention. The entire relationship between bird and human is based on food and positive reinforcement, the whole reason why a bird, once released by the falconer, doesn’t simply fly away. (That does happen on occasion.)

“The love is always one-way,” he said. “They don’t wag their tails when they see you. They want you to give them food and go away.”

Even wild hawks and falcons, Miller said, will use humans to secure a meal. They’ll gather when farmers cut hay, which flushes game. When he first takes a bird out on a hunt, Miller said, he will let it gorge on food: “You find prey for your bird, (and) your relationship with that animal is sealed in blood.”

Falconry can also be dangerous for the handler. A red-tailed hawk’s talon grip is 200 pounds per square inch. The average grip of a man in his early 20s is 100 psi. Chen, a tattoo artist, said an earlier hawk she was training dug its talons into her knuckle, piercing bone, and resulting in an infection that landed her in the hospital.

“That was a rookie mistake,” she said.

Although there are occasional run-ins with the public or animal rights groups over the trapping, Miller said the process is usually harmless and often helps the bird survive a very precarious period in what is typically a short life, often less than 10 years. Falconers often allow their birds to return to the wild after a year.

“Of the birds born this year, 88% will die,” he said. “We’re giving them a year of safety, of free room and board and training.”

On this January morning, Chen flushed a rabbit, but Candy Corn didn’t see it. Instead, he found a vole, diving with wings tucked into the brush to gobble it up. Chen was disappointed. The meal meant Candy Corn wouldn’t be as keen on looking for rabbits. Still, she fed him pieces of quail on a leather “lure” to reward and reinforce, and the live quail in her bag lived to die another day.

Chen, who became enamored of the sport when she adopted a dog from a falconer, will graduate to a general falconer in August, and masters say she’ll be committed for life like the rest of them.

“Hunting is like riding a car and falconry is like riding a motorcycle,” said Mike Dupuy, a master falconer from Snyder County. “Of all the hunting sports, it’s the most Zenlike.”

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