Is Falconry Right For You?

Is Falconry Right For You?

Tell someone you’re a falconer and instantly you have their attention.  The intrigue of falconry for almost anyone can’t be denied. After all, you have somehow managed to convince a wild bird of prey to let you hunt with them and actually trained this wild bird to return to you on command, or so it may appear.

Falconry is an ancient sport that has been around for thousands of years. Long before the advent of guns, people were training birds of prey to hunt small game for them. These birds were not pets, they became companions and were elevated to an almost royal status and treated as such. These traditions are still practiced today. It is not uncommon for falconers to be out hunting, just them and their bird, and to what may appear to the untrained observer, carrying on a very much one-sided conversation with the bird.

That said, becoming a falconer is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do in your life. You will develop a trusted bond with a wild animal and get to see for the first time in your life that a wild animal has a spirit unlike anything you’ve ever encountered before. So if you enjoy hunting, the outdoors, and nature in its purest forms, then falconry may just be the sport for you.

When considering becoming a falconer, it’s important to understand not only the laws surrounding the sport but the personal commitment as well. You will need to ask yourself a few very important questions.

1. Do you have the time? You are taking on the serious responsibility of caring for, training, and hunting with a wild animal. Several hours a day for training and daily chores such as feeding and weighing are necessary.

2. Do you have patience? Wild birds of prey are not trained (manned) overnight. They require a few hours a day of training (manning) for several weeks and this takes patients.  Any visible frustration, negative reinforcement, or anger towards the bird will only set your training back, possibly ruin your bird, and most of all, will not be tolerated by your sponsor or fellow falconers.

3. Are you squeamish? These birds hunt just as they would in the wild, they show no mercy for their prey. It will be your responsibility to help them quickly dispatch their prey, this not only minimizes the risk of injury to your bird but as hunters, whether we hunt with a gun, bow, or bird, it’s our responsibility to ensure and offer the most ethical and humane assistance we can. If you are unable to stomach a rabbit, bird, or other small prey being killed in a somewhat violent manner you may not want to get into the sport.

It’s important to note here, it is required by law that you hunt with your bird. The laws do not allow for what is sometimes referred to as the “Harry Potter” falconer. This is a person who’s only interested in walking around with a snowy owl on your glove for the “wow” factor to show off to your friends and not hunting with them. This is not only illegal, but harmful to the bird’s well-being.

If you believe you have what it takes and can commit time to the bird, your first step will be to download the Alaska Falconers Manual. The manual contains valuable information about current laws and minimum requirements for housing and equipment.

The Alaska Falconry Manual contains information on housing (mews) requirements and equipment but it is highly recommended that you find a sponsor before trying to build a mew or buying any equipment. The manual only contains the basics and your sponsor can help you avoid common mistakes and save you money fixing those mistakes. The falconry coordinator for your area at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will inspect your mew and equipment before issuing your permit, rest assured, they will also consult with your sponsor for their opinion as well.

So this begs the question, should I look for a sponsor or study and take my exam first?

In days past, access to information was hard to come by and you absolutely needed a sponsor or had to get to know a falconer in order to gather the information need to pass the exam. Today, however, information is at our fingertips, and access to books and publications has never been easier. There is a wealth of information, videos, and books that are easy to come by.  Check out our recommended reading list.

Some sponsors want to see you’re committed and able to learn, so passing your exam first may help you find a sponsor quicker. Note that a potential sponsor most likely won’t firmly commit to taking you on as an apprentice until you pass your falconry exam. Think of the exam as part of an interview process, your knowledge and ability to pass the exam goes a long way with potential sponsor.

Finding a Sponsor

You will need to find a general falconer that’s had their general permit for a minimum of two years or a Master falconer to sponsor you. Some sponsors prefer you pass your exam prior to them committing to taking you on as an apprentice. They will give advice but until you pass they will most likely not commit to being your sponsor. You’ll spend a minimum of two years as an apprentice and during this time you must be under the watchful eye of a sponsor. They are there to help and guide you through all the things not found in the manual and make sure your bird is safe and healthy. They will give you advice on reading materials and provide you with the information you will need to not only pass your exam but also create a safe and healthy environment for your bird.

There are several factors to consider when looking for a sponsor. First is your location, though not necessary,  the closer you are to your sponsor the more convenient it is. We live in an age of technology and with such things as cell phones and video calls it make distance less important.

The next thing is your personality, while I have found most Falconers in Alaska to be very helpful and genuinely good people, your personalities should be as close to compatible as possible. You will be working closely for at least the next two years. Though not a huge problem it should be considered. Finally, you MUST be able to take criticism and not take it personally, you will most definitely make mistakes and be corrected from time to time by your sponsor and occasionally it may even be sternly. Listen to them carefully and follow their directions.

The safety of these birds is their top priority and they take it seriously.

Preparing for the Exam

You should be gaining the necessary information on building your mews, the proper equipment, and where to buy it or how to make it yourself. Some sponsors may require you to make your own equipment such as traps, jesses, and anklets, just to make sure that you know how. Don’t worry this is not really difficult and it’s a lot of fun.

Alaska Falconer Association Facebook page and other falconers are your most valuable resource at this point, they will guide you to reading materials on subjects you will need to be proficient in. Primarily, you’ll need to be familiar with Alaska’s falconry regulations and standards, caring for raptors in Alaska’s extreme climate conditions, raptor identification, and the natural history of Alaska raptors.  In addition, be prepared to know subjects such as birds of prey biology and common illnesses and how to treat them.

Take your Exam

You will need to schedule the exam with the local ADF&G falconry coordinator in your area. Their contacts are in the manual and listed by region. Once scheduled, review all of your material and relax. The test is 100 questions and if you’ve prepared you’ll do fine.

The test is a proctored exam and the Falconry Rep will stay near you while you complete the test and will most likely score it for you as soon as you’re done. If you pass your permit will be issued within a few weeks and you can begin trapping ops (after you give ADF&G notice). If you fail, you’ll need to wait 30 days before you can retake the test.

Trapping Ops

Once you’ve completed your mew, gathered the required equipment, past your exam, and have everything inspected, you’re ready to begin trapping. Again your sponsor will guide you in this endeavor. Knowing where, when, and how to trap is critical here in Alaska, mainly because the bird your sponsor will most likely require you to take as your first bird will be a Red-Tailed Hawk. They are more prevalent in some areas of the state than others and they migrate south beginning in late August and are generally into Canada by late September.

While trapping, it’s not required to have a companion with you but it does make things easier. You will be doing a lot of driving and looking up at power poles and treetops. You can become easily distracted while driving so it is best to have someone drive while you look around and deploy traps. You will want to take lots of pictures during trapping ops as it is one of the most memorable parts of being a falconer. Nothing beats getting a bird to jump to your glove for the first time, but trapping is definitely one of those special times.

This quote from one of our members sums it all up.   “It’s all about the bird.” – Dutch Overly

Want to know more? Join AFA today and gain access to a wealth of information from other Alaska falconers.

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