Falconry: What do you do during your lunch break?

by Alex Robinson

Grant Anderson often takes an unusual lunch break.

His restaurant of choice is a small cattail pond encircled by brush, wedged between Midway Stadium and the St. Paul campus. His lunch companion is a 5-year-old red-tailed hawk named Abbey.

Anderson is the president of the Minnesota Falconers Association, and about four times a week he takes his pet hawk, Abbey, hunting.

There are two basic divisions of falconry: Those who hunt with hawks and those who hunt with falcons.

Hawks perch in trees and wait for rabbits or squirrels to be flushed by their human companions, compared to falcons that soar up to 1,000 feet in the air waiting for game birds like pheasants or quail to fly from cover below them.

Falconry has been around for centuries, and was originally a sport designated for royalty. Now the sport is open to anyone, but only a relatively small group of people participate.

Lori Arent, clinic manager for the Raptor Center on the St. Paul campus, said she got started in falconry about five years ago because she wanted to learn more about birds of prey.

An injured prairie falcon came to the center and wasn’t responding to treatment, so one of Arent’s friends suggested they rehabilitate the bird through falconry. The rehabilitation worked, the injured falcon was successfully released into the wild and Arent has been hooked ever since.

“I really decided that what I could learn through falconry could greatly benefit the birds (at the Raptor Center),” Arent said. “But falconry can be very addictive.”

Arent said watching the birds hunt helps her judge what abilities they need to survive in the wild.

Falcons and hawks are trained through positive reinforcement with food, and falconers watch their birds’ weight to make sure they are hungry enough to want to hunt, Arent said.

Falconers also bring food scraps with them to make sure their bird comes back when the hunt is over.

“It really is pretty technical, because if you go too high above their weight range your bird won’t want to come down,” Arent said.

Most falconers acquire their birds by catching them from the wild with specialized snare traps, Arent said.

Birds are only allowed to be taken captive if they are younger than one year old.

“So many first-year birds die in the wild,” Arent said. “If they haven’t figured out how to hunt by the time the weather gets bad or their parents kick them out, they’re going to have a really hard time finding food.”

Arent said she enjoys falconry because it’s based on a regular predator-and-prey relationship.

“It’s a pretty fair situation when you’re hunting with a hawk,” Arent said. “It’s a normal predator-prey relationship and you just get to enjoy seeing it.”

However, some people are not as enthusiastic about falconry as Arent.

Gil Schwartz, campaign coordinator for Compassionate Action for Animals, said while his organization isn’t officially against falconry, he believes all animal’s interests should be taken into account.

“With hunting there are still a lot of ethical issues that go into it,” Schwartz said. “We believe all animals deserve moral consideration.”

Falconry is different from normal hunting in some respects because the birds miss their prey so often, Arent said.

Wednesday afternoon Anderson was a witness to how hawks can sometimes miss their prey.

Weaving his way through the cattails, Anderson flushed three rabbits in about an hour. Abbey quickly spotted the rabbits and dove from her perch, but came up empty-taloned all three times.

After another 30 minutes Anderson scared up a rabbit next to an abandoned railroad track and Abbey swooped down on top of it.

For the hawk, lunch was served.

“Essentially everything she catches goes back to her,” Anderson said. “She just brings me along for the hunt.”