Thousands of years before guns, before camo gear and scopes, before laser guidance systems and weaponised drones, there was falconry.
Falconry is the training of birds of prey to hunt wild quarry in their natural habitat. It is an ancient and mysterious art, with the knowledge of how to bend the will of these powerful apex predators to work with their human partners passed on over the millennia, from ancient Mesopotamia and Mongolia, through medieval Europe, all the way to Kentuckian falconer, Hannah Ozment.
DSM: You describe yourself as a “Tamer of feathered dragons”. Is that an accurate description of the amazing creatures you work with? And at what point on a date does one bring up that you train killer raptors?
HO: I like to refer to them as feathered dragons. They might not breathe fire but they are very proud creatures and can do some damage if they’d want. It’s amazing to see progress and to be able to work so close with a bird that was wild just weeks before.
DSM: Everyone reading this probably loves the idea of being their own miniature Khaleesi, but we probably don’t understand the huge challenge it is to become a licenced falconer. How did you get into it originally and get to the rank of Master Falconer? Are you a master yet? That’s got to be one of the coolest titles ever…
HO: I have always had a deep admiration for animals, especially wildlife. While in elementary school, I read a book called “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead George.
In the book, the main character runs away, lives in the woods, and raises a Peregrine Falcon named ‘Frightful’ that he trains and hunts with. The book really stuck with me and created a love for birds of prey.
“As time went on, the love of raptors never went away. Once I figured out that falconry was a real thing that people still practiced, I dived into learning every single thing I could about it.”
It took a few years before I was in the position that I could actually go through the process of becoming licensed, but as soon as the opportunity arose, I jumped on it. I love falconry so much because it gives you a personal insight into the lives of these birds. Not many people get to watch a Red Tail corkscrew around a tree chasing a squirrel, or watch as they stoop through the air and crash into the brush in pursuit of a rabbit.
“They recognize the symbiosis early on in the relationship and choose to return time and time again, even though the opportunity to fly away is present at every moment of the hunt.”
Falconry is extremely regulated. Each state has their own set of laws along with federal regulations that govern it. In my state of Kentucky, you have to pass a written exam, build a mews (large outdoor enclosure for the birds to live in), have the mews inspected by the fish and wildlife department, and lastly you have to have a sponsor. A sponsor is somebody who has been doing falconry for a long time and they are willing to mentor you for your first two years.
“Basically, you are an apprentice for two years, a general for five years, and after that you are considered a master falconer.”
As an apprentice you can only have one bird, a general can have up to three, and a master can unlimited captive bred birds and a limited number of wild-caught.
DSM: Do you have a favourite bird you work with? Do individual raptors have different personalities like the more traditional pets most of us are familiar with?
HO: I really enjoy working with Red-tailed Hawks. I prefer to hunt squirrels and they are the perfect predator to do so.
“Each raptor does have a different personality. Some are more mellow, like Red-tailed Hawks, while others are like a tight coil, ready to react at any hair trigger, such as Cooper’s hawks or Goshawks.”
DSM: To train a bird takes many hours of commitment, expertise and money. You must be out training and caring for your birds for hours every week right? What keeps you motivated to put in this huge amount of effort into your craft?
HO: It is a lot of work. There is no reason to have a raptor unless the goal is to fly and hunt it as often as possible. While training initially, I spend a couple hours a day with the bird.
“Once they are trained and flying free, I am in the woods at least four days out of the week.”
Also, these birds have strict diets, you cannot just pour their food out of a bag like a dog. They must eat whole prey and other raw meats to stay healthy.
“There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a hawk flying free, when at any moment she could just fly away, but instead she chooses to return to the glove time and time again.”
Being right there, watching and participating in her hunt is the most amazing thing, it is hard to explain. Not many people get the opportunity to be that close to nature, watching what the hawk would be doing in the wild, twenty feet away.
DSM: Do you have a dream bird that you’d love to have a go at training? What’s the next challenge on your list?
HO: I really love my Red-tailed hawks, and will most likely always have one, but I would like to try a Cooper’s hawk next. They are built for quick acceleration and take off like rockets after smaller birds. They are known to be a bit high strung, but I am definitely up for the challenge.
To tag along with Hannah go follow her on Instagram @hozzyhawke