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For the week of June 14 through June 20, 2000

Falconry—primitive partnership between bird and man


"It’s not easy raising falcons. It requires lifelong commitment and responsibility. Falconry is 90 percent work and 10 percent recreation. You have to devote your life to the birds."

Falconer Charles Browning


By KEVIN WISER
Express Staff Writer

SHOSHONE—Falconer Charles Browning’s living room is fashioned like a shrine to birds of prey, a humble mausoleum in memory of the ancient sport of kings.

Eagle feathers are arranged in a vase like roses. Pictures of falcons, eagles, and hawks hang from the walls. The falcon’s wardrobe—tethers, bells and hoods—are displayed in a wood and glass case.

"This is my life’s passion," Browning said in a recent interview.

In a makeshift nest on a table next to a window, two downy white falcon chicks, their gullets bulging from a recent feeding, wobble like toddlers in a play pen.

"Once they get mobile they’ll be all over the house," Browning said, referring to the two-week-old chicks as if they were family infants learning to walk.

Training of the fledgling raptors has already begun through the bonding process between falcon and falconer.

"It’s not easy raising falcons," Browning said. "It requires lifelong commitment and responsibility. Falconry is 90 percent work and 10 percent recreation. You have to devote your life to the birds."

But for the 46-year-old Shoshone resident, who has been a falconer for 30 years, the rewards make it all worth it.

"It’s a major adrenaline rush when a falcon you’ve raised and trained catches wild quarry for the first time," Browning said. "You’re definitely involved, not just a spectator. Falconry is a partnership between you and the falcon."

Maddie is a 3-year-old captive bred falcon that Browning raised from an egg. With razor sharp talons she lightly grasps Browning’s gloved hand like a proud sentinel. He removes the falcon’s hood and her eyes burst open, wild and wary. Chirping, cooing and yakking, Maddie opens her hooked beak like a yawn, shifting her head from side to side, surveying everything around her with intelligent watchful grace.

Maddie, Browning and his dogs have spent countless days hunting the sage-covered hills and high desert prairies of south Blaine County.

"It’s just you, the falcon and dog in the middle of nowhere," Browning said. "You see incredible things no one else sees."

The hunt. he said, is a cooperative effort between the falconer, bird and dog.

"The falcon," Browning said, "rings up, rising in circles, gradually gaining altitude, then takes a pitch and waits for the dog to flush the game below."

Browning continued:

"When it all comes together it’s a pretty amazing thing. You can hear the stoop [dive] a mile away, a sizzling sound like bacon in the pan as the falcon folds up and swoops in on the quarry at well over 100 miles per hour."

Browning said he and his falcons primarily hunt sage grouse. Falconers are allowed a longer hunting season than other hunters—from September to March—because the sport has such a low impact on game bird populations. Last year, Falconers took one-half of one percent of all grouse taken in the state, Browning said.

Immediately after making the kill the falcon is rewarded the choicest parts such as the liver and heart. The breast becomes Browning’s dinner and the rest is put in the freezer to be fed to the falcons during the off-season. Nothing is wasted, Browning said.

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According to literature from the Iowa Falconer’s Association (IFA) Web site, falconry is an ancient sport. The first record of falconry dates back to 1700 B.C., the literature states.

"The office of the Royal Falconer was created in the courts of medieval kings around 900 B.C. The Royal Falconer ranked fourth from the king himself, and after a successful hunt, the king was obliged to rise as the falconer entered the dining hall," according to the IFA.

In the beginning, falcons and most birds of prey were protected in the Old World because they were valued as hunting companions. With the invention of firearms, however, the falcon lost its value as a hunting companion and became just another predator on the landscape. The falcon was no longer protected but instead shot on sight.

The destruction of raptors continued in America with the arrival of European settlers. Raptors were shot, trapped and poisoned because of real or imagined competition with hunters for wild game. It was not until the mid 1900s that raptor protection was enacted and the slaughter of birds of prey was prohibited.

Due to the Migratory Bird Treaty and the Endangered Species Act, a falconry licensing program was established in the United States to monitor and protect birds of prey from abuse and exploitation and to prevent incompetent people from entering the sport of falconry.

A strict process of apprenticeship and sponsoring has been established in the sport of falconry to protect birds of prey. A person must first pass a falconry examination to obtain a license. The apprentice must then find a falconer to sponsor him or her through the two-year term of apprenticeship, after which the apprentice may obtain a journeyman falconer’s license. A master falconer’s license is achieved after being a journeyman for five years.

The licensing program limits the type of birds the apprentice may train for the purpose of falconry. The apprentice is only allowed to have kestrels, red-tailed hawks or goshawks. The journeyman falconer is allowed to use a larger variety of hawks and falcons. The use of the golden eagle is reserved for master falconers only.

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There are those who believe it unethical to take birds of prey from the wild and place them in the charge of a falconer. Falconers, however, call their sport a natural form of art that involves interaction with the bird and interpretation of its behavior based on human intuition, which requires tuning one’s self into the ancient, primitive cycle of nature.

According to Browning, the responsibility of the falconer involves allowing the creature—whether it is captive bred or taken from the wild—to act naturally and instinctively in partnership with the falconer during the hunt.

In a book called "The Falconer’s Apprentice," author William C. Oakes writes, "It is not unnatural to capture a hawk and kill game with her. That is eminently natural. It is unnatural and unethical to remove a creature both from the wild and the natural order."

The main objective of the falconer is to train a bird to return to the fist when called through the bonding process, and then to hunt in partnership with the falconer.

However, Browning said, "it’s the bird’s choice to leave and fly away if it wants to."

According to Oakes, "The grace of falconry, the enduring appeal, lies not in raptor ownership. Rather, it lies in companionship. The companionship shared by a wild yet willing creature with a respectful falconer."

 

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