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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of November 7 - 13, 2001


Falconers hunt 
from the skies

Ancient sport fosters mutual dependence, traditions

Express Staff Writer

When it comes to hunting with falcons, there’s a reason they call it hunting, not catching.

Jeff King, a Hailey veterinarian, feeds his gyrfalcon fresh grouse. Two radio transmitters, used for tracking, hang from the gyr’s breast. Express photo by Willy Cook

But, well, if you’re just out to gather meat, you’re probably missing the point of this ancient sport. Go buy a shotgun.

Today’s falconers are like fly-fishermen, who spend years perfecting and relishing their technique. Falconers, according to available evidence, rarely take home any game.

The pleasure comes less from a kill than from the hunt, the enjoyment of being outdoors and working in a close bond with a fierce, agile and historically esteemed predator that can rip across the sky like a jet fighter.


Here’s how it works:

Jeff King stood in a reedy, open field near Silver Creek early on a Sunday morning a couple weekends ago, wearing knee-high galoshes, a radio-tracking device that looked like a cop’s radar gun strapped to his thigh, various pouches of accouterments and—on his gloved left fist—a big gray and white arctic gyrfalcon.

The gyr itself was dressed to kill. It wore a tasseled leather hood and slender, decorative-looking transmitter antennas clipped to its chest feathers.

King removed the hood, unleashed the bird’s leather leg tongs, and watched it leap up and work its way into the clear, blue yonder, silent, except for the diminishing sound of its flapping wings.

A dozen other falconers, and their curious friends, stood gawking at the sky like mute worshipers waiting for their god to return.

Soon, the bird was miles away over gun-hunter territory and visible only through binoculars. Hundreds of ducks scattered as the falcon repeatedly stooped down on them with its deadly talons and beak.

Shotguns boomed, a bad sign, and King began whirling a small canvas pouch on a 10-foot rope over his head. Who knew that some falcons find such canvas pouches to be irresistible? The bird came racing back, panting, wild-eyed, but meatless.

Do these birds have personal names?

"Yeah, and some of them are printable," said King, a Hailey veterinarian.


Sky fishing

"When she was stooping, I heard the guns go off, and I was like, ‘Oh, great,’ " King said in his SUV on the drive to Picabo, where the falconers had agreed to regroup.

A falcon is not like a shotgun or a fishing rod that can be hung on a wall and forgotten. Training of both bird and person is an everyday commitment. Becoming a master falconer requires two years of apprenticeship, written tests, field tests, a federal license and three more journeyman years. A good bird may have been trained for a year or more. So losing one to a stray, or even an intentional, shotgun blast is to be avoided.

Charles Woody’s gyrfalcon-prairie falcon cross, Maddy, wears a hood to keep her calm while traveling with Woody. Express photo by Willy Cook

Birds of prey can live to be 25 years old, but their high-velocity lives usually mean they die an accidental death before then. Shotguns are one danger. They also fly into fences at high speeds, get electrocuted on power poles, get run over by cars and get eaten by larger birds of prey. All of which happens in the wild and in captivity.

Falconers cross breed their birds, raising hybrids that can sell for thousands of dollars. But often, they catch their raptors in the wild.

Craig Shanholtzer, a woodworker and master falconer from Carey, kept at hand a pigeon in a leather jacket. The back of the jacket was covered with tiny nylon nooses. And the entire setup—bird, nooses, jacket—was attached to a long cord.

Throughout the day, as the caravan of falconers cruised around the desert landscape, Shanholtzer occasionally parked his truck, wandered into the sagebrush, and, like some sky fisherman, launched the hapless pigeon into the air. Always, there was a falcon, sitting on a pole, or circling overhead, but it never took the bait. If it had, its talons may have caught in the tiny nooses, and Shanholtzer would have had a new bird to train.

"Interestingly enough, I’m a vegetarian," the tall and lean Shanholtzer said. He just enjoys flying birds.


Three hots and a cot

What can you hunt with a raptor? Ducks. Rabbits. Grouse. Chukars. Almost any game that weighs less than about eight pounds.

Toward afternoon, with still no kills, conversations turned to recipes. Grouse are great with crushed garlic, rosemary, a little on the rare side. "It’s wonderful," said Charles Woody, a touch longingly perhaps, on the drive over to the third or fourth slip of the day. Meanwhile, he passed around apricot beer and a loaf of bread fortified with whole olives. It was a good substitute.

This pod of ducks sat in the reeds of a spring-fed pool encircled by high, volcanic walls. They were teals, mostly, which were said to be so afraid of falcons that they wouldn’t fly if one was in the air. They would stay down on the water, where the falcon couldn’t kill, and where a person could simply walk over and pick up one of the petrified birds.

Nevertheless, Woody released his gyrfalcon-prairie falcon hybrid, named Maddy, and she flapped up, circling, the brass bell attached to her leg tinkling, and soon skied out on a thermal.

The group waited. Rod Rinker, whispering to avoid scaring the teals, crouched on the 40-foot-high volcanic lip of the pool and enthusiastically explained his attraction to the sport. Others cited style, or 4,000-year-old tradition, or said that gun hunting was too anticlimactic. But Rinker had just passed his apprenticeship test and was looking forward to trapping a red-tailed hawk or a kestrel, the only two raptors journeymen are allowed to keep. For Rinker, in his early 40s, falconry was a natural progression after a lifetime of hunting. "I’m the hunter," he said simply.

Below, somebody ran through the reeds shouting, "Yah! Yah! Yah!," and the teals flapped up into the air. A moment too late, Maddy dropped out of the sky like an M-shaped bullet, whizzing past Rinker at 80, 90 miles per hour and landed back at Woody’s feet.

Still no kill.


Public relations

"You can go out day after day by yourself and your bird will do amazing things—high kill ratios, knocking sh-- out of the sky. And you come out on a field meet and your bird will just go out and perch," Shanholtzer lamented.

He and King are both dedicated members of the Idaho Falconers Association, which has about 100 members. The group sometimes—as on this day—invites the public out to watch. It’s a way of promoting a good public image.

"There are people who have individual vendettas against falconry," acknowledged King. "Their main argument is that we take a free, wild bird and subjugate it to our whims. And it’s true. But here’s my view. What is the difference between taking a falcon, caring for it, loving it, training it and keeping it in good health, and somebody going out and shooting a duck?"

Falconers also point out that their birds could choose to simply fly away.

"Our job with these birds is to conduct ourselves in such a manner as to show the bird that it’s to its advantage to hunt with us. If it hunts with us, and it hunts in a certain manner, we will get it an opportunity," said Shanholtzer. "And then, once it kills something, we’ll get it in a safe place to eat it. We give it a conducive situation to stay with us. You know, three hots and a cot. Some birds just identify that as a good deal."

Falconers are constantly weighing their birds. They must know when the bird is a little lean and hungry, or it might not have an incentive to come back to the falconer, who has the food.

King said most wild raptors die in their first year, so falconers are improving the chance of survival of the raptors they trap.

"Fortunately, in Idaho, we still largely have a Department of Fish and Game and a commission that’s made up of people who are hunters and biologists, so they understand that falconry is a minimal impact on the resource—in fact, not measurable," he said.

He appeared to be correct.

Later in the afternoon, a few vehicles split off from the group, perhaps to try their luck alone without so many distractions. King, Woody, and several others headed south of Picabo in search of grouse. But Tara, the 12-year-old bird dog with metal plates in her legs inserted after a car accident, found only dirt and sagebrush. A falconer tossed a few pigeons in the air for his raptor to train with.

On the way back, through the B-Bar-B ranch, where owner Katie Breckenridge forbids hunting, dozens of fat chukars ran across the road. They seemed to know where it was safe. Katie stood by her truck.

"You’ve trained those chukars well," Woody shouted.

She laughed.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.