Arizona falconers carry on an ancient tradition and promote conservation



Sully, a young Barbary Falcon, takes its name from its place of origin in Africa.

CHINO VALLEY – Joseph Pravongviengkham slips a red kangaroo leather hood over the head of his hawk, Sully. He wants to keep his bird calm for the 30-minute drive to an open field filled with quail, hares and rabbits.

When they reach their destination, Pravongviengkham frees Sully from his box, removes the hood, and removes the bird from its tether. Sully hovers above the gathered small group, spots a pigeon and dives.

“Hi you!” shouts the crowd.

Pravongviengkham, 21, from Waddell, brought his young Barbary Falcon to attend the Arizona Falconers Association’s Desert Hawking Classic, a gathering of falconers – people who train birds of prey to hunt for sport. He is happy with Sully’s performance, and the bird gets a reward: the pigeon. But when there is no kill, sometimes the thrill of the chase is reward enough.

Dozens of people from across the country came to Chino Valley for the January event, hosted by the Arizona Falconer Association. It included lecturers, workshops and a “peddling game”.

Falconry, which includes the training of hawks, eagles, hawks, and even owls, has developed over the years in the United States. International Association of Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey.

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Falconers say they not only want to promote an ancient art and take care of the birds, but they want to ensure the existence of these birds in the future. Groups often support environmental conservation efforts.

But Sarah Preston, associate director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, said falconry involves “terrorizing and killing quails, pheasants and other game birds for fun.”

“It’s a blood sport,” she said in a statement. “Whether raptors used in falconry are captured or bred in captivity, they are denied everything that is natural and important to them. They live in small enclosures and do not have the ability to fly at will, choose a mate, or raise their young.

Falconers encourage conservation efforts

Despite such criticism, many falconers stand up for what they are doing, claiming they help save birds’ lives.

The death rate of birds of prey in the wild is high, said Charlie Kaiser, president of the Arizona Falconers Association. About 70 percent of these raptors will die in their first year, according to The modern apprentice, a falconry site.

If the birds are not good hunters, they will starve to death, Kaiser said. If they hunt in the wrong area, another predator could kill them. If they hunt too close to a road, a car could hit them.

With the training and conditioning provided by falconers, birds’ chances of survival increase dramatically when released into the wild, Kaiser said. Falconers teach them to hunt, take them to the vet, and make sure they have a well-balanced diet.

Most falconers release birds back into the wild, Pravongviengkham said. But some falconers keep their birds for life.

“We’ve had our birds for 20 years now,” Kaiser said. “These are our children. We love them to death.

Kaiser has one of the oldest falcons in North America that still hunts, he said. Cowboy, a captive-bred male Harris’s Falcon, is 30 years old.

Arizona has many raptors commonly used for falconry: the Red-tailed Hawk, Harris’s Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and St. Martin’s Hawk. None are threatened or endangered.

Certified falconers in Arizona can take a limited number of birds from the wild each year, Kaiser said. For example, the state only allows the capture of 30 Harris Falcons each year, with limitations on where and when falconers can collect the birds, according to Arizona Game and Fish.

When it comes to preserving other wildlife, falconers say they pay close attention to what their birds hunt by observing game populations and patterns.

For example, the lack of rain this year has resulted in a drop in the number of rabbits and quail.

“We pay attention to all of this because we are part of the environment,” Kaiser said. “We don’t just sit and watch it on TV.”

Acquisition and training of birds of prey

There are two ways to acquire a bird for falconry: trap a wild or buy a captive-bred bird. Cost of captive-bred birds from $ 200 to over $ 10,000, according to

Falconers can only take first year birds from the wild. Otherwise, Kaiser said, they could interfere with birds that breed or try to feed their young.

“I consider taking a bird from the wild to be a very serious business,” he said. “You call a wild animal from the sky to be your partner, and it’s never something I take lightly.”

Falconers use traps with bait to catch wild birds, then begin the long process of building trust between a human and a bird.

It can take up to a month to train a bird to hunt.

Tucson resident Shane Farrier drove to Chino Valley with his Harris Falcon, a 14-year-old male. Farrier said the hardest part of the training is “getting them to relate to the fact that you are going to feed them and not kill them”.

Falconers use hoods to calm birds because birds are “so visually oriented that they’re not afraid of what they can’t see,” according to the modern apprentice.

The trainer offers the bird food with a gloved hand just out of reach. The goal is to make the bird jump on the glove, which will cause it to come back to the falconer during a hunt.

The process continues until the falconer can stand 100 feet away and the bird flies towards the glove.

“As loving as a stone”

Joseph Pravongviengkham works as "the dog," hunt its prey as its falcon, Sully, flies above its head.

It is not easy to become a falconer. This involves finding a sponsor, passing a comprehensive exam, and building a falcon house, which Arizona Game and Fish must inspect before issuing a sport falconry license.

State and federal laws also dictate levels of care for captive wildlife.

Bostwick said the most important skill involved in falconry is patience. An article entitled “So you want to be a falconer” on the Arizona Falconer Association website warns that a falconer must “devote part of his working hours to a creature who at best will only tolerate your presence and who is as loving as a stone.”

Falconers connect to each other and to each other as challenges arise.

As people passed the Days Inn in the Chino Valley, many stopped to ask questions about an unusual fenced area, called a weathering yard, in front of the hotel where birds of prey could rest afterwards. the hunt. Falconers were eager to answer any questions about owning birds of prey, hunting, and the falconer profession. Later, the falconers gathered on the hotel patio and shared their stories over a barbecue.

The January event included a workshop for apprentices.

Kaiser said one of the beauties of the apprenticeship program is that for the first two years the apprentice is in the “care and hand” of someone who makes sure they do what they want. should.

Apprentice Jackson McQuerrey, 16, and his father, Shannon, who has been a falconer for over 10 years, also traveled to Chino Valley from their Phoenix home with Jackson’s 23-day-old red-tailed hawk.

Jackson said he hopes to achieve master falconer status, which requires a two-year apprenticeship, followed by five years as a general falconer. As a master falconer, you can legally own up to five birds in Arizona.

Jackson said that part of the art of falconry is developing a relationship with the bird.

“If they want to leave, they can. But it’s their choice to come back to you, ”Jackson said. “They will always be wild. You want to try and domesticate them as much as possible, and it just becomes a really good partnership. “

Kristy McDonald, another aspiring master falconer, agreed.

“If you come home with your bird, it’s a good falconry day,” she said.

Arizona has been home to many remarkable animals, from a wild jaguar that launched a state agency investigation to two llamas who captivated the world as they were on the run.

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