Sedosa the Harris Hawk was a big hit. She flew on the fists of nine visitors whose names were drawn at the Beaver Creek Wildlife Education Center’s 20th anniversary on June 25.
Joe Dorrian, executive director of the Ohio School of Falconry, led a program that day on the sport of falconry, which involves “getting close to raptors,” he said. And that’s what audiences did with Sedosa, Shelly the Peregrine Falcon, Quinny the European Barn Owl, Savannah the African Augur Buzzard and Henson the European Eagle Owl. He was named after puppeteer Jim Henson because he looked like a baby muppet when he was little.
The Ohio School of Falconry aims to teach the sport of hunting birds of prey, Dorrian said. But it also aims to educate people about the conservation of these birds and the wild places where they live.
It was only the sixth falconry school in the United States when it was established in 2014 at Camp Mary Orton in Columbus. There are now two more locations, at the Izaak Walton League of America in Medina and the YMCA’s Camp Kern between Dayton and Cincinnati.
The sport of falconry is practiced on all continents except Antarctica. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has declared falconry a world heritage sport, which means that people of all cultures have the right to practice it. The sport requires a partnership between falconer and raptor in pursuit of wild game.
“The relationship is built on trust,” Dorrian said. “As the raptor is trained, it develops trust in the human.”
The sport is between 4,000 and 6,000 years old, beginning in Japan or China.
“At the time, it was a means of subsistence; it helped put food on the table,” Dorrian said. Moreover, it was more effective than using the weapons available for hunting at the time. “A bird of prey was better than a bow or a spear for hunting,” he explained. “An arrow or a spear can only go straight. A bird of prey can turn around and chase a rabbit or a pheasant in any direction. »
With the advent of firearms, birds were no longer the best way to catch prey. It was then that falconry became a sport.
Falconry moved from the Far East because of Genghis Khan and his march west. He employed 200 to 300 falconers, each of whom had two or three birds hunting constantly in order to help feed the khan’s soldiers.
Falconry was introduced to Europe and the Middle East after the fall of the Roman Empire. After guns became accessible there, it became a sport of royalty.
There were falconers in North America dating back to the 1600s, but not many. Early settlers wrote in letters about how happy they were that they didn’t have to be royalty to afford a hawk or sparrowhawk.
Now, the number of falconers in the United States remains fairly constant at just under 6,000, Dorrian said. The sport became legal in Ohio in 1983 and there are currently 120 falconers in the state, he said.
The Ohio Falconry Association was formed as a non-profit organization to lobby for the rights of falconers and to help train new ones. To become a falconer, one must complete a two-year apprenticeship with a general falconer or class master.
In Ohio, apprentices must train either an American Kestrel or a Red-tailed Hawk. The common kestrel, the smallest falcon in North America, is only the size of a mourning dove and feeds on small birds, mammals and reptiles. It can also fall prey to large raptors due to its size.
Perhaps that’s why nearly all apprentices choose the red-tailed hawk, Dorrian said. They primarily eat mammals, including rabbits and squirrels, as well as pheasants, bobwhite quail, and other birds.
With the help of the godfather, the apprentice must trap a juvenile, then train it to hunt. It takes about four weeks for the bird to complete its training. This includes learning to fly to the apprentice’s gauntlet, where he knows he will be fed.
The bird must also learn to follow the falconer, who flushes out the game. Yes, the human is like a dog, a hunting game for the bird, Dorrian said.
In Ohio, raptors came out four to five times a week throughout the hunting season, from September 1 to March 10.
“Birds fly freely all the time,” Dorrian said. “They can leave at any time, but they stay because they realize life is easy with us and they are well taken care of.”
They are trapped after being alone for a month or two, trying to catch mice, voles or other small prey – and not always succeeding, he said.
With the falconer, they feed on meat each time they return to the gauntlet. And they learn to catch bigger prey, like rabbits, pheasants and ducks. They are allowed to eat whatever they catch, as much as they want. The falconer then freezes the rest for later feeding.
“Birds eat everything on the prey, even the head,” Dorrian said. “Nothing is lost.”
Unfortunately, hawks and other birds of prey have very little chance of surviving in the wild.
“Of all babies hatched this year, 90% will be dead within six months, mostly due to man-made hazards,” he said.
They are electrocuted on power lines or run over by cars. They fly into windows or fences, or eat mice or rats that have been poisoned. Cats often try to catch young birds.
Even if they don’t succeed, “a cat scratch infects them with Pasteurella bacteria to which they have no immunity. It kills them in 24 to 48 hours,” Dorrian said.
Since falconers trap the birds as juveniles, “they are essentially guaranteed to survive their first year,” he said. “They are usually released back into the wild after a year or two, but now they are better equipped as they have learned to catch bigger game.”
Godfathers teach the apprentices how to trap and train the birds and how to make the equipment they will need, including a leather glove. The glove only goes up 15 inches on the falconer’s arm, so the bird actually perches on the human’s fist. Anklets and jesses or leather straps are also required, as well as suitable facilities and perches for the birds.
Some visitors to the wildlife center may have been surprised to see owls during a falconry program.
“Owl hunting has just been legalized, but it’s not easy. Owls are the least intelligent of all raptors,” Dorrian said, almost in a whisper. But that didn’t make Quinny or Henson any less lovable to those who got close to them in Beaver Creek.
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