By Mark Heinz, Outdoors Reporter
Across the prairies, wetlands and foothills of Wyoming, falconers practice a form of hunting that traces back to times long before rifles and modern archery equipment.
“You’re tapping into their (raptor’s) desire to chase something and catch it. It’s instinctual,” Gordon Crawford of Glenrock told Cowboy State Daily.
What It Is
Crawford began hunting with birds of prey in the 1970s and is founder of the Wyoming Falconers Association.
Falconry involves hunters using birds of prey such as eagles, hawks or falcons to pursue and kill small game, upland game birds or waterfowl.
“When I first started falconry, everything was different. We used wild-caught raptors,” he said. “Now there are captive breeding programs and radio telemetry devices people can attach to their birds.”
He used mostly hawks. Either longer-winged breeds that like to soar high and take game fowl in mid-air, or broad-wing hawks that prefer nailing ground-based small game such as rabbits.
“You usually let your bird eat some of what it caught,” he said. “It has to have some kind of reward.”
An Ancient Art
“It (falconry) is one of the most ancient forms of hunting,” Mike Barker told Cowboy State Daily.
He grew up in Casper and was introduced to falconry by his wife Jocelyn when they first met in the 1970s. The couple, who now live near Bozeman, Montana, also were among the first to bring the sport to Wyoming.
“That was back when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was just starting to talk about applying regulations to falconry,” he said.
Falconry is now a recognized and regulated form of hunting in the Cowboy State. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department includes falconry section in its hunting regulations. https://wgfd.wyo.gov/Permits/Falconry
Barker and his wife have worked extensively with golden eagles. That’s likely one of the first raptor species to be used by human hunters, he said, perhaps starting in central Asia.
“There are plenty of golden eagles and they are circumpolar, meaning they live in suitable habitat at certain latitudes all around the globe,” he said.
Not Really ‘Tame’
To say that eagles, hawks, falcons and other raptors used for falconry hunting are “tamed” wouldn’t be accurate, Crawford and Barker said.
Instead, it’s a matter of somewhat harnessing and directing a bird-of-prey’s instincts and offering it enough of a reward to coax it into a mutually beneficial working relationship, they said.
“They’re not really affectionate,” Crawford said. “It’s not like bonding with a dog.”
Instead, it was more like the hawks he worked with decided to stay with him because he offered them hunting opportunities and regular food rewards, he said.
To coax a raptor off a fresh-killed game or game bird carcass, it’s best to have a tempting alternative food reward, like pigeon meat, Barker said.
Barker said he and his wife sometimes would let eagles perch in their house. However, they generally keep their raptors in an outbuilding because it’s important for them to be acclimated to whatever weather they might encounter while out hunting.
A raptor will effectively hunt only so long as it’s interested, Crawford said.
“If you’re hunting waterfowl, you have to do it on small ponds, where you can scare the ducks up into the air” because the raptors prefer to strike the ducks in flight.
“If you’re on a river or irrigation canal, the duck might just fly long enough to get away from you,” he said. “Then it will go back down to the water and the hawk will lose interest in it.”
A Dog Can Complete The Team
One way to take falconry to the next level is to bring a dog into the mix, particularly when hunting upland birds, Barker and Crawford said.
A dog can “hold a point” on a game bird’s position while the raptor soars aloft to observe from above, Barker said. Then the hunter can move in to flush the game bird, giving the raptor an opportunity to swoop in for the kill.
It’s important to have a well-trained dog, Crawford said.
“You need to have a ‘hard dog,’ meaning one that will really hold a point,” he said.
“It doesn’t really work well for pheasants,” he added. “Pheasants tend to run along the ground away from the dog.”
Grouse, partridge or other game bird species will hunker in place, giving the hunter a better chance of flushing them, Crawford said.
It’s amazing and rewarding when everything clicks into place, Barker said.
“A human, a dog and a raptor can all learn to reach each other’s cues and work together as a team,” he said.