5 Reasons Hunting With Hawks Is Shockingly Awesome And Gross
Birds are great: You can watch them, keep them as pets, tie tiny messages to their legs whenever your internet goes out, or just fry 'em up and eat them. But if all that sounds boring, you could switch to hardcore mode and train them to kill at your command. That's what Kate does: She's a general-class falconer who hunts using her red-tailed hawk, Isabeau. We had a bunch of questions for Kate -- chief amongst them, "do you wear a bird-themed costume and if not, why not?"
You Get Into Falconry Simply Because You Love Falcons
Sadly, falconry does not typically involve donning a raptor-suit. But we guess it sounds pretty cool anyway ...
"A typical hunt for me is driving out to a field, getting to a good spot and then removing Isabeau's leash and letting her go," Kate says. "I walk through the woods rattling trees and brush and trying to get game to move while she follows along with me. When something does move, she explodes into action and goes for the kill."
It's like hunting with a rifle that poops.
Aside from the obvious intense hatred of small mammals, why would anyone do this? Kate says, "falconry allows me to step into world for a time and be an active part of the natural order in a way that very few people ever get to experience."
Plus she has genuine affection for her avian killing machine, and this is just how it eats: "Sometimes I'll lose sight of Isabeau, but then she'll get my attention and get back to the squirrel she'd killed, staring up at me like she was saying, 'Hey! Look what I did! Now hurry up and open it. I'm hungry.' I love that reckless, snarky, wild bird."
Falconers just love falcons, and the fact that they're terrifying murder birds is just part of the package.
And safer than falling in love with human serial killers.
"There are the falconers who've divorced their spouses after an 'it's me or the bird' ultimatum, or the guy who can barely read or write a literate sentence but is a walking encyclopedia of raptors and has successfully flown almost every bird legally able to be used for falconry," Kate says. "The falconry community is a relatively small, fairly tight-knit group."
... of beastmasters.
We're sure Kate meant to add that last bit, so we filled it in for her.
Falconry Can Be Both Gross And Dangerous
But it's not all dominating the sky with your avian sidekick. Every pet owner thinks that they've seen it all just because their dog or cat once plopped a half-chewed rodent on their bed. But if that same thing happened to a falconer, they'd immediately start worrying that their bird didn't rip out the creature's organs and turned their carcass into a gruesome finger puppet, because that is what these people consider normal.
"Isabeau seems to have a particular penchant for the stomach contents of squirrels," Kate says, which she describes as "basically a nut paste." To extract this delicacy, "she'll pull the stomach out and set it aside like it's dessert and will use her talon to very carefully break it open and eat the paste."
It's like peanut butter but tastes of roadkill bile.
No one wants to be nearby when this happens, because "after eating, she shakes her beak clean, so I've had brains, eyeballs, kidneys, livers, yolk, shit, you name it, flung into my face or in my mouth at one point or another."
But finding out what squirrel poop tastes like isn't the worst thing that can happen:
"One time, Isabeau landed on my head because I'd just dyed my hair red and she thought my hair was meat," Kate says, noting that "hawks have long, thick, sharp talons and they're not afraid to use them," which means "I still have a ring of scars under my hair from it. These are not pets in any way. We don't domesticate or tame them. They tolerate and work with us. They don't love us. They are and always will be wild animals and even the more easygoing ones can be dangerous. Another time, my boyfriend's bird got spooked and flew to him before he could get the glove up and bound to his face. He jumped right down but not before slicing my boyfriend's eyelid. You get used to it, though."
Stockholm syndrome: Not just for people anymore.
Obtaining A Bird Of Prey Is Incredibly Difficult
If squirrel-crap tasting sessions and bloody face-maulings haven't dissuaded you, there are other barriers keeping you from entering the weaponized bird club. You can't just walk into a PetSmart and ask for the Awesome Section. "Falconry is HIGHLY regulated in the U.S.," Kate explains, "as raptors are a federally protected species and even possessing a feather from one of them without a permit can result in fines and/or prison time."
And let's be honest, if you get locked for feather possession, you probably won't last one day in the joint.
The Birdman of Alcatraz was everybody's bitch.
"There are three different levels of falconer," Kate continues. "The first is apprentice. This is two years in which one is under the authority of an experienced falconer called the sponsor who must have at least five years of experience. Finding a sponsor can often be the hardest part of all. A sponsor can only have three apprentices and most won't take on three because of the time required and the fact they aren't paid. It's completely voluntary."
Along with finding a sponsor, before even becoming an apprentice but after what feels like years of studying, you must take a written falconry test.
"In my state, it's 100 questions and must be passed with a minimum score of 80. The exam covers everything from bird identification to disease recognition and treatment to hunting techniques to husbandry requirements for every species. Think a college-level final that combines biology, zoology, math, history, physics, psychology, veterinary medicine, and a haiku to Cthulhu written in the blood of a virgin."
And you can't even use the bird to obtain it.
But after all that, you can finally glue papier-mache wings onto your Volvo and start calling it the bird-mobile, right? Not quite: First you have to build a birdhouse. And it ain't like that misshapen abomination you made in shop class.
"In addition to the exam and the sponsor, you have to have all of your equipment and facilities bought/built/made and inspected by government officials. For a red tail hawk, this means a minimum of an 8' x 8' building called a mews, and supplies such as a specially designed scale to weigh the bird, a bath pan, the bird's gear etc. The cost to build the mews alone can be $1,000 on the cheap side. All of this is required before you even get to call yourself an apprentice or get your first bird."
Dang, we're starting to think the government doesn't want our skies flooded with hobby-raptors ...
You Spend Most Of Your Time Just Keeping Your Bird Alive
"Hawks have an insane mortality rate in the wild," Kate told us. "They only have about a 15 percent chance of surviving their first year and even less of making it to three years." But if they have a falconer "it's more like 95 percent because we teach them how to better hunt and survive while keeping them safe as they learn."
And the falconer's chance of surviving a mugging jumps to 97 percent.
So how do you teach a bird of prey to, well, prey?
"We take them to places where the game is plentiful, and if they have a day where they don't catch anything, they still eat thanks to us. We've had weeks where we've hunted every day and Isabeau hasn't caught anything. They're opportunistic and don't hunt unless they're actually hungry, so if they have a series of bad hunting days in the wild, they may not have the energy for long to actually take down game."
Y'know, kind of like how your mom doesn't feel like cooking after a long day at the blowjob factory.
Picture not related.
In addition to making sure they eat, falconers watch out for dangers that go overlooked by their feathered, flying knives: "We don't let them hunt in areas where electrocution or collisions are a risk, and when they're on the ground with a kill, we protect them from predators. I've personally run off coyotes, bobcats, and stray dogs when Isabeau's been on the ground."
But some dangers are just out of a falconer's hands. "We encourage them to bind in safer areas, immediately treat any bites that may happen, or -- for some, though it isn't always a viable option -- simply don't fly the birds where there are a lot of squirrels."
Wait, squirrels are a threat?
"Squirrels have long, sharp teeth and can bite a smaller hawk's toe off," Kate explains. "There's no training every bird to avoid the teeth every time."
Hey, also like your mom.
Birds Of Prey Are Essentially Flying Cats
So, to summarize: Birds of prey have razor sharp claws, are total dicks, and love to mutilate small animals. Sound familiar? And just like cats, raptors are lovable despite their inherent jerkiness.
"I iz on ur arm, steelin ur hart."
"Isabeau flew off after a squirrel once and I couldn't find her and I freaked out. I was calling her and she didn't respond. Then suddenly, I heard something and looked down and there was my bird running after me. She got my attention, turned, and ran back over to the squirrel."
They can even be cuddly and playful:
"Isabeau is all business, but my fiance's bird is a goofball. He is entranced by his feet and will stare at them for hours. He likes shiny things and will play with a key ring for as long as you keep throwing it across the room. He likes tennis balls, too."
He'll chase a laser dot for hours. And then he'll catch it.
He sounds like the Moon-Moon of birds, and we love him already. Now, if you'll excuse us, we're off to sacrifice years of our lives and thousands of dollars just for the chance to play fetch with a falcon ...
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a freelance Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.
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