Back in February I published a post about the FWC finalizing rules for falconers. I received quite a response including a comment from Eric Edwards of Lake Hamilton. Mr. Edwards informed me that falconry is an old sport dating back about 5,000 years. He also said there are only about 100 falconers in the state of FL.Out of curiosity I recently followed up with him, and he was kind enough to take the time to answer a few base questions I had regarding falconry in the state of Florida. Since he’s the President of the Florida Falconers’ Association, Mr. Edwards was certainly the man to speak with. After doing this interview, let’s just say, it’s Christmastime and I want a falcon…but there’s a lot of work that goes into the sport, as you’ll see.
Being that it is a unique and specialized sport, what stoked your interest in falconry?
I have always loved the outdoors and animals. We had dogs, ferrets, a squirrel, and a skunk. I grew up in Waycross, Ga, and in 1991, my girlfriend Diana, who is now my wife, and I were at a pet store in Jacksonville, FL. I was playing with a blue and gold macaw that was in a cage in the center of the store when another guy came over to look at the bird. He asked if I liked birds, and I said, “Yes, I like birds; parrots are okay, but I really like birds of prey – hawks and eagles and birds like that.” The man replied, “Oh, really? The people that work next to me are falconers. They have hawks that they take out hunting all the time.” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me! People still practice falconry today?” I thought falconry was something of the past, a sport of medieval times for kings and queens. I inquired about these falconers, and he told me they lived in Brunswick, GA. It was an architecture firm called, Just Drew It – the falconer was Drew Doughit. The next day I called information and found the number and gave him a call. He confirmed that, yes, he was a falconer and told me a little about the sport and the process and put me in touch with the GA Falconers’ Association who then put me in touch with someone near me in Statesboro, GA, Steve Hein. Steve invited me out to see his birds, facilities and take me hunting with his birds – a kestrel falcon and a red-tailed hawk. I think I was hooked from the moment in that pet store when I discovered that the sport still existed. It was something I had to do, and in 1992, I got my first falconry permit and my first bird, a red-tailed hawk.
How does one go about selecting and acquiring a falcon or other bird of prey?
As far as selecting a bird, falconry is a hunting sport, and we fly the bird almost daily. So, it’s always best to select a bird that you have adequate game for. You need access to frequent flights and game to practice this sport well. For most in our area, squirrels and rabbits are plentiful, so that’s what the vast majority of falconers in Florida – and most of the country – hunt with their birds. So, naturally, you’re then looking for a raptor that hunts the selected quarry. In the case of squirrels and rabbits, most falconers fly red-tailed hawks and Harris’ hawks. Ducks are another popular quarry, and peregrine falcons are the common choice of weapon. As far as acquiring birds, we use both wild-caught birds and birds bred in captivity. For your first two years you’re required by law to trap your bird from the wild. These are first year, immature birds that have a very high mortality rate in the wild. About 80% of all raptors don’t make it through the first year (in the wild). Captive-bred birds of some species are very popular. Nearly all the Harris’ hawks are captive-bred as well as the larger falcons like peregrines, gyr falcons and hybrids of various types of falcons.
Do you have a preference between birds you like to take hunting?
I enjoy hunting birds with falcons. Soon after I got into falconry, I started training birds for shows and performing bird shows around the world. When I became a general falconer (after 2 years as an apprentice) I was living in TX and had access to fantastic duck-hawking, so I bought a peregrine falcon and hunted ducks for many years. I focused on the peregrine and hunting ducks for that first year as a general, but the next year I also added my first merlin to the team. Since then I’ve flown twenty-eight merlins, and they are certainly a favorite of mine. As I mentioned, I like hunting birds with falcons. It’s a very exciting and challenging aerial pursuit. I’ve chosen the merlin most years because I’ve had good access to small birds like sparrows, doves, quail, starlings and snipe. And most years I also have a larger falcon like a peregrine or a smaller falcon called a Barbary falcon that is found in Africa and captive bred in the U.S. One of my favorite quarries is snipe, and the Barbary excels at these challenging flights. Snipe are probably my favorite, but I also like to hunt doves and other small birds. These flights require open spaces. I do most of my hunting on ranches of 1,000 acres or more.
What licenses do you need to hunt with falcons in Florida?
Prior to 2014 you needed a Federal Falconry permit as well as a state falconry permit. But the Federal government has turned over permitting to the states. Starting January 2014 you’ll just need a Florida falconry permit plus a hunting license, as well as any necessary stamps or endorsements for the quarry you’re hunting, just like a gun hunter would have.
How does a typical hunt go – or walk me through your typical day afield.
Merlins are pursuit birds – they will fly down their prey, sometimes over long distances. A typical hunt with a merlin for me is releasing the bird in a large field, and she’ll usually take perch in a tree. I’ll walk the field with my dog looking for birds. The merlin will sometimes take off after passing birds, but most of the time she watches us until we locate quarry. I call her in for the flush by swinging a lure overhead, which to her means to come in for a flush. They also learn to key off of a pointing dog – when they see the dog go on point they’ll start heading in, turning on the speed. The merlin will build up speed on the way in, and we flush the birds up in front of her, and the chase ensues. When hunting snipe with a peregrine, the falcon will fly high up into the sky, usually between 500 and 1,000 feet, and then circle overhead waiting for a flush below. When the dog or I flush a bird the falcon folds up and drops straight down. They can reach speeds over 260mph, but they say most slow down to impact their prey at around 100mph. They will either strike their prey, sending it to the ground, or pluck the bird from the sky. There are few things in nature more spectacular than seeing a falcon pursue its quarry.
How do you care for the birds when not hunting, and what do you do with them in the offseason?
I fly a lot of passage (or wild caught) birds; all of my merlins have been wild-caught, and I’ve flown a wild-caught peregrine. And in the case of these birds I prefer to release them at the end of the season and catch a new one the next year. I know falconers that have flown the same bird for twenty years, but I enjoy the process. I like the challenge of catching birds, training them, and then catching game with them. You learn a lot from each bird, they are all different and have different personalities and flight styles. When not hunting, most falconers keep their birds in a mew, an outdoor facility for a raptor. I keep my birds on specialized perches in my home, and I have enclosed outdoor facilities where they can spend time outside on nice days. Raptors spend the vast majority of their lives sitting – they only fly to catch food, escape predators, or basically when they have to. Flight expends a lot of energy, and the more they fly the more they have to eat. Not to mention, it’s risky business. If a hawk injures a wing they can’t fly at peak performance, which means they will probably miss a meal or two.
What clubs are out there for falconers?
Most states have a state club – or two – and there are a few national clubs. The North American Falconers’ Association, NAFA, is the largest national club, I was their Southeast Director for four years. I’m also the president of the Florida Falconers’ Association. Most clubs provide support and information on getting into the sport. We also work with regulators on falconry laws, and most clubs hold one or two events per year for the members to get together.