Thursday, January 19, 2006

Hunting with hawks

By David Horst

Mira is ready to hunt.
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The gentle jingle of a small bell creates a false sense of peacefulness as silent feathers glide overhead. This is a killing machine, as good as nature can design them.

The bell is tethered to Mira, about a 9-year-old Harris hawk. She flies free from tree branch to fence to rooftop following Randy Stoeger. He is out rabbit hunting. Mira is his weapon.

To Mira, Stoeger is a hunting partner. That's why the master falconer prefers a Harris. Unlike most hawks, they hunt in groups.

"They're aggressive on game and docile with humans," Stoeger says. "I'm just part of the pack."

Stoeger is spending Saturday afternoon hunting with Mira and a young male named Attila, both purchased from Arizona where they are native. He is joined by apprentice falconers Jason LeMay and Lee Schleicher, and Bob Smead, a general class falconer who is the sponsor for Schleicher as a newcomer to the sport.

The four men walk through the field behind the Appleton Memorial Park ice arena, beating the brush with walking sticks with Mira and Attila following within striking distance. When a rabbit bolts from its hiding spot, the men shout, "Hey, hey, hey" to alert the birds. They acquire the target, match its agility on the ground with precision in the air and dive, talons-first.

The hawks are, to say the least, focused. One rabbit dashes for a gap under a chainlink fence. Attila launches himself, crashing into the spot where the fence meets the pavement. "That hawk's not getting up," I think to myself, but Attila shakes it off like an adrenaline-crazed linebacker.

Hawks have hollow, flexible bones, Smead explains, and can absorb an impact that makes the ground shake.

An urban park seems an unlikely spot for falconry, but they are less likely to encounter other hunters in a park or industrial area. Besides, it's closer.

"Trying to fit modern falconry into modern living is pretty hard," LeMay says. "It's neat to think that it's a 4,000-year-old sport and there are still guys doing it behind Wal-Mart."

He's been doing it for three years and tallied 96 rabbits last year with his red-tailed hawk. He's divorced, not an uncommon story for a falconer.

"There's a saying," adds Stoeger, a man of few words who parts his lips only as wide as necessary to let them out. "One hawk - one wife; two hawks - no wife." He has the latter.

Stoeger started 11 years ago when he found an owl with an injured wing and took it to bird rehabilitator Pat Fisher in New London. She asked him to check out a report of a falconer neglecting his hawk. Stoeger found it well housed and cared for, and went hunting with the man the next week.

Falconers are regulated by both the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. Apprentices are allowed to keep one American kestrel or one red-tailed hawk that they must trap, general class (at least two years of experience) may have no more than two raptors and a master no more than three.

LeMay says weight management is the key to falconry, keeping the birds healthy but hungry enough to hunt. It is the promise of meat that keeps them from flying away. It also brings accusations that they starve their birds.

He started his training by sitting all night in his half-darkened living room watching movies with his hawk. It takes at least three hours a day for month, training the hawk to hop from a perch to a hunk of meat in your gloved hand, from greater and greater distances.

Stoeger knows most rehabilitators and animal rights activists despise his sport for the violent death it brings to small game. That's just the way it works in nature, he points out, "You either eat meat or you are meat."

Falconers don't mistreat their birds, he says. "Some of us care more about our birds than we do about our families."

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