New England Falconry in Woodstock is fueling a new passion for an ancient sport that to some is an ideal blend of beauty and brutality
STORY BY TIM RHYS
PHOTOGRAPHY JIMMY IENNER, JR.
IF you know anything at all about falconry, you’ve probably heard it called the “sport of kings,” its popular moniker for a Millennia. What you may not know is that this rarified pastime is undergoing something of a 21st Century renaissance, that the brave little state of Vermont is a hotbed of that renewed interest, and that these days the sport isn’t just for males anymore, royalty or not.
One accomplished falconer who could easily be cast as a pagan queen in some latter-day pastoral adventure fantasy is the graceful, articulate Ms. Anastasia Nicholas, a striking 30-year-old with long, flowing dreadlocks, strategic piercings, and deep brown eyes who teaches at New England Falconry, the renowned raptor education center at the Woodstock Inn and Resort in Woodstock, Vermont.
Even if you don’t need another reason to feel fortunate that you’re living in or visiting the Green Mountain State, you can now officially add Anastasia to your list. For those of us who deign to admit that we don’t know the slightest thing about falconry, she and her colleagues are here to help us understand the staying power of this ancient sport and the genesis of its unlikely resilience. They’ll tell you about the sport’s origins as an ingenious innovation by nomadic Bedouin peoples living in a harsh desert climate who learned to train their region’s most skilled hunters as their partners in order to supplement the protein in their diets. They’ll explain that the survival skill of falconry eventually became an artform that was central to Bedouin and Arabian culture. And they’ll let you know that today it is one of UNESCO’s “Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity” in 17 countries on three continents and generally accepted to be one of the oldest of all human activities. You’ll come away with an understanding of falconry on myriad levels, and you may just find yourself fascinated by this unique sport that has suddenly become an important weapon on the frontlines of efforts to fight habitat loss and species decline.
But what leads one to becoming such an expert in this still somewhat obscure sport that they’re qualified to teach it to others? In Anastasia’s case, at least, the journey began when she was a little girl in New Jersey who grew up loving animals.
“I was always passionate about them,” she said recently over a cup of tea at the Last Cup Café in Rutland. “My family brought me camping a lot and encouraged my love of animals. When it was time for college, I came to Vermont to attend Castleton (now Vermont State University) to study ecology and never left.
“Once I graduated college, I worked for Queechee State Park as one of their interpreters. I was an interpreter of the natural world for the guests and brought people on guided hikes, teaching them about the fauna and the foliage, the geology, the natural history of Vermont. I then got a position with Americorps, and they have a stipulation in which you have to volunteer for an organization, and I wound up reaching out to New England Falconry, because I knew I’d love to get involved there.
“New England Falconry makes its Vermont home in facilities located on the Woodstock Inn’s property. At the inn there are all sorts of different activities guests can do, and falconry is one of them. Jessica Schneider runs the Woodstock branch for Chris Davis (the founder of New England Falconry), who lives in Massachusetts, where he has another branch of the business. She and Chris are both master falconers, which is the highest you can be.”
When Anastasia realized she wanted to become a falconer, she began the process, which can (and usually does) take several years. The first step is to “apprentice” with a falconer who agrees to be a mentor and take you on their license. The apprenticeship takes two years, and there is no exchange of money allowed. So newbie falconers need to find someone who will take them under their wing, so to speak, and invest training time.
And who makes these rules? Well, for eons, falconry was sort of the “Wild West,” an unregulated sport where Federal rules weren’t established until the 1980s.
“It is now the most regulated of all hunting sports, and it’s regulated at both the federal and state levels. As falconers, we have so many rules we have to follow.”
When Anastasia met Jessica, her new mentor invited her to go hunting with her impressive North American Goshawk. Jessica began teaching her about training the birds and their natural history and Anastasia was hooked. But first, she had another hurdle to overcome.
“Growing up in New Jersey, no one in my family hunted. It’s difficult to get into it if you don’t have family to introduce you to it. You’re forced to embarrass yourself. When I started, I wasn’t repulsed, really, but there’s so much more to it than you might think. Even when it comes to firearms safety, loading and unloading your weapon.
“So, I learned a lot about hunting and trapping both from the standpoint of getting food, but also wildlife management. It was an amazing chance for me to get involved. I fell in love with it, and I was like, this is perfect! I can hunt, I can train birds, I can spend time outside, it was this meshing of all my interests into one.”
The next step for an aspiring falconer is to find a bird of her own. Anastasia had everything ready to get her falconry license and to pass the state test, but she first had to construct the enclosure where the bird would live, which had to pass inspection by the state. “That September, I trapped my first wild bird. It was a red-tailed hawk. I then went through the training process which took me four-and-a-half weeks. In that time, you go from having the bird being completely terrified of you to it coming back to you when you call it.“
“I should also mention that we are allowed to take these birds legally, because there’s a healthy population. Also, red-tails have a very high mortality rate. Many of them just succumb to starvation, because once their parents stop feeding them, they have to be top athletes to survive. They need to catch mice or rabbits or squirrels. And they need to catch these things without injuring themselves to the point of being unable to hunt. It’s nature’s way of weeding them out, so to speak. By being a falconer or by taking a bird for a season or two, you really improve their chances of survival.”
But how does a falconer actually get a bird to fly back to them? To the uninitiated, it seems like a kind of black magic. Maybe that’s where the pagan goddess thing comes in?
“These are smart birds,” Anastasia tells me. “They learn very quickly, and in the beginning stages, you have to show the bird you’re not going to harm it. What that entails is allowing it to sit on your glove. It has special equipment on it, which we call “the jess” and “a leash.” So, when you catch your bird, you put anklets on it. Then “jesses”, which are basically straps. And then the leash, which you attach to the jesses. That allows them to have full movement of their feet. They can reach out and grab things, but they’re attached to a leash. The goal is to train the bird to calm down and not feel the boundaries of the leash.
And when you’re sitting with them on glove, you have a large piece of food for them. Maybe it’s a big piece of quail sitting on your glove. When animals are stressed out, they don’t eat. They’re not thinking about food or digestion, they’re thinking about survival. So, you offer food, but it probably will choose not to eat it for the first few days. Eventually, its desire for food will get the best of them. And at that point, they have probably spent several days with you. Although they may have been scared, they’ve never been harmed. So, eventually, they eat. And the process begins. As soon as they eat food with you, the ball starts moving. The next time, instead of just giving them the food, you just put them on a perch or a chair a foot or two away, and while still on the leash they have to hop to your glove to get that food. Then you bring them outside, which is where they’ve grown up. They know that they can leave if they want to. But, now they know - I got easy food! The next step is you bring her to the hunting field, and you let her go. She’ll fly to a tree, and it’s not that different than what we were just doing before. So, she’s looking to me, like, Hey, where’s my food? She’s waiting for me to call her to my glove. I whistle to her when I want her to come today, and I raise my glove and that’s what she knows. But when you first go out hunting with her, instead of calling her to you right away, you start to walk away. And if everything goes correctly, she’ll follow you. And the advantage to following me around is that - even though she might not know it yet - I’m going to flush prey. I’m going to use a stick, and I’m going to hit a bush with the stick and out from that bush is a bunny that was hiding. So, we begin to work as a team.”
Do raptors have their own unique personalities?
Anastasia confirmed that many of them can “get ornery, because they’re wild animals, after all. You have to be sure not to reward bad behavior. If your bird flies to you when you didn’t ask it to, you don’t give her a reward. Sure, land on my glove. But I’m not feeding you for that, because I didn’t ask you to come.
“My bird’s name is Leela, spelled L-E-E-L-A. Are you familiar with the television show Futurama? There’s a character named Leela who’s a cyclops, and when I got Leela off the trap, one eye was blind. It’s an example of the adversities that these birds face.
“She’s about a foot and a half tall. Humans have seven neckbones, and these birds have 14. So, she can go from being short to stretching right up. As you know, owls can turn their heads almost all the way around, like 280 degrees. She can turn her head about 200. And they’re not very heavy, one-and-a-half to three-and-a-half pounds at most. They’re all feathers.”
As busy as the winter rabbit hunting season is for falconers (or “hawkers” as they are sometimes known, regardless of what type of bird they hunt with—falcons, hawks, or eagles), the off-season is almost as busy. Trainers don’t fly their birds during the off-season because the risk of them not coming back is greater. But they still need to be kept well-fed so that they’re content and get the proper nutrients to grow new feathers.
Another important part of the trainer’s responsibility is weight management. They need to weigh their bird every single day—and sometimes multiple times a day. They need to pay attention to how many grams they weigh at all times. A red-tailed hawk might catch a rabbit and eat almost its entire body weight, so it doesn’t need to hunt or feed for the next couple of days. They need to be more motivated to hunt than to just sit in the sun or soar in the sky.
“Leela loves to sun herself,” Anastasia shares.
Anastasia is at New England Falconry all summer and is available with a separate educational program for parties, libraries, or cultural centers in the off-season. She and Jessica have their own personal collections of both reptiles and birds that they use for education purposes.
If someone is interested in pursuing falconry, she suggests they contact their local state falconry association. In Vermont, they can contact Vermont Fish & Wildlife for a list of falconers and information on permits and testing.
“Go on Facebook Groups and join the North American Falconers Association (NAFA), which is a great group,” she advises. “It’s nationwide and really helps to connect falconers everywhere. This sport is really growing. We see hundreds of people every summer, more than 200 new people most weeks. There’s a variety of sessions, and we give everyone an opportunity, even children as young as age six. It’s very exciting.
“The cost is less than $100 for the introductory session - which is about an hour long. You get to fly a Harris Hawk and have the bird fly to you. We also teach many non-participants. For example, if you want to go with your parent or your child, and they don’t want to actually fly a bird, that cost is only $30 to come and watch. And there’s an extended session, where you get to fly both a hawk and an owl. We often use hawks because they’re so ‘well designed’ to fly to your glove. And here
in Vermont, we have a lot of prime habitat for hunting rabbits and squirrels. Leela is a red-tailed hawk, so it’s kind of confusing that “falconry” is the name of the sport of hunting with birds of prey, but you can still say ‘I’m going hawking.’
“At the Center, our mission is to—in a clear and concise way—explain what falconry is and how it’s changed over the years, as well as the species we work with and why they’re important to our environment. New England Falconry is involved with the ‘American Kestrel Partnership’, which is aimed at preserving and restoring the American Kestrel and its habitat in New England. We love to introduce folks to falconry and give them an opportunity to see these birds up close. It’s such a great opportunity for people who are not even interested in pursuing falconry, who are just animal enthusiasts. You get to hold them! And how cool is that!?”
ALL THE DETAILS: