Richard Shores doesn’t like to be away from the birds, sleek and alert, perched on his front lawn.
Lagertha, a Harris’s hawk with a strong grip, keeps an eye on Shores’ dog, Bella.
Bruno, a red-tailed hawk, is a bit stressed; the beak of it hangs open. Xena, a prairie falcon, wears a red hood with no eyes and a GPS transmitter.
Summer is the off-season, when raptors rest and grow new feathers. In a few months, Shores will watch each one soar over North Carolina fields (up to 10 stories high, for Bruno) and then launch at 120 mph over rabbits and squirrels.
Shores, who lives in Apex, has been falconry since 2004. He is one of 100 licensed falconers in North Carolina.
At a workshop hosted by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission in Raleigh last month, now in its 13th year, Shores and his fellow falconers sought to expand the ranks, or at least show would-be falconers what they might be up to. getting in.
Falconers work with birds of prey to hunt smaller birds and wildlife in North Carolina.
To obtain a state license, apprentice falconers must pass a written exam and then train with a sponsor for two years.
Falconers may fly different species of birds of prey, from falcons to owls, depending on state guidelines. Common in North Carolina, red-tailed hawks are ideal for learners.
“(Red-tailed hawks) are humble,” said April Davenport-Rice, secretary of the North American Falconers Association. “They train very fast. They are resistant.
Many falconers catch their birds in the wild. State statutes limit this to native birds that have learned to hunt but are too young to mate.
“Wild birds are really special,” said Aaron Kincaid, president of the North Carolina Falconers Guild. “They have already been hunting and killing, surviving on their own. … Your job is to teach him how to work with you.”
Hopeful falconers will spend weeks, sometimes months, looking for nests where falcons nest or perch. They will set up a rope trap, which catches a bird’s legs when they go for the mouse inside.
Some species are protected by quotas. Only five falconers a year are chosen by lottery to catch peregrine falcons, said Falyn Owens, an extension biologist with the wildlife commission.
Falconers may travel to catch new birds: goshawks on the East Coast, Harris’s hawks in Nebraska and Texas.
Falcons act tame in captivity, and experienced falconers can keep birds for years. After several seasons of hunting, Shores talks to Lagertha like a friend, stroking her feathers and her beak when she lands on her gloved wrist.
Others catch new falcons each season. Wild birds that are released still have hunting instincts, while a captive-bred bird may have problems if they fly away.
Xena the prairie falcon, imprinted in Shores at 3 days old. She’s still too skittish to sit in her garden without a hood, but she’s quite comfortable in her kitchen, where she raised her by hand.
The relationships between falcons and humans are unique, the falconers emphasize, if you can even call it a relationship.
“They are not affectionate,” Kincaid said. “Do not care. They are very demanding”.
Davenport-Rice’s current bird, Janee, will not land on your arm. But when Davenport-Rice walks into her compound, Janee’s feathers settle.
Raptors don’t express affection, says Davenport-Rice. The best a falconer can hope for are signs of trust.
These come out stronger during the hunt.
Most North Carolina falconers hunt during the squirrel and rabbit seasons. Training can take as little as two weeks for birds caught in the wild.
“They’re excited to get out there and start flying,” Shores said.
With birds in the backseat, whether swathed in a giant hood or tied to a ring, hunters head out early.
As the day progresses, the rabbits get deeper and deeper into the dense undergrowth and the squirrels hide in the tall trees.
Open fields are better for hunting rabbits, while squirrels live in wooded areas.
Both habitats are getting harder to find, Kincaid said, due to development.
Xena flies low to the ground, but Bruno the red-tailed hawk could land five miles away after a steep dive. That’s why some falconers strap GPS and radio transmitters to their birds’ ankles instead of traditional bells.
Most birds except Harris’s hawks hunt alone. Shores will take Lagertha out with her brother, Ragnar, while Kincaid and her mentor hunt their Harris hawks together.
Some falconers also bring hunting dogs to scare off rabbits, although falcons have been known to pounce on dogs when no rabbits emerge.
When a falconer gains a bird’s trust, it’s “elevation,” Davenport-Rice said. “I think my blood pressure should go down 50 points when I’m doing something like that.”
Five years ago, the annual workshop had just eight attendees. This year, attendance slots are sold out.
The participants learned about current laws and regulations, and about the cultural heritage of falconry.
“The joke is we’re trying to fit 4,000 years of falconry into eight hours,” Davenport-Rice said.
About 70 residents attended, but Shores said after learning about the challenges of falconry, she’ll be happy if one or two seek out mentors.
“This workshop is probably the determinant of whether you’re going to go into (falconry) or not,” Davenport-Rice said.
Working with a falcon means endless road trips, thick leather gloves and backyard construction, and freezers full of stuffed squirrels. It can be expensive and demanding.
“You have to understand that this is not a pet,” Davenport-Rice said.
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Feeding a falcon for a year can cost $500. Add $200 for leather gear, $3,000 to $6,000 to build a birdhouse or a special kind, and another $150 for medical checkups.
It’s common for falconers to give away their birds again, Davenport-Rice said, after an injury or change of life.
“If you break your leg in the woods,” he said, “That’s the end of your season. The bird has yet to survive.”
And after all that, a bird could fly off to hunt and never come back.
Once, a small sparrowhawk flew from Shores’ front yard during training. Without a long-distance tracker, Shores never saw the lone, colorful raptor again.
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