I am fascinated with birds, especially the recent spate of videos with exotic males performing elaborate dances to attract females. A “60 Minutes” episode last year featured a young Oklahoma woman, a master falconer, who traveled to Mongolia to work with birds in the ancient tradition.
At a recent Jewish community event I met Linda Ames, who mentioned that her husband Greg has a barn owl and red-tailed hawk on their Marietta property and is a master falconer.
Greg’s knowledge and experience are apparent, and he notes the best advice for a happy marriage is a “separate freezer,” as his is loaded with squirrels, rodents and rabbits that he catches and orders off the internet. Sixty pounds of frozen rodents will feed Ames’ birds for three months, along with what he catches. A hawk can feed on a frozen squirrel for three to four days.
Ames took up falconry upon retirement. He served a two-year apprenticeship before becoming a “master falconer.”
“Wild animals are never tamed. They do not have the emotional capacity of a family pet relationship. Everything is based on food.”
The History of Falconry
Falconry is training birds to hunt for the trainer. The sport goes back more than 3,000 years to Persian and Chinese cultures, according to the International Association for Falconry. It can be traced back to Mesopotamia in 2000 B.C.E. and was later adopted by Europeans in the Middle Ages as the “sport of kings,” according to IAF and other online sources.
In America it is highly regulated. The majority of birds taken from the wild under 1 year old are red-tailed hawks. The American kestrel is second most popular.
Olivia the Owl
Ames rescued his owl Olivia from a demolition site when she was just a week old; so he is her “hard imprint first living creature/parent.” She is often kept on a leash in an 8-by-8-foot mew. She will come to him when called from 60 feet away. When asked if the red-tailed hawk and Olivia (weighing only 1.4 pounds) can be in the same space, he exclaimed, “Heck, no, she would be his lunch!” On the other hand, Olivia has a propensity for frozen mice.
Falconry as Sport
Falconry begins with trapping a grown bird, then hunting together for five to six weeks, Ames explained. He revealed that it’s his job to “scare up the game” (rabbits, squirrels, other birds) and have the hawk land it. Then the hawk gives it up to him. Note that the bird will not “bring” it to him. Ames has chicken gizzards in his pocket that he throws 10 feet away, which is used in exchange for Ames to claim “the kill.”
When asked about longevity, Ames stated that hawks don’t live as long as owls (up to 20 years). Hawks in the wild may make it five to seven years. Some have been known to hunt with the same falconer for 18 years. A particularly vicious enemy of the hawk is the horned owl, which strikes at night when birds are most vulnerable.
Also, according to Ames, a mean squirrel might chew off the toe of a bird in a tussle.
Male Versus Female
Falconers prefer female birds because they are bigger and better at hunting game. “Though males are faster and more agile, but one-third smaller.”
When it comes to examining a bird to determine its gender, Ames laughed, “You’d be crazy to try to look behind, resisting three-inch talons to check that out.” When it comes to romance, the male and female perform acrobatics in the sky and spin around as a prelude to land and copulate. They mate for life, and the male stays with the nest and helps feed the chicks.
On the Lighter Side
Ames said he has yet to see his hawk’s red tail. “Right now it is black and brown, but after he molts, it should come in red.” Ames takes the birds to show at schools and events. “After all, I don’t want this to be a job. It’s a hobby, but it’s a lot of work. And remember, ‘Don’t give the spouse access to the freezer.’”