It may come as a surprise to some, but hunting with falcons is one of the oldest forms of animal-assisted hunting. Dating back roughly 4,000 years, this sport uses a trained raptor to catch other animals, but it’s not for the faint of heart. The men who practice falconry and the birds of prey they hunt with spend countless hours forming a bond and training for the pursuit. The end result? An extraordinary partnership between man and winged wonder that shows all who witness it what true dedication is all about.
By Christina Cannon
(Above) Photo by Emily Pérez Long
John Stokes with Little Joe
For many of the falconers throughout the Scenic City, their amazement with birds of prey has been present ever since they were young children. “I read a book called The Magnificent Birds of Prey in elementary school. It was mostly about falconry, and it hooked me. I was 9 years old when I caught my first raptor,” says Dale Liner, who would go on to found the Tennessee Falconers Association in 1987.
Similarly, Spencer Morse was exposed to falconry for the first time when he read My Side of the Mountain at the age of 11.
“The part of the story where a boy finds a nest of falcons and raises one as his hunting partner captivated me to the core. The first time I was able to see a raptor up close and personal was several years later when my father found an injured red-tailed hawk on the side of the road,” explains Morse.
After transporting the bird to a local rehab facility and meeting other birds in the process, Morse was hooked. “There is something so special about seeing a falcon or hawk up close – the details in their feathers, the intensity in their eyes. It made us want to be around these magnificent creatures on a regular basis,” he says.
But simply wanting to be around birds isn’t enough. To be a legal falconer in Tennessee, you must be able to trap, train, and care for a bird under the guidelines of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
“I worked with a red-tailed hawk named Satch for 21 years. I didn’t hunt with him a ton, but the skills I acquired while hunting were able to be applied when I trained birds for educational programs. In the end, I probably used Satch in 4,000 demonstrations, and I bet he’s flown over a million people in his lifetime.” – John Stokes
Spencer Morse with Malice
And that’s not all. You must also obtain a passing grade on a supervised exam and hold an Apprentice-, General-, or Master-Class Permit, which requires individuals to have anywhere from two to five years of experience.
“Becoming a falconer means you are committed to training a bird of prey for the sole purpose of hunting with the bird,” explains John Kern, a former member of the Georgia Falconry Association. “It is not something you can do by watching YouTube videos. It requires a lot of time and working closely with a sponsor who will show you the right way. If you are not committed to hunting with your bird, falconry is not for you.”
When it comes to hunting with a trained bird of prey, there are hundreds of species one could work with, but some of the more common include the American kestrel, red-tailed hawk, Harris’ hawk, and the peregrine falcon.
“Falconry is not for everyone. It’s a lifestyle, not a hobby,” says Liner. “It takes a ton of commitment and as much desire. You can’t put the birds in a closet and get them out to hunt once or twice a year. You have to care for them 365 days a year.”
Photo by Emily Pérez Long
“My hawk Ranger listens to every command and follows me closely. What he does is completely natural, and all I do is kick around some brush trying to scatter a critter or two.” – Alex Bizzell
Dale Liner with Scarlet – Photo by Emily Pérez Long
Time to Train
After passing the legal requirements of owning a falcon or other bird of prey, individuals sometimes spend a year or more bonding with and training their birds before ever successfully going on a hunt.
“In order to train my Harris’ hawk, Malice, to hunt with me, I had to start by spending hours and hours simply sitting with her,” says Morse. “After she was comfortable with me, I began using food to train her to fly short distances to my fist. Over time, those distances grew, until I was able to trust her enough to take her out into the woods to let her fly completely free.”
Kern echoes that, saying that when he first got his red-tailed hawk Choo-Choo, he spent a considerable amount of time manning the hawk, which was essentially teaching the bird to tolerate him. Another key aspect in forming a bond with a bird of prey is teaching it that you are not a threat.
Dale Liner with Scarlet – Photo by Emily Pérez Long
“Training is a long, drawn-out process that requires an incredible amount of patience. It’s basically a game of trust and teaching the bird that you’re the source of food,” explains Alex Bizzell, a sponsor for aspiring falconers in Hamilton County. “You have to teach them to throw away some of their most basic survival instincts of what they perceive to be a predator. Every time I release my red-tailed hawk Ranger for a flight, he has the option to leave me if he so wishes, but knows that I’m the easiest source of food, shelter, and water.”
Regardless of how long it takes falconers to cultivate trust with their birds, nearly all of the stewards of the sport note that training can be boiled down to a lot of positive reinforcement.
“Trying to understand them and learn their body language is the most difficult part about training a raptor,” says Bizzell. “The most rewarding part of training is the first time you hold out your fist and call for them and they come back to you.”
Alex Bizzell with Ranger
“Having the birds stay with you as you walk out into the field is the most important part of a hunt. If the birds aren’t in position when you flush the prey, they will likely miss.” – Dale Liner
The Thrill of the Hunt
After plenty of dedicated time indoors and working in backyards, it’s time to take to the trees, which can be a nerve-racking moment for some falconers.
“Falconry is one of the few activities where the animal that’s trained has total freedom once released,” says John Stokes, who has been working with birds of prey in an educational capacity for decades. “The bird flies to the trainer because it wants to do so.”
Most falconers in the East Tennessee region will hunt primarily squirrels and rabbits, but it’s not unusual for a bird to also grab rats, chipmunks, smaller birds, and occasionally a duck or snake.
Kern even recalls one time when he witnessed his hawk steal a fish from an osprey, but the duo still mostly sticks to hunting squirrels. On a typical hunt, Kern will cast his bird off of his glove to fly to the nearest tree. At this point, both Kern and the hawk are looking for game, and as Kern hikes further into the woods, his hawk will follow him, flying from one treetop to the next.
“When I see a squirrel that he doesn’t see, I’ll call him over to where I am to investigate.
John Kern with T-Bone
If he sees the game first, well, the chase is on,” explains Kern. “Through our time in the woods together, Choo-Choo and I have forged a successful hunting routine. I can read his body language. I can tell when he needs to rest or when he sees prey and is about to make a move. In turn, he responds instinctively to my cues. This complementary team effort is my goal for our relationship.”
For Morse, who more frequently pursues rabbits, a hunt will start with him walking through a field or briar patch carrying a tall stick where his bird can perch. Morse works to flush game, at which point Malice’s instincts will naturally kick in.
“The falconer does a lot of work leading up to the chase, but when the bird sees a rabbit or squirrel, it’s all up to them. They take off after it, and watching them fly is my favorite,” says Morse. “I just really enjoy watching Malice work.”
Getting to see a bird of prey in action is also what motivates Kern to stick with a sport that requires so much time, energy, and dedication.
“I love witnessing the different flight maneuvers birds do to get to their prey. Sometimes it’s quite acrobatic. They might spiral down around a tree trunk or execute a last-second inversion spin for an under-the-branch grab,” says Kern. “Maybe it is the fact that I never know what I might see from my bird.”
In Tennessee, the falconry season lasts 10 months out of the year, and most falconers can be found working with their birds daily during that time, or, at a minimum, three times a week. And while the act of hunting is certainly enjoyable for those who participate in the sport of falconry, it’s really a love for the animals themselves that motivates falconers to train and care for their birds day in and day out.
“Falconry is a sport that has conservation woven throughout its structure. Falconry and falconers have been instrumental in pushing for protections for birds of prey,” says Morse. “The desire to see these birds up close also drives a desire to protect them for others to see them, both up close and in the wild. This partnership is beautiful and rewarding for both the bird and the falconer when done well.”