A Sometimes-Tethered Relationship

An ancient hunting duo is brought to the area by Adirondack Raptors


Story by Adam Patterson
Photos courtesy of Adirondack Raptors

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If you're a good partner in a hunt, a peregrine falcon can be your best friend.

No more than a few weeks old, a newborn bird can be plucked from its nest by the hands of a human. They’re taken at such a young age so the person can quickly “imprint” their face into the bird’s mind, thus making the bird think the human is its parent. There is no sinister motive, and taking the baby bird from its home is out of respect and care. Seventy to 90 percent of birds of prey don’t live past their infancy. They may become ill, may not find enough prey to survive, or even get hit by a car. To a man training raptors, taking them at an early age ensures their survival in the beautiful but often unforgiving wilderness.

Mark Manske, creator of Adirondack Raptors, has respect and reverence for raptors, running a program that includes education presentations, monitoring the birds, and even hunting with the aerial predators for interested patrons.

Before Adirondack Raptors, Manske was a graduate student in Wisconsin. Part of his residency required that he took part in his instructor’s studies on prairie chickens, which included assisting his professors and guiding people to blinds. After participating in the study, he mused about the possibility of merging his experiences in the study with birds of prey. Twenty-five years later, Adirondack Raptors took flight.

Manske provides a number of services to his customers, most including witnessing a majestic raptor. “I envision a day excursion with Adirondack Raptors...we would get up in the morning, do breakfast, sit for about three to four hours in a blind (a camouflaged area), and then I’d take them out to lunch and bring them home,” Manske says,  “and I have two Harris hawks, a great horned owl, and a barn owl —I’d pull those out and tell people about the different birds, let them up close and personal and actually fly the Harris hawks around a little bit, and then close it all off with sitting at another blind.”

Manske also takes his followers out to nests so they can band and monitor certain types of birds. This summer he plans to have banded his thousandth kestrel for monitoring, a common member of the falcon family. In the winter months, he takes his patrons, along with his two trusty Harris hawks, into the wild. There, the hunt for small game, like rabbit, squirrel, and other small birds would begin using the raptors as the hunters. In doing so, Manske and his friends would participate in a venerable hunting tradition.

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Notice how the wings are completely folded in for a swoop.
Falconry, hunting with birds of prey, has survived largely unchanged in practice, but more highly regulated to protect the birds for thousands of years. “Falconry is quite ancient, probably dating back at least four or five thousand years,” says Tim Gallagher, falconer and editor of “Living Bird” magazine of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He even believes the ancient spectacle of falconry was witnessed by Europeans in the Middle East and brought back with them. Usually reserved only for the wealthy, who had the time and money to train the birds, they would hunt while on horseback to keep up with the hunt. Presently, it’s a more private affair between bird and human and much more esoteric than it used to be. However, the bond between falconers and their birds is not a master and servant affair and has never been that way.

“Falconry is wholly hinged on the relationship between the falconer and the bird and a good chunk of that is hinged on food,” Manske says, “It [my bird] really doesn’t need me but because it knows I will feed it, it will stay with me. But it doesn’t have to if it doesn’t want to.”

Training and building a relationship with a raptor for falconry is very unlike how someone would train and build a rapport with a house pet. There is no negative reinforcement, and rolled-up newspapers and a stern tone will do nothing to deter a raptors will. There’s also no sense of dominance like in certain species of animals like wolves, where there’s a clear leader in the pack. Clearly something has to bond a human to a bird if it’s not because of the perceived dominance of the human in the relationship. What seals their alliance is the bird's understanding of how useful a human can be as a partner in a hunt.

There are simple tactics, like the bird taking off straight from a leather-gloved hand, but Gallagher says a common style of hunting is called the “waiting on” style. The bird, usually a kind of falcon, would circle high up in the air waiting for the meal to reveal itself. If the human could stir up the prey, the bird would then push its wings into its body and tear downward through the sky in what’s called a stoop. The falcon is trying to either catch the game bird, a bird hunted for sport, by either knocking it to the ground or grabbing it mid-air and slamming it to the earth. Once down, a quick bite by the raptor to the game bird’s spinal chord kills it instantly. The better and more frequently a human can expose the bird's dinner, the deeper the bird's bond with the human.

“Just about anything in life can turn around and bite you.”

This is exactly the kind of relationship Manske has with his own birds, and it’s what his customers witness during a day with Adirondack Raptors. When he walks throughout his 40 acres of woods, his birds will follow him from tree to tree, sometimes for over a mile, knowing he can stir up prey for them to catch. If he does, the bird makes the kill and takes it. Unlike fetch, after a raptor’s successful kill from above, if Manske wants the prey he’ll have to find the bird and take it himself.

Like all human-animal relationships, the human needs to take the bond they have with a grain of salt. No well informed falconer, including Manske, blindly trusts his bird, and for good reason. Manske heard a story about a man who witnessed his hawk dive onto a little girl, mistakenly indentifying a stuffed animal in the girl’s arms for a quick snack

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Owls typically aren't used for hunting.

So, preparedness and solid training are the best deterrents for the bird's somewhat unpredictable behavior, Manske says. “Any time you work with a wild animal there’s always a possibility something could happen,” he says. “It’s part of the whole thing so you have to be aware of that, and it does happen. But if you train your birds well and you’re careful...you generally can get away without things happening.”

Mike Dupuy, a professional public speaker, practicing falconer and raptor expert, also agrees that while incidents can happen due to the wild nature of the birds, proper training and know-how can usually spare you scars in many facets of living.

“Just about anything in life can turn around and bite you,” Dupuy says. “I think maybe with birds of prey, I’d have to say honestly if you’ve gone through the elementary basics of understanding the biology of the birds, have some assistance from someone who’s somewhat knowledgeable, you should be able to avoid any pitfalls.”

“Every time I’m holding a bird of prey I have a peripheral vision of where the bird is and what its doing,” Dupuy says. “You don’t want to take anything for granted, so I’m constantly aware of what my raptor is doing.”

“Falconry is wholly hinged on the relationship between the falconer and the bird.”

Before building a relationship with a bird, getting the opportunity to capture, raise, and hunt with a raptor is difficult. According to Gallagher, hunters can come and go as they please during the hunting season, requiring only a gun with its permit and a hunting license. For hunters, the sport can be a hobby, lifestyle, or even something to do when they’re bored. Falconry is one of the most regulated of all field sports, and should not be taken lightly.

In addition to state and federal government paperwork, land is needed. Birds need much more than the typical back yard, and a solid portion of land is vital. Money is also important, not only for purchasing the birds, but to maintain land and to build structures to house and protect the birds. Or if you’re qualified, you can take a baby raptor fresh from its nest.

Gallagher explains that if one wants to become a falconer, they have to be supervised by an experienced falconer for a minimum of two years and must also pass an exam and have their shelters checked by state officials. Also during the apprenticeship, their sponsor would be observing. Newcomers can only train one bird a year, which has to be a “wild caught, first year red-tailed hawk or American kestrel,” he says. When the State Game Department approves, they can become a general falconer, which has its own limitations. Another five years of work makes the restrictions disappear.

“You have to be committed to it.”

Dupuy believes that while daunting, if someone becomes inspired by the sight of a raptor they will do what is necessary to become a falconer. He explains it’s not like deciding on whether or not you’re buying skis, and that the people who do it are serious about it.  “You have to be committed to it. It’s more 'wow I have to do this and I’m going to fit my schedule into it.'"

People like Manske, Dupuy, and Gallagher are committed to raptors. They have taken the proper steps, educated themselves to become knowledgeable, and made safety a top priority in dealing with birds of prey. It’s a kind of experience that Manske doesn’t shy away from, the human and bird bond is one of a kind and falconry is a part of his life he actively tries to share with people who are willing. “Birds of prey are just amazing,” he says. “They’re just an amazing group of critters.”

 

Which attribute of large birds do you think captures people's imaginations most?

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