Fishing the sky

What a needy, desperate thing to claim what’s wild for oneself…


Can a kept hawk ever be a *happy* hawk, I wonder?



Falconers will say their birds are well-loved and are cared for properly. I don’t doubt that.

Educators who work with non-releasable birds will say that many people who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to interact with a wild thing are touched by the lives of these captive birds. I don’t doubt that, either.

But keeping wild-caught birds for falconry? Purposely fishing the sky for a healthy hawk to catch and keep as one’s personal hunting partner?

How is that right?

Are captive-bred birds somehow less desirable for falconry?

Anyone know?

I’m as guilty as the next person of enjoying the “horse and pony show” offered by the opportunity to be up close with a wild bird of prey, but I can’t help wondering that their souls aren’t somehow diminished by the contact; by being kept.

Non-releasable birds have to be thought of in a different context, I guess, because of their potential as champions and ambassadors of a species; were it not for them most people would never have the chance to see a Bald Eagle or a Screech Owl at arm’s length. Or to understand the impact we humans have on them.

But falconers and their healthy wild-caught birds?

I’m not so sure how I feel about that.

My issue is not with falconers, exactly. Falconry sounds like a very cool thing to do… there was a period of time where I read everything about falconry that I could get my hands on. Dan O’Brien’s books were particularly alluring to me… his stories of hunting grouse and ducks on the prairies of South Dakota with a dog and the constant sky…

Falconers are due credit, I believe, for the role they played in saving the Peregrine Falcon, among other species. The individual falconer with a couple birds that he flies on weekends as part of a greater lifestyle does not trouble me.

My issue is with those who turn to *education* to support a habit of acquiring birds. Maybe they need an educational component on their license to increase the number of birds they’re permitted to keep. I have no idea, really, but I’ve seen a number over the years who just don’t seem to be doing the right thing by the birds in their care.

Maybe I’m just being overly sentimental.

… to be wild means nothing you do or have done needs to be explained.

Photos: Harris’ Hawk at an upstate NY *raptor center*
Quotes from “Hawk” by Stephen Dunn

22 thoughts on “Fishing the sky”

  1. I tend to be with you on this Laura. I don’t have a problem at all with injured birds that can’t be released back into the wild. They are wonderful ambassadors for education and preservation, but fishing healthy birds out of the sky to keep for hobby? Makes me uncomfortable.

  2. I really don’t know much about how they train a falcon for this. I would venture a guess that it is similar to breaking a wild horse. Could you say that any horse is really “happy” in the wild sense of the word ? There are millions of “broken” horses out there used for a lot of different purposes. If they really never knew what it was like to run free across a prairie or soar effortlessly above the earth, would they even feel that they were enslaved in some way ? Probably not. What about any other animals that man has domesticated for his own purposes ? Dogs for instance. I would think that most animals, if not all (including man himself), would revert to their natural state if left to their own devices. Man doesn’t feel that he is part of the web of nature and is separate and above it. It is in the skewed nature of man to think he has dominion over animals and the earth, when in reality, he is really just a surface annoyance.

  3. I’m with Jayne.
    I am constantly amazed at the endless capacity of humanity to inflict all manner of cruelty on other animals. Lord help us if the other animals ever unite against us.
    Captivity is surely part of the cruelty.
    But then, humans are also endlessly devoted to undoing what other humans have done–devoted to saving, caring for, and preserving other animals.

  4. I’m with you and Jane and KGMom – wild should stay wild. Captivity for the sole purpose of entertaining us and not rehabilitation can only be described as cruel.

  5. Laura,

    I wish I had written this, it gives words to my own rather nebulous thoughts. Very nicely done. (And I love the title.)

    Not overly sentimental at all.


    I don’t know what I expected when visiting the Raptor Center, but it certainly wasn’t the ramshackle collection of structures and the half dozen tethered hawks we found. The tethered birds were particularly disturbing, attempting to fly and crashing to the ground.

    And I doubt that the proprietor facilitates much education. Perhaps the occasional student is touched by the close encounter. Perhaps.

    The owl banding team I recently visited was made up of one college intern, three high school kids, and Scott. All touched by such an encounter. But three of the four had that encounter with Scott. I doubt Gino would invoke the same sense of wonder.


    My first encounter with keeping birds of prey was via My Side of the Mountain, Sam’s bird Frightful. On top of the whole already incredibly cool living in a hollow tree thing he had going on, he now had a falcon. I so wanted to be him. I’ve no remembrance of ever seeing a bird of prey in my youth, making his bird even more mysterious and exotic. These days I see eagles on my ride to work (not quite a trash bird yet!) and red-tails dot the trees along highways. Conversely, the once common bobwhite echos in my woods no more.


    How much of hunting is instinct and how much is taught? Might wild birds have learned better hunting skills?

    But why, given the chance, wouldn’t a wild bird just fly away when released on the hunt? What hold does the falconer have over the birds?

    And what was he doing with a perfectly healthy snowy owl? Trapped in one of those decrepit wooden cages. Sad (and as KGMom and Beth note, cruel).

  6. To the casual observer falconry could look like a form of pet keeping but after nearly twenty years in the sport I can assure you it’s far from just keeping a hawk as a pet.

    Is my wild caught peregrine falcon “happy”, it would be impossible to say but does he benefit, possibly as much as I do, from our hunting partnership? I think he does. When my peregrine is 1,000 feet above me, waiting patiently, for me to produce a flush he is more than capable of heading for the destination of his choice.

    When a falconer traps a wild bird he/she spends a few weeks feeding the bird from his hand and it doesn’t take long for that bird to realize the benefits of his newly found flushing partner. In most cases a falconer will be flying a newly trapped bird within three or four weeks of capture.

    It’s easy for someone that doesn’t have to live “in the wild” to overly glorify and anthropomorphize the experience but life for a wild hawk is a difficult one. 80% of them die the first year (we only trap first year birds), they go days without eating and spend their time avoiding being eaten themselves. It doesn’t take long for a wild caught bird to see the advantages of hanging out with their new hunting partner.

    In the spring, when I release my birds, I can return to the same field I released them in for several months and call them from the trees to go for another hunt. Do you think she is angry with me when I return to my air conditioned home and leave her to sleep in a tree? I wonder sometimes.

  7. Interesting topic. As long as the birds that are being kept captive are being kept for a good reason and they are well cared for then I don’t have a problem with it.many times wild birds live longer than wild ones.This sort of things has to be carefully regulated.

  8. As with everything, there are extremes to all situations and every gradation in between the opposite poles, from people who show the utmost respect, appreciation and care to folks who are in [whatever] for all the “wrong” reasons and don’t follow the rules in spirit or practice.

    I’ve never really been comfortable with the idea of wild-caught falconry birds. Captive breeding seems to me a reasonable solution to the “need” for birds; is the purpose of wild-caught merely to feed the “a wild animal likes me” aspect of falconry? Are we better enough these days at providing the right conditions that allow for successful captive breeding to make wild-caught birds obsolete? And what about those no-man’s-land birds who have been healed through rehab efforts (another topic about which I’m as divided-over as falconry), the ones who have healed well enough to maybe hunt a bit but not quite well enough for a high survival outlook on their own—is anyone properly flying those birds?

    I’ve never been entirely comfortable with traditional well-kept mews (never mind shoddy excuses for them); they rank right up there with traditional (read: barren, sterile, too-small, un-stimulating) zoo displays in my opinion. How can any non-domesticated bird, captive-bred, wild, imprinted, or non-releasable, be “happy” (read: as close to normal in behavior as possible) in what amounts to little more than a cage?

    Being a sometimes-environmental educator, I know what putting a live animal in front of people can do for a human’s state of mind regarding Nature. Perhaps if more people got outdoors and were able to interact with all of the natural world around them a bit more, more respect and appreciation for all forms of life would result. Perhaps falconry is/was viewed in part as a means of getting closer to nature (in addition to being a means to garner sustenance—and hunting as a means of getting closer to Nature is a whole other topic that stirs varied and strong reactions), a way to gain back something we lost with our own “domestication”…?

    Oh, and falconry birds do bail. A belled and braceleted red-tail showed up in Cape May Point a few years ago, and I started making phone calls. Turns out, a tech at my veterinarian’s hospital is a falconer; even weirder yet, the bird actually “belonged” to a friend of theirs who had been visiting. After several days’ effort, they never were able to get the bird to come back to the glove.

    [Well, you did ask! *lol*]

  9. WoW – you sure got people to write their thoughts and hit a hot issue!

    My Side of the Mountain was a huge influence on Robert Kennedy Jr. and now we have the world wide Water Keepers at work correcting problems man has caused, encouraging others to be proper stewards, and aggresively going after those who refuse to comply.

    That book was also an emotional impact on some of our grandchildren and will color their thoughts about Ma. Earth forever too.

    I’m glad it popped up in the comments!

    Now – FREE LOLITA!

  10. *clearing my throat*
    First, thank you for not slamming my chosen profession. Well, in actuality, I didn’t choose it, it chose me.
    More RAPTOR volunteers than I can count started out as small children who saw an education program and became inspired to do something.
    Thank you for understanding the value of captive education birds. Seriously. I love you for that.

    Now. Falconry.
    I have opinions about falconry that I choose not to express here, but I will say that falconers are a totally different breed of person than an educator.
    And you and I know of a “falconer” who parades himself as an “educator” and frankly, it’s laughable. I would call him a “banker”.
    I am always sorry when someone takes a negative opinion of captive raptors, whether it’s a non-releasable one or a wild caught working bird or a captive bred bird. Makes my job harder, having to explain the amount of work and love that goes into the care of each and every bird we have.

    My opinion about “happy” birds: Um, I don’t think wild animals have emotions like some people think they do. Raptors have “states”. Hungry, sleeping, hunting, fright, and hormonal. πŸ™‚

  11. I think there’s a big distinction between educators and falconers, in that educators don’t really “train” their birds; I know Susan’s talked many times about how tough it is to hold those birds while she tries to educate people about how the birds are in the wild. She doesn’t then have them do tricks. Falconers, however, must TRAIN their birds to work with them to capture prey, fly for treats, etc., do they not?

    To me, falconry is like stealing a healthy bird from nature, making it perform for you. Rehabbers and educators are working with birds to either help them get back into the wild or, if the bird can’t do that due to injury or disease or whatever, to at least be held for a little while so that others can learn about what makes wild birds wild.

  12. Please have patience with me… I’m so glad for your thoughtful comments!

    (may take me a bit to address them all, tho)

    Jayne: obviously, yes, it makes me uncomfortable… but there’s also a part of me that’s uncomfortable with “any” raptor being kept… maybe Susan could address this… I think there’s something unique about raptors and other predators which makes keeping them – even for good reason – sort of questionable in my heart.

    Crazy Chicken Farmer Brother of Mine: no… I don’t think it’s anything like breaking a wild horse… from what I’ve read there’s no fear, just trust heaped upon trust and food! Showing the wild bird that there’s some benefit to the relationship with man… I get the idea that it’s always a tenuous thing… and birds do sometimes “fly the coop” so to speak. Falconers have a great admiration for their birds, I think.

    KGMom: Yes… the captivity seems cruel, on the surface, to a wild bird… but the falconer would say that he frees it from worry… worry over shelter, safety, food…

    A small price?

    Beth: yes, but I don’t know how common that is; the keeping of healthy birds for educational pursuits – anyone know numbers?

  13. Laura: I meant to answer the question you asked.

    “Are captive-bred birds somehow less desirable for falconry?
    Anyone know?”

    The short answer for most species is “yes” they are less desirable for various reasons. Most of it has to do with the skills and abilities of the bird as well as behavioral aspects. And not all species breed well in captivity (birds like merlins, and most accipiters).

    Captive bred buteos, like the red tailed hawk, are notoriously aggressive to the point of being dangerous when raised in captivity. They have no fear of humans.

    Some birds like the harris hawk are preferred as captive bred birds. For some types of falconry the captive bred peregrine might be better than its wild counterpart.

    But for the most part, falconry is little more than watching predator and prey doing what they do every day in the wild. And just as in the wild, in order for the predator to be successful they need to out think, out fly and outwit their prey. And wild birds come with all the skills necessary to do this. They are stronger fliers, they know how to use the wind, they have better footing abilities and they are all around better predators. And even with all these attributes the prey gets away most of the time.

    Falconers are allowed to trap juvenile birds of prey, 80% of which will die the first year. Biologically speaking, it’s been proven time and again by the USFWS that falconers have no significant impact on wild raptor populations. And it could be argued that falconers help a raptor through that first tough year and they are then released back to the wild in a better position for long term survival. (This has never been studied and is merely speculation)

  14. Dguzman: I don’t think you have a very firm understanding of what falconry is or what falconers do. I think a trip out with a falconer would probably change your mind. I worked in the zoo industry for six years training animals (mostly birds) and worked for one of the largest bird show companies in the world. I can assure you birds in educational programs are far more likely to be trained to “fly for treats” and “perform” than any falconry bird.

    Falconry birds are “performing” for themselves, they catch prey as they would in the wild and then eat that prey just as they would in the wild. And I can’t “make” my falconry birds do anything; there is no way for me to stop a bird from flying away.

    In my experience as an educator there is nothing more inspiring or educational than watching a raptor do what a raptor does, fly and hunt. Sure, a broken wing owl on the glove is better than nothing and it’s a great way to show a group of school kids a bird they may not see otherwise and will hopefully gain appreciation for. But, every time I take someone out to see a peregrine fly over 100mph they come away truly inspired and awestruck.

    Are there bad falconers or do birds fly away? Of course, falconers do occasionally lose birds, people lose dogs, cats run away and tweety gets out of his cage. There are people in this world that should not be allowed to have children, much less care for a dog, cat, horse or falcon. But it’s unfair to judge an entire activity based on a few of the worst examples of its practitioners.

    In large falconers care deeply for their birds and go to great effort to provide exceptional care for them. Most try to fly their birds daily.

    Falconry video if interested:

  15. MevetS: Those tethered birds crashing to the ground… it’s called “baiting” I think… happens when a bird is on the fist, too. I don’t imagine it’s a big deal, but it does look uncomfortable to be brought up short by one’s “leash”, no?

    ; )

    Was that Scott W. in your pics? How’d I miss that invitation?


    I read “My Side of the Mountain” late in life… during that reading everything about falconry phase, but wow Jean Craighead George… a must read for everyone, I think.

    There’s a number of books about Frightful, in case you weren’t aware.

    “Julie of the Wolves” was my first book by him… in HS, I think.

    – – – – –

    That guy in the Catskills… I was most bothered by the Coop he had… I can’t imagine anyone keeping them, for good reason.

    Did you actually see the Snowy?

    Anyway… a guy like that… I imagine he count on most of his audience not really knowing a thing about birds.

    Eric: Hi… I’m so glad for your input here and the chance to pick your brain some.

    I had no idea that only passage birds were captured or that they were released so quickly… is that required by law or just a choice most falconers make?

    The little I know about falconry is from reading – something like knowing just enough to be dangerous, I admit!

    Larry: Yes… the longer lifespan of captives is a given, but quality of life?

    I’d like to know how *not* to anthropomorphize about it? Help?

    Cape May Wren: I know *happy* was a poor choice of words… close to normal, as you put it, is much better.

    You’d mentioned that story about the red-tail before… did I tell you about a certain famous *insert name of camera company* guy who temporarily lost a Gyr over Cape May a couple years back… funniest thing I ever saw… his level of panic!

    Lynne: I haven’t been to many zoos, but I know what you mean. So often the animals look bored to tears!

    Rabbit’s Guy: It always amazes me what stirs people here… so unpredictable!

    Reading ALL his books is on my list for someday… sharing some with kids sounds even better!

    Susan: Really… it’s your opinion on falconry that I’m interested in – that’s what my questions were about – not so much captive birds in other circumstances – tho I do wonder – you know that Robinson Jeffers poem?

    Lene: Hi! Yeah… I’m just trying to sort it out for myself (and using the blog as a sounding-board).

    : )

    Delia: Yeah… it’s a distinction of purposes…

  16. Eric: Hi… again I want to thank you for the insight you provided; that’s what I was looking for.

    I want to thank you too for responding in that same vein… all of us here love birds and have great respect for birds of prey, but we bird-lovers don’t have the direct experience to understand what you (as a falconer) do, or why you do it, necessarily.

    And yes there are the questionable ones that shadow our impressions…

    (mainly what inspired this blog post to begin with!)

    I don’t know any falconers… there are a couple people on the periphery of my life… banders,,, that I know practice falconry as well, but I’ve not ever had the chance to experience it firsthand.

    I would love to someday, tho, see it!

    Watching your video link this afternoon during my lunch hour… I was reminded of my feelings on watching a football game… too much action… everything happening too fast… I didn’t know where the ball was, etc.

    ; )

    So I focused on your silly dog, gallumping around in the margins.

    I meant no offense, as I’m a Lab-lover myself, and must find the time to read your blog to learn how one trains a Lab to behave itself around a regal hunting falcon.

    (sort of unbelievable to me!)

  17. >>Hi… I’m so glad for your input here and the chance to pick your brain some.

    If for no other reason than to end the mystery and identify that obscure Chachalaca. πŸ˜‰

    >>I had no idea that only passage birds were captured or that they were released so quickly… is that required by law or just a choice most falconers make?

    The law only allows falconry birds to be either taken from the nest or trapped as a passage bird (a bird in its first year of life). Statistically, most of these birds will not make it through the first year. Adults are obviously the survivors, the breeding stock, we would never want to remove these birds from the population.

    >>Eric: Hi… again I want to thank you for the insight you provided; that’s what I was looking for. I want to thank you too for responding in that same vein… all of us here love birds and have great respect for birds of prey, but we bird-lovers don’t have the direct experience to understand what you (as a falconer) do, or why you do it, necessarily.

    My pleasure, I certainly didn’t take offense to your post and didn’t completely disagree with some of your views. I’m obviously not a regular follower of your blog but it popped up on a Google alert for “falconry” related news. I’m actually the president of the Florida Falconers’ Association and the SE director for the North American Falconers’ Association so I keep an eye peeled for falconry related news and posts.

    I don’t reply to someone just bashing the sport but I do like to contribute if I think a little information would be helpful.

    Personally, I’m a bird nut. (and my wife is a bird keeper at a zoo) I’ve trained more than I can count, I love bird watching and I love taking photos of birds (VERY much an amateur).

    I’m also an outdoorsman but was never a hunter until falconry. Falconry is very much a hunting sport, a raptor lives to hunt it’s really all they do in the wild. They hunt, eat and then conserve energy and avoid being eaten themselves. For me, there is nothing more enjoyable than going out into the field and being part of something so incredible. It’s a hunting partnership, the falcon learns to work with the falconer and the falconer learns everything about his bird. I know what types of birds my peregrine likes to hunt, I know what habitat to look for, I know when he’s in the best position for me to flush. A peregrine is an amazing hunting machine with a top speed of 250mph and the ability to pull over 25g’s in a turn, but even with these abilities everything has to be perfect for success. If either of us miscalculates the prey gets away and the prey gets away most of the time.

    It’s hard to beat Aldo Leopold’s quote from “A Man’s Leisure Time”…

    “The most glamorous hobby I know of today is the revival of falconry. It has a few addicts in America and perhaps a dozen in England – a minority indeed. For two and a half cents one can buy and shoot a cartridge that will kill the heron whose capture by hawking required months or years of laborious training of both the hawk and the hawker. The cartridge, as a lethal agent, is a perfect product of industrial chemistry. One can write a formula for its lethal reaction. The hawk, as a lethal agent, is the perfect flower of that still utterly mysterious alchemy – evolution. No living man can, or possibly ever will, understand the instinct of predation that we share with our raptorial servant. No man-made machine can, or ever will, synthesize that perfect coordination of eye, muscle, and pinion as he stoops to his kill. The heron, if bagged, is inedible and hence useless (although the old falconers seem to have eaten him, just as a Boy Scout smokes and eats a flea-bitten summer cottontail that has fallen victim to his sling, club, or bow). Moreover the hawk, at the slightest error in technique of handling, may either ‘go tame’ like Homo sapiens or fly away into the blue. All in all, falconry is the perfect hobby.”

  18. >>And yes there are the questionable ones that shadow our impressions…
    (mainly what inspired this blog post to begin with!)

    And unfortunately, it’s usually the “questionable ones” that are the most visible and that sort of “represent” the sport to the public. Most of the best falconers I know live normal lives and quietly fly their birds every day.

    >>I would love to someday, tho, see it!

    If you ever want to see it just drop me and email and let me know where you live and I’d be happy to hook you up with a good falconer in your area. Falconers are usually happy to have someone along with a nice camera and it’s a great way to get some amazing photos. (my friend Rob Palmer has taken some amazing shots of my birds hunting and he has some great falconry shots on his website.)

    >>I meant no offense, as I’m a Lab-lover myself, and must find the time to read your blog to learn how one trains a Lab to behave itself around a regal hunting falcon. (sort of unbelievable to me!)

    None taken, but don’t plan on learning too much on my blog, I’m not an accomplished dog trainer, I get by, but I have a new pup I’m going to try to train for field trials.

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