Richard Shores, a licensed falconer practicing since 2004, holds Lagurtha, one of his two Harris hawks, on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022 in Apex, N.C. at his home where he houses four birds in a homemade falconry mews.

To keep the complex sport alive, Falconers School of North Carolina Freshmen

Richard Shores, a licensed falconer since 2004, holds Lagortha, a Harris's hawk, Friday, August 19, 2022 in Apex, North Carolina at his home where he shelters four birds in his homemade hawksbill.

Richard Shores, a licensed falconer since 2004, holds Lagortha, a Harris’s hawk, Friday, August 19, 2022 in Apex, North Carolina at his home where he shelters four birds in his homemade hawksbill.

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Richard Shores does not like to be kept away from the birds, bright and alert, perched on his front garden.

Lagertha, Harris’ strong-fisted hawk, watches Bella the Shores dog.

Bruno, a red-tailed hawk, slightly nervous; Its beak hangs open. Xena, a prairie hawk, has a red eyeless hood and a GPS transmitter.

Summer is the off season, when birds of prey rest and grow new feathers. In a few months, you’ll be looking at Shores as they each soar above North Carolina fields—up to 10 stories high, for Bruno—and then dive at 120mph at rabbits and squirrels.

Shores, who lives in Apex, has been falconry since 2004. He is one of about 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, Schurz and his fellow falconers sought to expand the ranks — or at least show potential falconers what they might get.

Lagortha, Harris’s hawk Richard Shorrese of Falconer, enjoys the leg of a perch for breakfast Friday, August 19, 2022 in Apex, North Carolina at the Shorris house where she shelters four birds in homemade falcons. Angelina Katsanis compulsory credit

Searching for falcons

Hawks work with birds of prey to hunt small birds and wild animals in North Carolina.

To obtain a government license, trained falconers must pass a written test, and then train with a sponsor for two years.

Falconers can fly different types of birds of prey, from hawks to owls, depending on state guidelines. Red-tailed hawks, common in North Carolina, are ideal for trainees.

“[Red-tailed hawks] Humble,” said April Davenport Rice, secretary of the North American Falconers Association. “They train very fast. They are hardy.”

Many falconers hunt their birds in the wild. State laws limit this to native birds that have learned to hunt but are too young to mate.

“Wild birds are really special,” said Aaron Kinkade, president of the North Carolina Guild of Falcons. “They were already hunting and killing, living alone. … Your job is to teach him to work with you.”

Hopeful falconers will spend weeks, sometimes months, searching for hawks’ nests, or where they perch. They will set up a noose trap, which catches a bird’s feet when they go to mouse inside.

Some species are protected by quotas. Only five falconers are selected annually by lottery to hunt peregrine falconsAnd the said Valen Owens, extension biologist with the Wildlife Commission.

Hawks may travel to hunt new birds: goshawks on the East Coast, Harris’s hawks in Nebraska and Texas.

Falcons behave in captivity in captivity, and experienced falconers may keep birds for years. After several seasons of hunting, Shores talks to Lagertha like a friend, batting her feathers and beak as they land on his gloved wrist.

Others catch new falcons each season. Wild birds that are released still have a hunting instinct, while captive-bred birds may struggle if they fly.

Xena, prairie hawk, imprinted on shors 3 days old. She is still too capricious to sit in his yard without a hood, but she is so comfortable in his kitchen – that he lifted it with his hand.

Fishing and trust

Falconers assert that the relationships between falcons and humans are unique – if one could call it a relationship at all.

“They’re not in love,” Kincaid said. “They don’t care. They are very demanding.”

Davenport Rice’s current bird, Janie, would not land on her arm. But when Davenport Rice entered the can, Jenny’s feathers settled down.

Davenport-Rice says that birds of prey do not express affection. The best a falconer can hope for are signs of confidence.

These come out strongest while hunting.

Most falconers in North Carolina hunt during squirrel and rabbit seasons. Training may take as little as two weeks for wild-caught birds.

“They are excited to get out and start flying,” Schurz said.

With the birds in the back seat—either draped in a giant hoodie or tied with a ring—the hunters come out early.

With the advent of the day, rabbits creep into the depths of dense bushes, and squirrels hide in tall trees.

Open fields are better for hunting rabbits, while squirrels live in wooded areas.

Finding habitat has been made more difficult by evolution, Kinkade said.

Xena flies low to the ground, but Bruno, the red-tailed hawk, might land five miles away after a steep dive. This is why some falconers attach GPS and radio transmitters to their birds’ ankles instead of traditional bells.

Most birds, with the exception of Harris’s hawks, hunt alone. Shores will take Lagertha with her brother, Ragnar, while Kincaid and his mentor hunt Harris’s hawks together.

Some falconers also bring hounds to scare away the rabbits, although hawks have been known to dive into dogs when no rabbits appear.

When a falconer gains a bird’s trust, it’s “euphoria,” Davenport-Rice said. “I think my blood pressure should drop by 50 points when I do something like that.”

Prepare for challenges

Five years ago, there were only eight annual workshop attendances. This year, attendance boxes have been sold out.

Participants learned about current laws and regulations, and about falconry’s cultural heritage

“The joke is we’re trying to cram 4,000 years of falconry into eight hours,” Davenport-Rice said.

About 70 residents attended, but Schurz said, having heard of falconry’s challenges, he would be glad if one or two looked for guides.

“This workshop will probably be the determinant of whether or not to continue [falconry] Davenport Rice said.

Working with a falcon means endless wilderness treks, thick leather gloves, backyard construction, and freezers full of dried squirrels. It can get expensive and demanding.

“They have to understand that this is not a pet,” Davenport-Rice said.

Feeding a falcon for a year can cost $500. Add $200 for leather gear, $3,000 to $6,000 to build a meow or a special kind of birdhouse, and another $150 for medical exams.

It’s common for falconers to reintroduce their birds after an injury or life change, Davenport Rice said.

“If you break a leg in the woods,” she said, “that’s the end of your season. The bird still has to survive.”

And after all that, the bird might fly away to hunt and never come back.

A small sparrow hawk once flew out of Shores’ front yard during training. Without a long-distance tracker, Shores would never see solitary, colorful raptors again.

This story was originally published September 12, 2022 10:22 am.

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