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Author: Olivia Tosi
Pictures: Olivia Tosi

The Art of Hunting with Birds

De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus – The art of hunting with birds. Olivia Tosi is a 26 year old helicopter pilot and lives on the West Coast of the US. Air is her element. She devotes her free time to a very special hobby: falconry.

Tell us a bit about yourself, where you are from, what do you do for a living?

Hi! I’m Olivia, I am 26 years old, I grew up in Germany, and I have two great passions in life. The first one is aviation. After getting my degree in business and mechanical engineeringin Munich, I decided to move to the U.S. and become a helicopter pilot, which is what I do for a living now. But my spare time is almost entirely consumed by my second passion: falconry.

Can you give us a little insight in to just what falconry is?

Falconry is the ancient art of taking of wild quarry in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained raptor. It includes acquiring a bird of prey, training it, caring for it. But most importantly, allowing it to do what it’s been programmed to do through millions of years of evolution: hunt. Through falconry we are allowed to peak behind the curtain and witness the predator prey dynamic. This is happening countless times a day in the wild hidden from our eyes, firsthand and up close.

How did you become a falconer? What kind of training does it require to become a falconer?

Falconry in the U.S. is highly regulated – to become an apprentice falconer in the U.S. and to keep your own bird, one must obtain a hunting license and falconry permit. That involves passing an exam that tests the applicant’s knowledge of the U.S. native raptor species, their prey, habitat, behavior, illnesses, husbandry, etc. Additionally, the apprentice needs to find a sponsor. A general or master falconer who is willing to mentor the apprentice for two full years, before he or she can become a general falconer.

Falconry isn’t just a hobby; it very quickly becomes a lifestyle. Because of the amount of time involved it’s usually a good idea to accompany a local falconer for a while to figure out if a bird of prey is really something one wants to commit to. In Germany, I had volunteered as bird trainer at different centers for birds of prey for over six years. I flew eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls before starting my journey as a falconer with my own bird. Currently, I am an apprentice falconer in my second season and hope to progress to general falconer next winter.

Do you have one or more hawks you work with and what kind is it? How do you find a hawk to work with?

An apprentice falconer is allowed to trap one passage red-tailed hawk per year. It is one of the most common and versatile raptor species in the U.S. Passage means an immature bird, in its first year. Red-tailed hawks usually hatch around April and are fully grown some six weeks later. They start to be independent from their parents by July/August.

About 75 to 80 percent of juvenile hawks do not survive their first winter. Therefore the idea is to trap a juvenile bird in fall, train it, then hunt with it through the winter months. It will then be released back to the wild come springtime. This way the bird always has a guaranteed meal in the winter and at the same time gains hunting experience to set it up for success for when it returns to the wild.

Where do they live, what is their living habitat like?

Red-tailed hawks can be found almost anywhere on the North American continent. Their habitats are as diverse as open farmland, deep forest regions or Downtown Manhattan.

Does your hawk stay close to its habitat, or does it roam as well? Does it come back to you easily?

Falconry birds are usually kept in spacious aviaries, called “mews”, which get inspected by the state. They need to pass high standards before housing a bird. After trapping a hawk it only takes a couple of weeks of training until it can be free flighted. The bird will fly to the falconer deliberately and follow him or her through the woods without any tethers.

A well-trained bird will stay close to the falconer. It’ll fly from tree to tree, always alert, in case the falconer successfully flushes game for it. That being said, even the best trained hawk could roam or fly away. A stiff breeze, strong thermals, or simply that the falconer isn’t providing enough hunting opportunities: there are many reasons why your hawk could get carried away. And in the end, there’s nothing to hold them back.

What do you find most challenging and what most fulfilling in falconry?

A raptor is not like a dog, there is no magic bond or friendship. For the hawk the falconer is merely a convenient tool for greater hunting success. That means if you can’t provide a benefit to the bird, chances are, it leaves. The biggest challenge therefore is to convince the bird in the early stages of training that you bring something to the table that’s worth staying for. Especially in the beginning this often involves rather exciting days in the field, not being 100 percent sure how the bird will behave.

At the same time though, once you gain the hawk’s trust and respect as a useful means to an end, there is no more exhilarating feeling than knowing this magnificent apex predator, that so easily could just fly off, chooses to stay with you day after day.

How much time do you spend doing falconry? Do they require a lot of care? What do they eat?

Getting to this point requires a tremendous amount of time and commitment. Every now and then my husband half-jokingly complains that I love my bird more than I love him. Which of course is not true, but during the winter months I definitely spend more time with my hawk than I do with him. Usually I try to fly my bird at least every second day, often more, for about 2 hours on average.

The goal of a falconer should be to resemble the birds life in the wild as much as possible. But not just the regular flying exercise is important and time intensive. Caring for a bird of prey is significantly more complicated than for a dog or a cat. Besides building spacious facilities for the bird, you must keep those and equipment cleanand ready every day and ensure a balanced diet.

My current bird ‘Taiga’, a female red-tailed hawk mostly eats what she catches: rabbits, squirrels, and mice, sometimes complemented by other meats such as quail. Going on vacation is not exactly easy either, as you cannot burden your average neighbor with the caretaking of a bird of prey.

During the fall/winter season half my life is consumed by falconry and it can get busy at times, but when I’m out in the field, my hawk soaring overhead, nature all around – I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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