American falconers explain their enthusiasm for the sport

Chris Davis holding Harris hawk (Courtesy of Paul Wulfsberg)
Chris Davis, of New England Falconry, poses with a Harris hawk in Hadley, Massachusetts. (Courtesy of Paul Wulfsberg)

The ancient sport of falconry has a small but devoted following in the United States, with more than 4,000 Americans practicing the sport.

In falconry, people partner with young birds of prey (including falcons) to help the birds hunt wild animals for food. This usually happens during the fall and winter, which helps birds master hunting skills when food is sparse. U.S. falconers release birds to fend for themselves in the spring, says Chris Davis, a master falconer and owner of New England Falconry in Vermont and Massachusetts.

“You’re borrowing that wildness for a time period, and then you’re returning it to the wild,” Davis says.

Anastasia Mickiewicz, an apprentice-level falconer in Vermont, was volunteering at New England Falconry in 2019 when she went hunting with an experienced falconer and got hooked. “It feels like you’re working for the bird, so it’s exciting. You never know when something’s going to pop out,” she says, meaning prey such as a rabbit or a squirrel.

Anastasia Mickiewicz posing with red-tailed hawk (Courtesy of Anastasia Mickiewicz)
Anastasia Mickiewicz named her red-tailed hawk after wrestler Ronda Rousey, because birds “rouse,” or lift and shake their feathers, when they’re comfortable. (Courtesy of Anastasia Mickiewicz)

In ancient times, falconry was practiced to help humans, not birds, to eat. The place and time of falconry’s origins are disputed, according to America’s Public Broadcasting Service, with some experts saying hunting with birds started in Mongolia between 4,000 and 6,000 B.C.E. and others saying it started in Arabia or the Middle East much earlier. Adherents to the latter theory point to records that attest to a king who hunted with falcons in what is now Iran some 9,000 years ago. They believe that falconry later caught on in Asia and Europe.

Falconry is comparatively new in the U.S., where it has been practiced for just 100 years. The first media exposure to bring awareness of falconry to people in North America, Davis says, happened when Frank Craighead and his twin brother, John, wrote a 1937 National Geographic article on their own handling of predator birds. That article prompted an Indian prince named K.S. Dharmakumarsinjhi to invite the Craighead brothers to hunt with him in India.

More recently, the 2014 best-selling book H Is for Hawk and the 2016 film The Eagle Huntress exposed contemporary Americans to the sport. Because falconry is one of the most heavily regulated field sports in the U.S., adherents tend to be devoted enthusiasts willing to work for the seven years, minimum, to reach its highest, “master falconer” level.

Davis, a falconer since 1979, enjoys the sport’s unpredictability. He says that falconers temporarily modify birds’ natural behaviors, but not entirely. Trained birds often can’t stop chasing mice, for instance. “The bird, whose eyes are much better than ours, will shift to natural behaviors instantaneously,” Davis says.

Rodney Stotts posing with a Harris Hawk (Courtesy of Rodney Stotts)
Rodney Stotts with Agnes, the Harris hawk he named after his late friend Agnes Nixon, a television writer and producer (Courtesy of Rodney Stotts)

Rodney Stotts, a master falconer in Maryland, learned about falconry a decade ago, when he taught disadvantaged youth about raptors by handling injured birds for a nonprofit that helps people in the criminal justice system.

Stotts heard that the only way to work with healthy birds was to become a licensed falconer. Nobody he knew had known of an African American falconer, and Stotts admits he was eager to prove something to himself and his doubters.

“I like being different,” Stotts says, explaining his attraction to falconry.

Besides partnering with birds to hunt, Stotts, author of a memoir titled Bird Brother, connects with the birds on a deeper level. He named six birds after deceased loved ones, including a young barn owl named for his late son, Devin Denny. “When someone dies, we say, ‘They are up there, looking down on us,'” Stotts says. “If you’re flying a bird, the bird is doing what? Looking down on us.”