As a hunting population goes, the folks who hunt with birds of prey in Arizona are a pretty small group. There are only about 90 in the state, according to Jason Pollack, one of the group. Pollack is a Payson resident who hunts with a Harris hawk he calls Rico.
Pollack is also hosting a gathering for the Arizona Falconers Association this weekend, Aug. 14 and Aug. 15 at the Oxbow Saloon building. Activities planned include education on the ancient art of falconry; a talk on what it takes to be a falconer in this day and age; a BB gun shooting contest; an apprentice/pre-apprentice workshop; an equipment-making workshop; a hawk coping demonstration; and a hood-making workshop.
All of the activities at the gathering are open to the public, Pollack said. However, don’t expect any demonstrations other than the one on “hawk coping” — more about that later.
“We want to try to educate the public about hunting with the birds. We’re not a display group,” he said.
The practice of falconry dates back to at least 680 B.C. in China and some 400 years earlier in Japan — possibly earlier than that in Persia and Arabia.
As trade with Europe increased, and between 500 and 1600 A.D., according to “Ancient & Medieval Hawkry: Origins & Functions in Medieval England” by Shawn E. Carroll, it became a highly regulated, revered and popular sport among nearly all classes in Europe.
Licensing and training
The small number of Arizona hunters working with birds of prey may be due to the fact that they must have a state license, just as other hunters do, and that it takes a lot of time to keep the birds properly cared for and trained. The licenses issued for using birds of prey come from the Arizona Game & Fish Department and the holder must be at least 14.
“We don’t really treat them as pets because they are just put in our charge for a while,” Pollack said.
“A pet is a companion, like a dog or a cat, who is loyal and wants to be around you for a long time. Raptors (hawks and falcons among them) don’t care.
“If I don’t work with him for a week, he’d revert back to wild just that quick.”
He must work with Rico at least two hours a day. This is Pollack’s fourth bird. Its predecessor, Dax, a Red-tailed hawk, took two to four hours a day of training.
Consequently, having a hawk is more time-intensive than the usual family pet.
Dax was returned to the wild and Pollack has had Rico just about a year.
Hunting with birds of prey is not just a matter of going out, getting a bird and getting a license.
There is also a process involved before an individual can hunt with the birds. It starts with pre-apprentice status where those interested learn about all that is involved with having a bird of prey.
Next is the apprentice status where the individual has a license and a sponsor, who either has general falconer status or is a master falconer.
The apprenticeship is a two-year program, followed by a test by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Upon successful completion of the apprenticeship and test, general falconer status is awarded the individual. It takes at least another five years to become a master.
Pollack said about three-quarters of the 90 license holders are master falconers.
In addition to the big time commitment required to work with birds of prey, there is quite a bit of money involved, he said.
The cost includes buying a bird, and a falconer must build or buy all of the equipment, such as the eight-foot-by-six-foot “muse” (cage) for the bird, its hoods, anklets, jesses (a string attached to one of the bird’s anklets) and leashes.
Many falconers make the equipment they use and instructions will be part of the offerings at this weekend’s gathering.
Pollack makes the hoods, anklets, jesses and leashes he uses. He also built Rico’s muse, which includes two windows for air circulation. The vertical rebar is spaced so a hawk can neither escape, nor hurt itself by getting caught between the bars or hanging upside down on them, which would kill the bird over time.
Pollack said he must replace the anklets, jesses — and the bell attached to the anklet — every year. Leashes will generally last about three years, he said.
To the uninitiated, the gathering’s program on “hawk coping” sounds like one of the more intriguing offerings. Pollack explained it would teach how to file the beak of a bird of prey.
“The beak is constantly growing, so it must be filed down. In the wild, the bird will rub its beak against a rock to file it,” Pollack said.
Surprisingly, the birds are pretty good about it, he said.
Pollack hunts regularly with Rico. They go for rabbit throughout the year and then have seasons for quail and pheasant, just as other hunters do.
Working with a Harris hawk, Pollack can go out in a hunting party too. He said he will usually hunt with three or four other falconers, but he has heard of groups with as many as nine people hunting with their birds.