Falconry conjures ideas of faraway lands and distant times. An ancient hunter and his trusted falcon capturing prey to bring home. A medieval prince riding through his royal forest and admiring his falcon soar.
Right off I-91, your entryway to this unique sport awaits. New England Falconry, founded and directed by Master Falconer Chris Davis, gives every person, whether they’re 5 or 95, the chance to not only watch, but handle birds of prey in a wildflower-covered meadow in Hadley, MA.
On a hot, sunny Saturday morning, water bottle in hand, I take a seat on a wooden bench under a shady tree. Fragrant multiflora rose bushes form a natural wall behind me. Two chocolate brown Harris’s hawks with white-tipped tail feathers are tethered to perches a couple yards in front of me.
The experience begins here, with Chris relating engaging, in-depth information about raptors to our group. We learn that “raptor” is another term for “birds of prey”. It encompasses over 35 types of falcon, in addition to species such as hawk, eagle, owl, osprey, and more.
We learn that raptors have double the number of neck vertebrae as humans so they can turn their heads 3/4 of the way around. Their eyes have evolved to see UV light, so excretion trails literally glow for them, which helps to track their prey.
“Quite frankly, birds of prey have been the obsession of my life. I grew up on a farm and there were lots of raptors around. I started learning about falconry from very early on, maybe by the time I was seven or eight years old.”
It was a natural progression for Chris to follow the long path to become a master falconer. To achieve this rank, Chris had to pass a challenging written exam, apprentice with a licensed falconer for 2 years, and trap his first bird. In the wild, 70% of juvenile raptors don’t make it through their first winter. So when a licensed falconer acquires one for training, it has zero effect on the overall wild population.
After graduating from college, Chris became an educator, doing multi-raptor programs for schools and libraries. “After some years, an opportunity came up to do hands-on falconry education in Vermont. I took the job and found it to be very satisfying. A year and a half later I decided to return to Massachusetts and start my own hands-on business.” “I train and fly Harris’s hawks here in Hadley. They’re a unique raptor in that they’re a social raptor. They’ve evolved to hunt cooperatively.”
In Jennifer Ackerman’s book about bird intelligence, The Genius of Birds, she talks about the two main factors that determine whether a bird species will be highly intelligent. One is foraging or difficulty in getting food, and the second is social systems. The Harris’s hawk has both.
Native to South America, Central America, and the American Southwest, the Harris’s hawk has to survive harsh desert conditions, often hunting jackrabbit as prey. Since a jackrabbit weighs between 6 - 10 pounds and an adult Harris’s hawk weighs 1.5 - 2 pounds, reciprocal altruism really comes in handy.
Reciprocal altruism is the foundation of their social system. It’s pretty much, my actions need to benefit both you and me in order to survive. Another wildlife example would be a wolf pack.
Harris’s hawks live together as a family group, hunt together, share food, and protect each other. In the wild, where cactus branches are limited in number, the birds sometimes perch on top of each other to roost, stacking up to three birds high.
Their collaborative nature makes Harris’s hawks the ideal raptor for Chris to fly at New England Falconry. “Neither of the two hawks I fly in Hadley has ever shown any aggression to anybody whatsoever. In fact, I fly with kids as young as five. I hold their gloved hand on at least the first flight and then, when they’re comfortable, they can have that firsthand raptor experience on their own while I stand close by”.
“The basics are, I give the instruction and set a bird free. The bird follows us out to where we’re gonna fly. I instruct someone to raise the glove. If the bird is not occupied by hunting, and there’s a lot of stuff out there right now, the bird flies over to the glove for a little bit of meat”. “They’re very independent,” Chris chuckles, “and although these aren’t hunting sessions for small game like I offer in the fall, there’s lots of stuff that they’re catching or at least making attempts at catching.”
“A raptor in the wild is only successful maybe 20% of the time, but they put in a good chase and that’s a really cool part of the experience. I interpret out loud what the bird’s doing and what behaviors it’s showing. This isn’t just a flight to the glove, but a lot extra in terms of seeing up close and with expert interpretation what these natural behaviors are. It’s a very dynamic, fun, and unpredictable exchange.”
Now in the open field, we watch as the hawk preens in a nearby tree. Song birds serenade us as we wait.
The training kicks in when he hears Chris’s strong whistle and sees a participant’s raised arm. He shakes his tail feathers and swoops low, circling just over our heads where there’s less wind resistance. He lands and swallows his reward. His beak stays parted while he quietly pants, the same cooling technique that a dog has.
Poised on the glove, hawk and woman make eye contact, observing each other in stillness. After a few more moments, the hawk’s head turns. He raises his curved, aerodynamic shoulders, spreads his glossy wings, and soars.
Three types of sessions are available: the 45-minute intro session, the 1.5-hour extended session, and from late October through December, the 3-hour small game hunting session.
You can book a weekend session through the website, newenglandfalconry.com. To book a private session, weekday session, or if you’ve been lucky enough to get a gift certificate for a falconry experience, call or email Chris directly to schedule.
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New England Falconry in Hadley, MA is open from April through July, and then from September through December every year.