HOLLISTER — We were hunting on Bureau of Land Management land containing a mix of sagebrush, Four-Wing Saltbush and grasses that often support Hungarian partridge. After crossing a barbed-wire fence to another parcel, Biscuit, my German shorthaired pointer, was getting frisky. He would take a step, snap into a point, then slowly cat-foot a few steps, and freeze into another point. It was obvious the birds were running in front of him, so I circled around to cut them off. Finally, he stiffened into a solid, unmovable point.
“Release the bird,” I said.
We weren’t hunting with our usual shotguns but a Prairie Falcon, belonging to Todd Shipp, of Twin Falls.
“I saw a wild peregrine falcon make a kill on feral pigeon when I was a kid, and it sparked my interest. Just watching the speed and power of that bird was all it took. I was hooked,” Shipp said. “I’ve hunted birds and about everything else for quite a while before I started in falconry. Once you get into falconry, it’s quite a commitment.
Shipp’s female Prairie Falcon, “Wind-Shear,” so named by his daughter, Madilynn, is his fifth bird. He’s had four previous Prairie Falcons and one male Goshawk.
What Falconers Hunt
“The kind of game animals you hunt will largely dictate what kind of bird you fly,” Shipp said. “Just as in the wild, certain raptors are better at taking certain prey items than others, it is no different in a hunting situation.
“Down South and in the Midwest, many falconers will fly red-tailed and Harris hawks, which are better at taking cottontails and squirrels, while the open country falcons excel at sage grouse, ducks and perhaps pheasants. The bane of any open country raptor is woody cover; the birds will simply just dive into the ground and hug the brush. One advantage falconers have is they get a longer season.”
Falconry seasons generally start earlier, and run later into the year than firearm seasons. In addition, a falconer is less restricted on certain game birds: Falconers may take hen pheasants and can hunt sage grouse into mid-March (consult IDF&G regulations for exact seasons and bag limits).
Becoming a Falconer
Becoming a falconer is an arduous process. A prospective falconer must be sponsored by and serve a two-year apprenticeship with a master or general class falconer, then pass a written examination with an 80 percent score or better. The exam is administered by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
The apprentice falconer’s holding pens, called mews, must also pass an inspection. Upon passing the written exam and mews inspection, the apprentice may possess one hawk or falcon authorized by the sponsor, not to include an eagle or an endangered raptor. The apprentice license is good for three years, and allows the apprentice to apply for a general falconry license, after two years, and a written recommendation from the sponsor.
A general falconer may possess three birds of any species except eagles and any raptor listed as threatened or endangered. A general class falconer may graduate to a master class falconer, the highest and most experienced level in falconry, after no less than five years of experience.
Master class falconers may possess up to five wild birds except those listed as threatened or endangered; Golden eagles may be possessed by special federal permit. In addition, a master falconer may possess any number of captive bred birds or hybrids, Gyrfalcon X Peregrine being the most popular hybrid bird. Captive breeding programs have enabled Falconers to no longer have to rely on strictly wild birds, as well as produce the above-mentioned hybrids that would never exist in the wild. However, many falconers still rely on wild birds.
“Windshear is an eyas bird, meaning a raptor taken from the nest before fledging, while my other birds were passage birds, meaning wild immature raptors on their migration routes”, Shipp said. “A passage bird has made kills in the wild, and the challenge is to get them to adjust to a handler. It’s not all that hard as they learn they have a nice, safe warm place to sleep and plenty of food.”
Care and Feeding
Most falconers raise pigeons, quail or rabbits to feed their birds.
“You almost have to raise some sort of bird for feeding, as well as training”, said Shipp, who raises pigeons. “I carry pigeons when I am flying Windshear because she will need to be rewarded if she does not make a kill. Your shotgun doesn’t care if you don’t use it for ten days or so. Your bird does. Just like any athlete, you have to exercise them to keep them sharp, and that means flying three-to-four times per week during the hunting season.”
Shipp removed Windshear’s hood, and she immediately scanned the area. Within seconds, she was high above us, circling our position.
A wild prairie falcon emerged to claim our hunting territory and drive out the competition. As Windshear and the other prairie falcon circled each other, the huns flew away safely.
It took about 20 minutes to recover Windshear and get her secured. Shipp has a GPS and transponder attached to the bird to make this task much easier.
“That the way it goes,” Shipp said as we walked back to our trucks without a Hungarian partridge but richer for the experience.