“This year, I’m giving the kids the gift of raptors,” said Patrick. Lord, help me, I thought he said Rapture. But, no: we have several sons who are nature enthusiasts, and Patrick had just stumbled across West Coast Sky Falconry (619-722-0092; skyfalconry.com in Alpine.
“We are one of four falconry schools in the United States,” said co-owner Denise Disharoon. “We offer the rare opportunity for the public to have an intimate interaction with a bird of prey. We offer two classes: the basic falconry class (one hour, $70 per participant, $35 per observer) and the hawk walk (90 minutes, $140 per participant, $70 per observer). We offer the basic class year-round, with summer sessions at Torrey Pines Glider Port, but the hawk walk is only in fall, winter, and spring, here on the side of Mount Viejas. That’s because we don’t fly our birds when it’s over 80 degrees. (This also explains the class’s early-morning start-time.) The hawk walk features amazing views and longer flights with the birds in a more natural environment.”
Most people, she says, start with the basic lesson. “It includes a talk on raptor biology and conservation, plus the art of falconry and its history.”
“People have been harvesting and hunting with hawks for over 10,000 years,” added co-owner Kirk Sellinger. “Hawks have learned to tolerate our presence, and we’ve developed a symbiotic working relationship with them. We hunt and survive better together. I can put the bird on a tall perch and then go flush the bushes. The prey runs out — say, a pheasant or a jackrabbit — and the bird grabs it and kills it. Then I do what is called ‘stepping the bird off.’ I’ll tear open the chest cavity of the prey and let the hawk eat the heart, the lungs, the liver — all the parts that I don’t want. The hawk gets full, and I get the rest to take home for jackrabbit stew.”
But, notes Sellinger, “it’s always the bird’s choice to continue the partnership. They can fly, and they don’t need you to hunt. The term ‘gentleman’ comes from falconry — it means a man who can handle a female falcon. If you’re not a gentleman to the bird, it will leave you.”
Of course, the basic falconry class is a bit more...basic. “We glove everyone up with a gauntlet,” says Sellinger. “Then we give you a tutorial on how to call the hawk to the glove and how to cast the hawk off from the glove. Everyone gets an opportunity to see a bird in flight. We also show how to throw the lure — it’s a big piece of leather tied to a string, and it simulates prey. We use it to train for hunting. There will also be time for pictures.”
Disharoon and Sellinger have five hawks in their vertical-barred mew. “They’re captive-bred working birds; that’s the sort we have to have for our educational permit. But birds can also be harvested from the wild, and it actually has a positive impact on the population.”
“Our birds are Harris hawks,” says Disharoon, “which are pretty unique in the raptor world. They’re the only mainland communal hunting raptor. They live and hunt in packs, much like wolves. This makes them great at reading body language.”
“They’re better for interacting with,” adds Sellinger. “They’re calmer and easier to handle.”
If you should happen to fall in love with falconry after your experience at West Coast Falconry, it’s possible to delve further in. But be prepared to invest some time and money.
“You need to have a two-year apprenticeship with a general-level or master-level falconer,” explains Sellinger. “And since there are only 3500 falconers left in the United States, and they can have only three apprentices at a time, finding a sponsor is often the hard part. The sponsors are all different, but they’ll teach you how to handle the bird, how to build the hawk house, and what equipment you need to get. The initial equipment cost will probably run $1000 to $2000. Plus, there’s a written test. If you’re interested, you can visit the California Hawking Club at calhawkingclub.org and click on the ‘Apprentice’ tab.”