TULLAHOMA, Tenn. (WMOT) -- Are you familiar with the ancient sport of falconry? Practiced for at least the last 5000 years, falconry involves using trained birds of prey to hunt wild game. The sport is relatively new to North America. Experts say there’s no evidence Native American’s practiced the art.
WMOT News recently had a chance to hunt with master falconer Don Hirvig and his birds within sight of Tims Ford Lake near Tullahoma, Tennessee. Arriving at the hunting site, Hirvig simply threw his two Harris's Hawks, a male and a female, up into the nearest tree. Then, with walking stick in hand, he set off into the woods at a leisurely pace.
Initially, the birds followed Hirvig, gliding silently from tree to tree as he struggled through the underbrush below. But then the birds surged ahead, clearly tracking something of interest in the trees ahead.
Moments later, the birds had made their first kill of the day, a squirrel snatched by the male from the top of a tree. Hirvig coaxed the bird to give up its catch with a piece of meat from an earlier outing and we set off again.
It quickly became clear that falconry is very much a partnership between man and bird. At one point, the inexperienced year-old male got himself hopelessly entangled in some branches and Hirvig gently worked him free. He also occasionally used his walking stick to beat the underbrush hoping to chase a rabbit into the open where the birds could take it.
Hervig noted there are less than 3000 falconers in the U.S., less than 40 in the State of Tennessee. As we talked it become clear why there are so few. Raptors are a protected species, so getting the licenses and permits to keep them is expensive and time consuming. And then there’s the training.
“You’re an apprentice falconer for two years, and then if your sponsor feels good enough he’ll say you can move on to being a ‘general’ falconer,” Hervig explained. “Then you have to be at that general class falconer for five years. Then after the end of that seven years if you’ve done everything OK you can be advanced to be a master class falconer.”
And the hard work doesn’t stop there. Hirvig spends four to nine hours a week hunting with the birds to keep them fed. On off-days, he still spends 30 minutes or so just seeing to their care.
The range of game the birds can take is impressive; everything from game birds to squirrels to the oversized rabbits found in the American West.
"Jackrabbits weigh about three times what these birds do. If they catch them on the head they can usually control them, but if they catch them on the butt it’s like the rodeo. It’s quite a scene,” he said with a laugh.
Before dark set in, Hervig wanted to show off some of his high-tech toys. He’s a retired engineer and clearly loves his gadgets. He owns a small, beautifully colored Aplomado Falcon that’s already escaped him once. So he attached a tiny tracking device to the bird’s leg just in case.
The Aplomado is still in training. To give it some exercise he went to nearby open field where he uses a drone to put the bird through its paces.
He attached a meat-filled lure on a long string to the underside of a quad-copter and flew it around the field for the raptor to chase down. It’s all a lot of work, but Hervig said he finds it more than worthwhile.
“I love just being in the woods and just watching the birds fly through the trees and watching them chase game, he said. “I don’t always have to catch something. Sometimes the squirrels are smarter than the hawks. Sometimes they get away. They evade them. That doesn’t bother me. As long as the hawks are trying, and they usually do, I’m having fun out there.”
Enjoying the woods and the birds may be his primary motivation, but Don Hervig has found a way to make the birds pay their own way. He now rents out his raptors to local businesses with bird problems. He explained that a short visit by his hawks is usually enough to keep messy, noisy, nuisance birds like sparrows or starlings away for days or even weeks.