A bird in the hand: Practicing the ancient art of falconry in a Vermont field

New England Falconry allows visitors to get up close and personal with birds of prey

Feeding Frederick. | Photo: Pamela Hunt

I’m standing in a meadow on the outskirts of Woodstock, Vermont, with my left arm held skyward and my leather-gloved hand clenched into a fist. Gregory, a handler at New England Falconry, stands next to me. “Are you ready?” he asks. 

Gregory tucks a morsel of raw meat into my fist, and we watch the trees at the edge of the field. Leaves rain down as Rangle, a chocolate-brown Harris’s hawk, silently lifts off a branch. He swoops close to the ground, then rises quickly and flies toward us, his talons extended. I close my eyes and will myself not to flinch. With a light touch, the hawk lands on my raised fist and plucks the meat from its hiding place. He fluffs his wings and remains still as his yellow eyes focus on me and on the field in front of us.

Rangle, a Harris's hawk.
Rangle, a Harris’s hawk. | Photo: Joe Cafferky
A leather hood comforts the birds when they’re in a stimulating environment.
Leather hoods comfort the birds. | Photo: Pamela Hunt

“Very good,” Gregory says in his French-tinged accent. “It’s not so hard, yes?”

I had been wondering if my foray into falconry would be exhilarating, scary, or maybe even a bit exploitative. But Gregory was right. It wasn’t so hard, after all.

Avian appreciation

For more than 4,000 years, humans have practiced falconry, the hunting of wild prey using trained raptors. A falconer would take a fledgling chic (also known as an eyas) from its nest, then spend months training it, teaching it to retrieve small mammals and birds in exchange for food. Having a bird of prey was once a symbol of elevated status and becoming a falconer today still demands commitment, extensive training, and a lengthy apprenticeship. 

Chris Davis, founder and director of New England Falconry, refutes my concerns about avian exploitation. “We use only captive-bred raptors. It’s a legal requirement for programs that allow the public to handle the birds,” he says. “But many falconers do still use wild-born birds. There is a 70 percent mortality rate for young wild raptors, and the captive-bred birds have a very good life.”

Some falconry clubs worry about overexposing the sport by allowing untrained participants to work with birds, leading to a lack of appreciation for the art and commitment of falconry—but these fears appear to be unfounded. 

“In all the years I’ve been teaching the public about falconry, only one person [out of thousands] has followed through and become a certified falconer,” Davis said. Despite the growth of educational programs like this one, he adds, “the number of falconers practicing in the United States today is approximately the same as it was in 1980.”

Frederick the farsighted

After flying Rangle back and forth over the meadow, Gregory and I return to the barn that houses the birds’ mews, or enclosures. I ask about the hawk’s name. “All the birds here are named after terms from falconry, either gear or famous people in the sport,” he explains. “‘Rangle’ are the small, smooth stones the birds eat to aid in digestion.” 

As Gregory takes Rangle to his mews, Jessica, another handler, enters the barn with Frederick, a Eurasian eagle-owl, on her arm. Almost as noble as his namesake—the Holy Roman Emperor who wrote De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (On the Art of Hunting with Birds)—Frederick appears to have just woken up. His large, golden eyes are still trying to focus as he looks at me and then his handler.

Jessica with Frederick the owl
Jessica with Frederick the owl. | Photo: Pamela Hunt

Because of Frederick’s size—over 2 feet tall and 5 pounds, compared to Rangle’s 1.5 pounds—visitors can watch the team work with him, but not handle him themselves. I look at his jet-black talons wrapped around Jessica’s arm and feel content to be merely a spectator.

We step outside, and Jessica tosses a cube of meat on the grass. She explains that the owls are farsighted and unable to see clearly what’s right in front of them. Frederick quickly hops to the ground and extends his neck upward while scanning the area around his feet—the avian equivalent of holding the newspaper at arm’s length—but no luck: He can’t find the meat. After he makes a few frustrated squeaks, Jessica puts the reward on his perch.

Comfort and closeness

In the outdoor mews next to the barn, a small hawk sits motionless, his head enveloped in a medieval-looking leather hood with no eye openings and stubby straps protruding from the top and sides. The hood, Jessica explains, comforts the birds when they’re in a stimulating environment. She will spend time with this newest member of the raptor team during what’s known as the manning process, until he imprints on her and feels safe. 

Jessica with New England Falconry's new hawk.
Jessica with New England Falconry’s new hawk. | Photo: Pamela Hunt

“The closeness to nature that falconry offers is irresistible,” she says. Getting to know the birds as individuals is also rewarding. “Some are more playful while flying, where others are more or less strictly business. But one thing they all have in common: They never pass up an opportunity [to hunt] a mouse or grasshopper making its way across the field.” 

It’s time to return Frederick to his enclosure for a quick bath to cool him off after 45 minutes in the warm sunshine. Jessica holds the leather jesses, or straps, attached to the owl’s legs to keep him from flying off as we enter the barn. I hang up the elbow-length gauntlet I wore while working with Rangle, though his touch was so gentle during landing and takeoff, it’s hard to believe that it was even necessary.

As I drive home through southern Vermont’s rolling hills and meadows, I see hawks circling above the fields, searching for mice and voles unaware of the danger gliding silently overhead. On a whim, I stick my arm out the window, hoping to make a connection with these graceful creatures. But, unfortunately, I left the chunks of meat back in Woodstock.

If you go

New England Falconry offers several different hawk-handling sessions for individuals and groups. Appointments must be made in advance.