The other day, on the edge of a wooded ravine covered with shin-deep snow, Andy Weaver cast his red-tailed hawk from a gloved hand, then watched as the bird gained altitude and circled a brief moment before perching high in a bare-limbed tree. This was in the east metro, and expensive new homes encircled the ravine, one color-coordinated to the next, each designed to suggest a time long past.
Which was appropriate, because Weaver, one of Minnesota’s cadre of about 60 licensed falconers, was practicing a sport as ancient as any, dating perhaps to 800 B.C.
“When we’re hunting pheasants, I’ll bring my dogs to find the birds in heavy cattail sloughs and get them into the air,’’ said Weaver, 52, a biology teacher at Stillwater High School who also hunts with a peregrine falcon. “But on days like this, when we’re hunting rabbits, I’m the one responsible for finding and moving the game.’’
Once the province exclusively of kings and emperors, falconry today is practiced by people smitten not by class or title — Weaver’s soiled Carhartt jacket and bibs indicated as much — but by all things bird-related.
This includes the care and feeding of these big aerial predators, and also their training and conditioning.
But perhaps most seductive to the sport’s practitioners is the mystery of flight itself, particularly the type of crash-defying dive that Weaver’s redtail was about to undertake.
Ho! Ho! Ho!
Weaver had kicked up a rabbit, a cottontail, and the circle of life — including, perhaps, death — was about to be played out in this suburban woodlot, just as it is every minute of every day throughout Minnesota, sometimes in plain sight, other times, as now, amid the cloistered bramble and understory of thick woods.
Acutely aware of everything unfolding beneath it, Weaver’s redtail was keen to the fleeing cottontail, and sprang from its treetop in a blur, momentarily gaining altitude before folding its wings and vectoring bullet-like toward an interception point it calculated instinctively.
So silent was the redtail’s descent that the cottontail was unaware of impending danger. The furry critter knew only that Weaver had flushed it from its lair, and bobbing and weaving now atop the deep snow, it seemed safe from harm’s way.
But the hawk zigged and zagged and gained still more speed as it descended amid the thick trees, at times collapsing its wings to its body, increasing its efficiency, a Superman with feathers.
Then, just before the hawk walloped the ground headfirst, it cupped its wings, extended its talons … and pounced.
But the bunny juked, then jived.
And ultimately escaped.
Sending the redtail to another treetop, Weaver continued the hunt.
“Sometimes the rabbit wins,’’ he said.
Falconers meet strict standards
Like Weaver, many modern falconers are trained scientists.
He teaches advance-placement biology and field biology. His classroom resembles a natural-history museum.
His students incubate quail eggs, wade in trout streams to study insect life, measure the tines of white-tailed deer antlers, and care for the breeding pair of peregrine falcons perched in a specially constructed annex just down the hallway.
All the while they gain an appreciation for the earth’s wild things and their dependence on wild places.
Weaver’s own love of birds, particularly birds of prey, was sparked as a youngster.
“I grew up in Anoka, and my brother and I mowed lawns to get money to buy ducks, which we kept around our house,’’ he said.
While preparing to enter college at the University of Minnesota, Morris, Weaver happened upon a book, “North American Falconry and Hunting Hawks,’’ by Frank L. Beebe and Harold M. Webster Jr.
“That book changed my life,’’ said Weaver, who is a past president of the Minnesota Falconers Association, and who flew his first hawk while attending college.
But interest in falconry, and practicing it, are two different things. The state and federal governments have strict licensing requirements, and the ownership and care of birds of prey are closely regulated.
Example: A Minnesota apprentice falconer’s license can only be achieved after a written test is passed and a conservation officer inspects a prospect’s equipment and care facilities.
A mentor also is required to oversee the novice falconer’s first two years.
“Redtails are the most common birds to fly for apprentices,’’ Weaver said. “They’re pretty easy to train.’’
Two years after an initial license is issued, a general falconer’s license can be sought, assuming the mentor approves the application. Five years after that, a master falconer’s license can be applied for, a designation required to take young raptors from nests and to fly species such as peregrine falcons.
Nearly extinct in the U.S. a half-century ago due to the proliferation of DDT and other pesticides, peregrines are capable of 200-mile-an-hour predatory flights.
Dr. Patrick Redig, co-founder of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, is, like Weaver, a scientist who has long practiced falconry.
Redig and the late Dr. Bud Tordoff of the Bell Museum of Natural History at the U played key roles in the peregrine’s recovery when they launched the Midwest Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project in 1982.
Weaver among other falconers aided the restoration by releasing and tending captive-bred young birds on the tops and ledges of tall buildings, smokestacks and bridges.
In 1999, the peregrine was removed from the endangered species list.
Weaver and Redig’s conservation credentials, together with those of other Minnesota falconers, make curious a spat that has divided them in recent months from their regulatory overseers at the Department of Natural Resources.
“Speaking as a falconer, and not of behalf of the Raptor Center, what the DNR has done amounts to regulatory overreach,’’ Redig said. Particularly irksome, he said, is a new restriction prohibiting removal of goshawk nestlings from their nests.
“In the last 40 years, Minnesota falconers have taken only eight nestling goshawks,’’ Redig said. “Goshawks do not need to be saved from falconers.’’
DNR falconry coordinator Heidi Cyr counters that the rule setting was fair.
“We worked extensively with falconers during the process,’’ Cyr said. “We considered their suggestions, implemented many of them, and will continue to work with them regarding issues they may have. But we also have to follow state and federal regulations.’’
An appeal to reopen the regulation-setting process has been made to DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, Redig said.
A hungry hawk on the hunt
When Weaver flushed a second rabbit, it seemed fated also to escape the red-tailed hawk that was fast descending upon it, so thick were the trees among which the bunny ducked and dodged.
But the bird was hungry, its weight monitored to the gram by Weaver.
“The scale is the most important tool a falconer has,’’ he said. “It’s how we know when we can fly a bird and expect it to hunt. If the bird is too heavy, it won’t make the effort.’’
In the end, death to this rabbit occurred instantaneously, following an explosion of snow, and the hawk was fast consuming its prey when Weaver reached the scene — the essence of which forms the backbone not only of science, but of literature and all art.
“Sometimes the rabbit wins,’’ Weaver said. “But not always.’’