Frank Taylor didn’t so much struggle in third grade as he did daydream his way through it.
“It was in third grade I started going crazy about birds of prey,” he said. “I had read ‘The Once and Future King,” by T.H. White, and thought, ‘Wow, if they flew those birds in the Middle Ages, we should be able to fly them now.’ ”
Thus began for Taylor, who is appearing at Game Fair for the 38th consecutive year, a life enraptured by winged critters that spend their days scanning the ground — and skies — for dinner.
Game Fair visitors (gamefair.com) seem similarly bewitched by the birds of prey that Taylor and other Minnesota Falconers Association members display each August at the outdoor festival held at Armstrong Ranch in Ramsey.
“The fascination seems to be the chance to see a raptor up close,” Taylor said. “Most times in the wild when people see a red-tailed hawk or a gyrfalcon or other raptor, the bird is far away. When you see them up close, you begin to appreciate how beautifully they’re designed.”
Game Fair has featured falcons and other raptors since Chuck and Loral I Delaney, its owners, debuted the show in 1982. Named for a similar Great Britain event, Minnesota’s Game Fair attracts about 50,000 outdoors enthusiasts over six days, including this weekend.
“When Loral I and I visited the British Game Fair before starting our version, we saw that raptors were a big attraction of the British show,” Delaney said. “We knew we wanted to have an exhibit at our show, too.”
Possessing a bird of prey was far less regulated when Taylor, 69, was young. He ordered his first “raptor” from a classified ad in the back of Boys’ Life magazine.
“I had ordered a hawk, but when I went to the airport to pick it up, the bird didn’t look like a hawk,” Taylor said. “In fact it was an Audubon’s crested caracara, a Florida bird that was not at all what I wanted. I ended up trading it with John Fletcher, the late Como Zoo director, for an older red-tailed hawk.”
When Taylor wanted a younger hawk a few years later, he headed to the North Shore, where researchers and licensed falconers trap and band raptors for about two months beginning in late August.
“The birds aren’t harmed in the trapping,” Taylor said. “After we band them, they continue on their migration.”
So enamored were Taylor and his wife, Trudi, with seeing tens of thousands of hawks and other migrating raptors, they bought North Shore property to serve as their migration headquarters.
In the years since, helped by his wife and friends, Taylor has banded more than 4,000 raptors.
“This fall will be our 50th year of trapping and banding along the North Shore,” said Taylor, one of only about 2,000 master banders nationwide. “We and others do it under permits from the U.S. Geological Survey to document populations of these birds. A farmer friend lets us trap and band on his land, while, across the road, on our land, my wife and I and our friends camp.”
Migrating raptors funnel along the North Shore because they prefer not to fly across large water expanses, such as Lake Superior. At Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, a Duluth nature reserve visited by thousands of people annually to witness the migration, as many as 22,000 birds of prey have been counted in a single day.
Strictly protected now, raptors historically were shot whenever possible because they were believed to undercut pheasant, rabbit and other game populations. Until mid-last century, when the Duluth Bird Club, forerunner to the Duluth chapter of the Audubon Society, helped stop the practice, shotgunners used the autumn migrants for target practice.
Raptors obviously hunt, Taylor said. But the game they kill often represents a population’s most vulnerable — its injured, sick or weakest.
“Every culture on this planet at one time or another has utilized falconry to put meat on the table,” he said. “Many hunting breeds of dogs that people bring to Game Fair were bred to hunt for, and with, trained raptors.”
Becoming a master falconer today — Minnesota has about 60, including Taylor — requires eight years of study and internship.
“I hunt now with a red-tail I named Mad Madam Mim, from the book ‘The Sword in the Stone,’ also by T.H. White,” said Taylor.
When Mim leaves Taylor’s gloved fist, she often flies to a nearby tree to wait while her master beats the brush below, hoping to scare up a rabbit. If, instead, she flies a mile or so away to hunt, Taylor can return her to him quickly by swinging a bird-shaped leather lure.
Other trained raptors seek their prey differently. Some falcons, for example, aren’t put to wing until a hunter’s pointing dog pins down a pheasant or other game bird. Climbing then to about 1,000 feet, a falcon will time its dive, or stoop, with the bird’s flush, which — at least by tradition — is prompted by a springer spaniel.
Such aerial acrobatics explain why, decades after he first daydreamed about hawks, Taylor is still raptor-crazy.
“Each day with the birds at Game Fair,” he said, “I come early and stay late.”