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Minn. teen learns ancient sport of falconry

  • Article by: EDIE GROSSFIELD
  • Associated Press
  • February 3, 2014 - 12:05 AM

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Ask a teenager about his or her extracurricular activities, and you usually hear about sports, dance, the school play, perhaps debate team or chess club.

It's rarer to hear a 16-year-old talk about hunting with his red-tailed hawk. But that's one of the things Haakon Stans, a Mayo High School sophomore, does for fun.

Stans learned about the ancient sport of falconry a few years ago from Quarry Hill Nature Center's Kirk Payne, a naturalist and falconer himself. Falconers team up with birds of prey (also called raptors), such as hawks, falcons and eagles, to hunt game like rabbits, ducks, pheasants and grouse.

The sport requires a lot of time with the birds, training them to respond to whistle calls, caring for them, carefully monitoring their weight and providing a healthy, safe place for them to live. Stans had to prove he could do all of this before the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources granted him a falconers permit in 2012, allowing him to capture his young red-tailed hawk Athena.

He gained his initial knowledge of falconry from Payne, who agreed to be his sponsor. Haakon also had to study DNR materials, pass a written exam and allow the DNR to inspect his raptor housing and equipment before becoming an apprentice class falconer.

Haakon's father, Tony, became interested and also earned his falconer's permit last fall. Lena, Haakon's mother, has passed the exam and is waiting to receive her permit. The couple's two other children, daughters ages 14 and 13, also are in the process of learning about falconry.

So, the Stans are now a falconry family.

Often asked if Haakon's name has anything to do with hawks, Lena said it does not. It does, however, have to do with Lena's Scandinavian roots — her mother grew up in Sweden.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Haakon and his mom had Athena perched on a scale in their southwestern Rochester home. They were preparing to take the bird out for some practice flights and wanted to make sure she was within her ideal weight range: 1,100 to 1,200 grams. At this weight, the red-tailed hawk flies its best and will be hungry enough to want to hunt, Lena said.

Athena was visibly calm inside the house with her human friends. She allowed Haakon to be close to her face and didn't seem anxious as he gently tethered her to his leather falconry glove using a thin leather strap, called a jess.

"She's used to our family. She's very tolerant and takes things in stride," Lena told the Post-Bulletin (http://bit.ly/1bx0fWt). She added that the family has enjoyed learning about falconry and red-tailed hawks.

"Just the day-to-day interaction with a wild bird. It's phenomenal," Lena said.

After being weighed and attaching the jess, Haakon took Athena outside and released her into the crisp January air. She flew high into a tree in the woods behind the Stans' home. Then, Haakon took a piece of rabbit (from one of Athena's earlier kills) out of his shoulder bag and blew a specific whistle call — one long blast and two short ones.

Athena left the tree branch and soared down to Haakon, dipping down slightly before swooping up to land on the leather glove. She immediately gulped down the rabbit. Soon after, Haakon released her again. They did this four or five more times.

After any of the releases, Athena could have flown away and never returned. She knows how to kill prey now, so she could take care of herself. Yet, she came back every time. Why?

Raptors are opportunistic feeders, and they learn that their human partners are reliable sources of food, Haakon said.

"The only reason she comes back is for food. She's not really attached to us," he said.

It's a good partnership for both the raptor and human. The human gets the spoils of the hunt, or at least the joy of hunting with a bird of prey. The young bird, which in the wild is vulnerable until it learns to hunt well, has humans to make sure its fed and sheltered.

More than half of all red-tailed hawks die during their first year of life, due to starvation, disease and predation, Payne said. A falconry partnership means a much better chance of survival.

As far as how long that partnership will last, Haakon said some people keep their raptors until they die; others release them after a couple of years and trap another. Haakon said he plans to release Athena when he leaves home for college.

After the necessary training and passing the DNR's permit test, Haakon was allowed by state law to trap a red-tailed hawk in its "passage" stage. That means the bird is within its first year of life and has left the nest. Payne helped Haakon find and trap Athena.

Because of his age and level of experience, Haakon is in the state's Apprentice Class for falconry, meaning he must have a sponsor who is in a higher class, and he can possess only one raptor.

It's unusual to run into young people interested in becoming falconers, Payne said. For those young or adult beginners, it's not easy to find a sponsor. There are only 150 to 200 falconers in Minnesota, Payne said.

Being a falconer requires a serious commitment, so Payne is careful about who he's willing to sponsor. Currently, he sponsors two teenagers.

"I wouldn't have said yes to either if they didn't have great support from their families. It's a big commitment that really impacts the family's lifestyle," Payne said, adding that when he was a teenager, he wanted to be a falconer but his parents said no.

"Looking back on it, that was a great decision, given where we lived and everything. But it was an interest I maintained. I didn't become a licensed falconer until I was in my 30s," he said.

"Those of us who are falconers do it for the enjoyment of seeing a predator in action, up close, doing what it was meant to do and getting to be a part of that," Payne said.

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