A look at falconry in Minnesota

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 23, 2014 - 7:53 PM

In Minnesota, a handful of scientists and bird-lovers practice the ancient sport of falconry.

view larger photos

  

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.’’

 

Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424

 









 

  • related content

  • Photo gallery: Falconry: Prey to survive

    Thursday January 23, 2014

    In Minnesota small number of scientists and bird-lovers practice the ancient sport of falconry.

  • Cabin Country: Lone Lake's festive fish house

    Thursday January 23, 2014

    I built this fish house with a friend of mine, Mark Williams, and kept it at his cabin on Lone...

  • How to ... find shed deer antlers

    Thursday January 23, 2014

    A winter stroll through the woods and fields of Minnesota is always rewarding. It clears the mind and renews one’s...

  • Exploring Town & Country via running snowshoes

    Sunday January 26, 2014

    Not one for following groomed trails, our correspondent heads to the picturesque and hilly terrain of St. Paul’s Town &...

  • Master licensed falconer Andrew Weaver with his five year-old female Red-tailed hawk on a successful rabbit hunting outing near a wooded sub division Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, in Stillwater

  • Master licensed falconer Andrew Weaver released a five year-old female peregrine falcon to exercise and get the chance to hunt down a homing pigeon near a field Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, in Stillwater.

  • Master licensed falconer Andrew Weaver used a leather hood to limit outside stimuli and calm this female peregrine falcon.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

Tennessee 13 FINAL
Jacksonville 21
Philadelphia 12/20/14 3:30 PM
Washington
San Diego 12/20/14 7:25 PM
San Francisco
Minnesota 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Miami
Baltimore 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Houston
Detroit 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Chicago
Cleveland 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Atlanta 12/21/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Green Bay 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Kansas City 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
New England 12/21/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 12/21/14 3:05 PM
St. Louis
Buffalo 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Oakland
Indianapolis 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Dallas
Seattle 12/21/14 7:30 PM
Arizona
Denver 12/22/14 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
New York 97 FINAL
Chicago 103
New Orleans 99 FINAL
Houston 90
Milwaukee 108 FINAL
Sacramento 107
Oklahoma City 109 FINAL
Golden State 114
Florida 2 FINAL(SO)
Philadelphia 1
Colorado 0 FINAL(OT)
Pittsburgh 1
Toronto 1 FINAL
Carolina 4
Washington 5 FINAL(OT)
Columbus 4
Anaheim 2 FINAL
Montreal 1
St. Louis 4 FINAL
Los Angeles 6
Edmonton 3 FINAL
San Jose 4
St Thomas (TX) 61 FINAL
Rice 72
Stony Brook 59 FINAL
Canisius 60
Temple 82 FINAL
Delaware 62
FIU 58 FINAL
Long Island 69
Lehigh 65 FINAL
Quinnipiac 80
South Alabama 54 FINAL
Richmond 65
Seton Hall 89 FINAL
South Florida 69
Ga Southern 76 FINAL
Stetson 67
Yale 57 FINAL
Vermont 56
Cleveland State 54 FINAL
Virginia 70
Wright State 69 FINAL
Western Carolina 56
Nicholls 54 FINAL
Louisiana Tech 79
Morgan State 48 FINAL
Rider 62
Idaho State 72 FINAL
South Dakota St 75
Oakland City 52 FINAL
Austin Peay 76
Eureka 38 FINAL
Bradley 80
Appalachian St 65 FINAL
Charlotte 75
Connecticut 56 FINAL
Duke 66
Southern Miss 46 FINAL
Jackson State 66
Coastal Carolina 68 FINAL
Ole Miss 71
Montana State 53 FINAL
South Dakota 55
LSU 79 FINAL
UAB 70
Ohio 69 FINAL
Evansville 81
CS-Dominguez 50 FINAL
Cal State Fullerton 72
Walla Walla 39 FINAL
Idaho 86
DePaul 59 FINAL
Oregon State 90
Nevada 65 FINAL
Pacific 69
Portland State 40 FINAL
San Francisco 77
CS-Bakersfield 56 FINAL
Utah State 57
Nevada 12/20/14 10:00 AM
Louisiana
Utah State 12/20/14 1:20 PM
Texas-El Paso
(23) Utah 12/20/14 2:30 PM
Colorado State
Western Mich 12/20/14 4:45 PM
Air Force
South Alabama 12/20/14 8:15 PM
Bowling Green
BYU 12/22/14 1:00 PM
Memphis
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Niagara 76 FINAL
Cleveland State 58
High Point 59 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 81
Towson 64 FINAL
Wake Forest 74
Presbyterian 50 FINAL
Charlotte 66
Chicago State 62 FINAL
Bradley 59
Northwestern Coll 58 FINAL
Drake 102
Vanderbilt 67 FINAL
Marquette 80
Temple 78 FINAL
Howard 48
Southern Miss 66 FINAL
Ole Miss 68
UMBC 55 FINAL
Rider 67
Miami-Florida 74 FINAL
UCLA 67
St Mary-KS 51 FINAL
South Dakota 115
William & Mary 71 FINAL
Wofford 51
Troy 82 FINAL
Evansville 94
Loyola Marymount 54 FINAL
USC 96
St Francis-PA 52 FINAL
Duquesne 92
Indiana-Southeast 45 FINAL
IUPUI 95
Delaware State 52 FINAL
Detroit 74
Tenn Temple 48 FINAL
Gardner-Webb 68
West Virginia St 58 FINAL
Radford 52
Fairfield 47 FINAL
Seton Hall 79
Dartmouth 44 FINAL
New Hampshire 60
Ball State 47 FINAL
Pittsburgh 59
Jacksonville 61 FINAL
Tennessee St 64
Trine 45 FINAL
Western Mich 81
Tenn Tech 53 FINAL
Lipscomb 72
Samford 56 FINAL
Tulane 57
New Orleans 55 FINAL
Tulsa 78
Incarnate Word 61 FINAL
TX-Pan American 65
Ark-Little Rock 42 FINAL
South Dakota St 67
CS-Northridge 77 FINAL
Northern Ariz 71
Santa Clara 88 FINAL
Oregon 92
(19) Oklahoma St 55 FINAL
Weber State 49
Washington 69 FINAL
San Diego State 48
Cal Poly 68 FINAL
New Mexico 84
(10) Louisville 65 FINAL
Grand Canyon 51
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close