Birds of a feather

Nevada falcons can hear the falconer

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Hunting is one of humanity’s oldest, most sacred skills. What began as an act of survival also paved the way to the establishment of tribes, and eventually, civilization. In many cultures, to be a hunter means to be self-sufficient and knowledgeable about the environment; to appreciate the sacrifices made to sustain a mutual existence with nature.

Despite new gadgets, weaponry and a multimillion dollar industry dedicated to it, hunting, in essence, has stayed largely the same over time. Hunting with animal companions, particularly dogs or birds, continues to be popular around the world. Falconry—hunting with birds of prey—is on the upswing as a new generation of hunters emerge, seeking out a blend of traditional and progressive modes of hunting that link the present to the past.

Early bird

Historians are divided on exactly where and when falconry originated. A PBS report states that people from Mongolia and regions in the Middle East and Asia were said to be prolific falconers as far back as 10,000 BC. Regardless of the various instances popping up throughout history, the report says it’s safe to assume that by 2000 BC, falconry was well-established throughout most of Asia and Europe. Almost every civilization is reported to have used falconry at some point in their history; unique species of raptors are found globally.

Falconers make up a small subset of Nevada’s hunters. It helps that many birds of prey are native to Nevada, such as the Peregrine falcon and the Prairie falcon. There are—usually—plenty of small critters, like squirrels and jack rabbits, to hunt, although that fluctuates, according to Corey Dalton, a Reno-based falconer and the founder of Falconry Outfitters. He runs the website Nevada Falconry, and while he also hunts with a bow or shotgun “once in a great while,” falconry is his mode of choice.

“Falconry is it for me,” he says. “I much prefer flying my bird than running around with a gun. It’s more fun, it’s cleaner, I don’t have to worry about any accidents, and I can bring anyone with me.” Dalton trains his birds so that they are comfortable and acclimated around other people.

Dalton has been a falconer for about 10 years. Although his interest began as a child, he didn’t delve into the hobby until adulthood.

“I pretty much got really into birds of prey when I was 12,” Dalton says, mentioning an experience where he helped the Wildlife Department rescue a bird. “I’ve always known about falconry since I was a kid, since I studied history and the Middle Ages … I thought you had to be some sort of biologist or zoologist or be super rich to be a falconer.”

He learned this wasn’t the case, although it’s true that historically, many royals were known to be falconers. Rather than money, he says time and space are key to becoming a falconer. The Nevada Department of Wildlife offers permits, and amateur falconers should begin as apprentices and shadow experienced hunters before going solo. While it’s a relatively inexpensive hobby, gear and materials are still needed to establish habitats for the falcons. They require frequent practice and room to fly.

Being a falconer also means understanding and accepting the cycle of life.

“People don’t realize that it’s cool to see this bird, but it’s going to eat and kill whatever it catches,” he says. “People get uncomfortable with that aspect of death. You can’t be squeamish about it.”

The risk of losing a bird is also a reality; no matter the relationship between bird and owner, they can occasionally fly off or be killed by other wildlife.

“You can’t be timid to let it go free,” he says. “They need to be out flying.”

Dalton says he’s never had one fly off, although he has let some go free again or had them die of ailments or diseases.

“It’s hard, but you have to be prepared to deal with death,” he says.

"My favorite birds to fly are Harris' hawks," says falconer Corey Dalton. "It's really the only bird of prey to hunt in packs."

Photo/Ashley Hennefer

Dalton obtains his falcons locally; sometimes he’ll breed them in captivity and train them, since he has his breeding license, and other times he’ll catch them out in the wild.

“There’s a different between wild birds and chamber birds,” he says. “A wild bird already knows how to hunt, and hunting with a person is more successful. With chamber birds, you can train them and they’re super friendly. But you have to train them to hunt. My newest one had never seen a rabbit or a squirrel or a quail.”

Dalton has owned many birds throughout his time as a falconer.

“My favorite birds to fly are Harris’ hawks,” he says. “It’s really the only bird of prey to hunt in packs. They really do very well at it. The siblings stick around with their parents for a year, even longer, so they learn to hunt as a group.”

Dalton says there’s no shortage of locations to hunt in Northern Nevada. He takes his birds to rural areas around Reno and Gardnerville.

“You can hunt anywhere within a good 60-mile radius,” he says. With the close proximity to hunting locations and an active ecosystem for the birds to explore, it’s a prime place to be a falconer.

Spread your wings

Technology like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is a new tactic falconers are using to train their birds. The drones help falcons learn to track prey.

Dalton is one such falconer, and he speaks highly of it.

“It’s a lot easier to use a drone to train a falcon than to use the traditional method, which is a kite or a helium balloon,” he says. “If it’s too windy, you can’t use a balloon, and if it’s not windy enough you can’t use the kite.”

Dalton notes the safety concerns about using a drone—if the pilot hasn’t practiced enough, the drone could injure a human or a bird. But this is rare, and Dalton emphasizes the necessity of practicing and being a responsible pilot and hunter.

“My drone was around my bird since it was 14 days old, so he knows to be around the drone,” says Dalton. “He’s fully comfortable with it, and as he grew older I played with it around him, holding it over his head, flying it. He’s so used to it that it doesn’t even phase him.”

Not all falconers support the practice, which Dalton says is unsurprising given the traditional preferences many hunters have.

Regardless, “quadcopters are becoming more prevalent in use,” he says. “Some people don’t like it, and they prefer more traditional methods and prefer their big-ass balloons and their kites.” At this, Dalton laughs, and continues. “It’s so much easier to use the drone. I’ve used it for two seasons.”

The drones vary depending on hunter preference.

“Some guys use pre-built drones,” says Dalton. “Some people custom build them. I built mine. You have to learn how to fly them—it just takes practice, practice, practice. There’s a slight risk with the props [propellers] with the bird, but there’s already a lot of risk with the other methods, too. My bird has no intention of going anywhere near my quad because he knows what it is.”

This is what falconry comes down to: patience and practice. In every era, falconers hunt with a sort of reverence for their birds. Dalton speaks of it as a partnership and a mutual desire to explore, establish dominance and seek sustenance. Falconry embodies the intrinsic and complex relationship between human and beast.