Close Encounters with the Harris Hawk: A Visit to The New England Falconry

IMG_1027.JPG Visiting The New England Falconry & Admiring the beauty of an 8-month-old, male Harris Hawk 

Over the past few years, as my interest in designing gardens with native plants and creating naturalized landscapes has expanded to include a passion for pollinators, wildlife and habitat preservation, I have become more and more curious about birds of prey. I grew up with an avid-outdoorsman father, who sparked my interest in the natural world and my respect for wildlife at an early age. Wanting to give back some of the joy he’s shared throughout the years, I purchased my dad a gift certificate for an introductory session at The New England Falconry in Hadley, Massachusetts. Yesterday, we were lucky enough to spend the morning with Master Falconer, Chris Davis and his amazing Harris Hawks.

IMG_1029.JPG Master Falconer, Chris Davis gives my father an introductory lesson on handling and flying a young, Harris Hawk at The New England Falconry 

Falconry is an ancient art, with evidence of the practice dating back to the Chinese Heian Dynasty, 2200 BC. Later, historic references to humans hunting with trained birds-of-prey can be found in the artwork and tales of ancient Arabia and Europe. The popularity of falconry soared in Medieval Europe during 500-1500, eventually becoming an aristocratic symbol of great wealth and status.

 Sport falconry and hunting with trained raptors came to the United States from Europe in the 1900s, and although it gained popularity in the early part of the twentieth century, interest died out again around the time of the second world war. It wasn’t until the 1960s —when Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” awakened and energized the environmental movement— that falconry came back into focus as concern about the destructive effects of now-banned pesticide DDT reached a critical state in the near-extinction of the Peregrine Falcon. With the help of falconers —who donated birds to The Peregrine Fund‘s breeding and repopulating efforts— the Peregrine Falcon was taken off the U.S. endangered species list in 1999. Today, falconers like Chris Davis provide an important service as both conservationists and educators. We learned a great deal during our short visit to The New England Falconry, and our introductory lesson sparked further interest and research!

IMG_1031.JPGMy father smiles after successfully flying this Harris Hawk for the first time

Although I am familiar with the high mortality rate of birds in the wild, I was surprised to learn that 75% of young raptors will not survive their first year of life. The natural world is difficult for young birds of prey. Harris Hawks and other raptors depend exclusively upon small mammals, reptiles and occasionally other birds for their sustenance. Their presence within the eco-system is key to keeping the population of fast-reprocucing rodents in check. However, during the winter, wild food is scarce and the energy demands of large predator birds are extremely high; many die of starvation during the cold, barren months of the year. Human beings pose another great threat to raptors. Countless owls, hawks and other predators are killed each year by the careless use of mouse and rat poison. Hunting, accidents, pesticides, pollution and loss of habitat also take a toll on raptors.

IMG_1035.JPG Nice catch, Dad!

The Harris Hawk —native to open areas of the North American Southwest, as well as Central and South America— is a unique species of raptor. With an average weight of 1.5-2.5 pounds and a wingspan of 3.5-4′ this hawk is a lightweight, highly maneuverable creature. Most birds-of-prey are solitary animals, joining together seasonally for mating and raising young. Harris Hawks are unusual. The species forms small, familial units with a distinct hierarchy. Not only to the birds join and remain together for the purpose of nesting and raising young —offspring will remain with their parents and siblings for three years or more— but they also band together as hunters. Much like a pack of wolves, Harris Hawks work as a team, increasing their success rate when pursuing fast, agile prey. Once they’ve made a kill, the hawks share the bounty. The cooperative, social nature of the Harris Hawk makes it an ideal bird for falconry. To learn more about the Harris Hawk, visit The Peregrine Fund’s page on this beautiful and intelligent raptor, here.

IMG_1033.JPG Although this young Harris Hawk was born in captivity, he was raised by other Harris Hawks and is not a pet. These birds are wild animals, driven by an instinct to hunt and eat for survival

Learn more about birds of prey and their important role in our environment here online at The Peregrine Fund and All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Website.

Thank you to Chris Davis and the Harris Hawks at The New England Falconry! We can’t wait for our next chance to visit and learn more about these amazing and important predator birds! If you live in New England, and you’re looking for a great educational gift or special experience for yourself, contact The New England Falconry. We had a wonderful time!

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