The classic falconer is pictured on horseback, a medieval knight, perhaps, or a Saudi prince unleashing his falcon and letting it soar aloft to hunt game for him.
That might work on a vast steppe or desert, but the reality is there also are peasants beating the brush to start game. And these days in America, falconry is not so elegant.
"In fact, it's a lot like grouse hunting," said Tom Burke as he stepped from his van wearing his tattered canvas hunting pants and brush-worn boots.
Burke, a long-time member of Grand Island's conservation commission, introduced me to his Red-tail hawk Hillary on an October squirrel hunt. He had offered to take me along for a rabbit hunt using one of his Harris hawks, a colorful bird native to the Southwest. Picking a day when it did not rain last week, we went, meeting his friend and mentor, Pete Lotz of Niagara Falls.
With "Maya" on his glove, we stepped into a wetland a block from the Grand Island town hall. Maya flapped into a maple tree and looked around imperiously as Burke went to work, poking at the snow-covered brush hillocks that harbor cottontails. He waded into mucky streamlets, rapping his staff on the brush piles he passed.
"With three of us we ought to put up something," Burke said. "Rabbits have a lot of cover here. They won't leave it unless they have to, and the bird can't see them unless we can get one into the open."
Lotz, a master falconer with 15 years of hard application under his belt, was on one flank beating the bushes near a tiny creek. In winters like these, such tiny pockets of suburban marshy wetlands harbor an amazing amount of wildlife. Here rabbits and birds find food and cover, and, in turn, they feed foxes, coyotes, feral cats and wandering dogs.
We were getting nowhere fast, even though Maya followed us from tree to tree, sort of like a hunter on a deer stand, waiting for the drivers to push a buck past her position. My hosts decided to head for a more open and less brushy patch, where I might get to see a good chase, if not a perfect kill.
Lotz is allowed to register three birds to hunt (general falconers like Burke can only hunt two of them). Lotz also is a licensed breeder so he has about a half-dozen raptors in his care. To hunt with a falcon or hawk, the bird must be registered on the falconer's license; a hunter wishing to switch birds must register changes with the DEC and a regional office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
If that kind of stricture does not put you off, there is the very care of the birds. A hawk needs a specially-constructed (and inspected) mews and a carefully-measured diet. Raptors are prey to respiratory diseases, too (Lotz just lost a hybrid gyrfalcon/peregrine cross to aspergillosis) and each bird's weight has to be monitored daily. Harris hawks hunt best when they weigh about two pounds.
As Lotz took Gypsy from her traveling crate to unleash her at a favorite hunting ground east of the city of Niagara Falls, he apologized for her overweight condition.
"I was down at Cornell trying to save that sick bird and my son-in law did not know when I was coming back, so she ate too much. She may be a little slow," Lotz said.
"Falconry sounds like it would be fun and a lot of people say they are interested, but very few have the dedication to do it, so we don't like to take apprentices unless they know this is a daily thing that requires a lot from you," Lotz said.
A raptor must be hunted hard several times a week, to keep it -- and you -- in condition. But the work is worth it when you see the beauty of a good chase.
A plump and speedy rabbit bolted from the brush on our right flank and tore down the path in front of me, jinking as the hawk left its perch in pursuit. A stiff wind had piped up to about 20 mph, so Gypsy could not accelerate fast enough to catch the quarry before it darted into thick brush. The hawk hovered for while, then sought a perch in a lone tree, waiting for us to provide more action.
Then we saw the rabbit again. It bolted from ahead and raced toward us. Gypsy, soaring from her perch and making a low-level pass, looked like fighter plane on a strafing sortie. The cotton-tail bounced left and headed back into the brush and the hawk did a steeply wheeling turn and hovered over the spot where the bunny had gone to ground. The rabbit bounded out and spurted into the wind, so then hawk had to flap frantically to get up to speed. Before she could, the rabbit had disappeared into a welter of tangled brush, from which no amount of stomping and thrashing could dislodge him. This rabbit had not grown large by being stupid.
Still, the day was both exhilarating and enlightening: I saw the work that goes into falconry and was disabused of the romantic imagery of the noble bird hunting for its master. In these days of falconry for the common man, the common man is the bird dog -- or the peasant beating the bushes. The hawk is the supercilious noble.