Falconry flies high in the Arkansas Delta
More than hunting, falconry encourages environmentalism and conservation
November 16, 2022
By Avery Jones | Editor
Delta Digital News Service
JONESBORO, Ark. – World Falconry Day, the day when falconry is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind, is recognized on Nov. 16. According to the North American Falconers Association, “Falconry can be defined as the taking of wild quarry in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained raptor.” In short, falconry is the practice of using birds of prey to hunt wild game.
Heath Garner and José Martinez are two falconers located in Jonesboro. Garner has been a falconer for 34 years while Martinez has been one for three years. Garner was Martinez’s sponsor and guided him during his education as a falconer.
The two first met when Martinez was put in touch with Garner through the Arkansas Hawking Association. He was 26 years old when he spent a year shadowing Garner during hunting and got his permit afterwards at 27.
“It was just something I’ve always wanted to do,” Martinez said.
He said that he enjoys the outdoors. He also read the novel, “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead George as a child, which is about a young boy who raises a peregrine falcon to hunt.
Martinez is a designated as a general falconer with three years of experience. Garner is a master falconer with 34 years of experience.
Garner first started falconry when he was 17. According to Garner at that time there were only five licensed falconers in the entire state. Garner was unaware that falconry even existed, especially since this was back in 1988, pre-Internet.
However, Garner saw massive numbers of red-tailed hawks that migrated through town when he was young. Between Browns Lane and Windover Road, there was existed an area where he liked to play as a child.
“The blackbirds would roost there…thousands and thousands of blackbirds,” Garner said. “And that attracted the red-tailed hawks and you could go out there at any given day and see 30 to 50 red-tailed hawks in that area.” A fan of the outdoors, he said as a child that it was fascinating to watch the raptors hunt.
While squirrel-hunting with a friend, the pair came across an injured great horned owl. Garner decided to take it home and nurse it back to health. It was during this event he discovered falconry.
Regulations on falconry in the U.S. as well as in Arkansas are very thorough. Since it’s a cultural heritage art, regulations specify that an aspiring falconer must learn from a sponsor. After they pass a written exam, the aspiring falconer must then find someone to sponsor them for two years.
“You can read as many books as you want and try to do it on your own, but it would probably be three times as long to try to start practicing it and have results,” Martinez said. “So, a good sponsor is very important and it’s…integral to the sport of falconry.”
“Anybody can catch and/or find a hawk and keep it alive, but it takes a lot of experience and mentorship to learn how to train one to actually hunt with you,” Garner said.
However, studying is also very important when learning falconry. The required exam provided through the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is 100 questions and covers biology of raptors, training techniques, terminology, and raptor health and medicine. An aspiring falconer must pass with at least 80%.
Aspiring falconers also have to have a regular hunting license, as well as an indoor facility in which to keep their bird that has to pass an inspection. Finally, a sponsor must sign off an agreement to train the apprentice for two years. The entire process can take from 6-18 months before training begins.
Furthermore, the equipment needed for a bird as well as the fees for getting a license can be pretty expensive. Garner said that it’s unlikely for an apprentice to get into falconry without spending at least $2,500.
“It’s probably the most regulated form of hunting in North America,” Garner said. “Because you’re using another public natural resource to pursue game, so you have to make sure that whoever gets those licenses are qualified…”.
An apprentice has to have two years of experience before they can become a general falconer, and then they must be a general falconer for five years before they can become a master falconer.
To get their first bird, an apprentice is legally required to only trap a bird on its first passage south. They’re limited to a few specific breeds and only one bird at a time.
After they become a general, they can buy birds from a breeder and can have up to two birds. Master falconers can have up to five birds of any species that’s legal to acquire, although it’s rare to have five birds at one time.
The birds are trained using rewards. Every time the bird kills game, the falconer will teach it to “transfer off” by giving it a smaller piece of meat to eat so it will let go of the game.
The bird also gets to eat the parts of the game that the falconer doesn’t want. This encourages a partnership.
The bird learns that the falconer will provide food, and that’s the sole reason it comes back. The bird isn’t a pet and doesn’t have an emotional attachment to the falconer.
However, there are many instances in which the bird won’t return. Sometimes there will be an accident where the bird gets killed, or the bird will fly off and the falconer can’t find it again.
“There is no way to avoid loss in falconry,” Garner said.
Fortunately, falconers are able to use devices to keep track of their birds. Bells are attached to their ankles so they can be heard, and GPS transmitters are attached as well that have an audible beep and will communicate to a phone.
Falconers don’t keep their birds forever, though. According to Martinez, he’s generally ready to release his current bird after two or three years.
“It’s a wild bird,” Martinez said. “I feel like it deserves to be free again.”
Martinez currently has one bird named Negrita, while Garner has two birds named Gretel and Chance. Garner said he tried to have three birds at once.
“That just about kills you,” Garner said.
He went on to say that everything a falconer does revolves around their bird. Garner has to plan work and family activities around hunting.
“It’s not a hobby or lifestyle for people who work 8 to 5,” Garner said.
He said that many falconers quit their day jobs and work second- or third-shift jobs. Garner currently works as a senior project manager for SWCA Environmental Consultants. He said it’s not hard to write reports after dark.
In college, while he was earning his bachelor’s degree in wildlife management and later a master’s degree in biology, he was able to find time to hunt around his classes.
Martinez is currently a student at Arkansas State University studying wildlife conservation. He also works in hospital administration and as a part-time field tech for Garner. He often finds himself going straight from work to hunt without even changing his clothes.
According to Garner, some falconers are able to make a living with their practice. They’re often hired by airports, industrial hygiene facilities, vineyards, berry farms, and more for their birds to scare quarry away rather than hunt it.
Garner said that it’s difficult to juggle work, family, and falconry, so he’ll sometimes drop responsibilities for a day to go hunting. During any available time between Nov. 1 and March 15, he’s usually flying birds or working.
The difficulty of the practice is worth it, though, according to Garner and Martinez. Garner stated that falconry creates an “intimacy” with the environment that other types of hunting don’t.
Both Garner and Martinez said that falconry is a learning tool and helps them to become better conservationists and biologists. They engage with the environment because they’re able to observe their bird interacting with their natural habitat.
“It’s like interactive bird-watching,” Garner said.
In addition, Garner stated that the primary reason some bird species aren’t endangered anymore is falconry.
Wild birds have a very high mortality rate. Capturing and training a wild bird is actually beneficial to it because they enhance their hunting and survival skills. They have an increased chance of survival once they’re released again.
“It’s a way to expose the public to conservation and natural resources,” Garner said.
Falconry also brings people together. It’s a cultural heritage practice reaching back 4,000 years and today, people all over the world still engage in it.
“It’s really interesting to see falconry bridge those cultural gaps,” Garner said.
Garner is vice president of the North American Falconers Association, as well as the creator of the Arkansas Hawking Association. There are about 4,500 falconers in North America. There’s also an international association of falconers that meets every six years with falconers from 70 other countries.
The Arkansas Hawking Association currently has about 35 members. Back in 1991, when Garner started it, there were only seven. It meets once a year, and they have a summer picnic. They also have a raffle to raise money for their student grant as well as an apprentice workshop.
Falconry, while enjoyable, takes a lot of commitment. According to Garner, most people quit within the first three years because they can’t maintain it with their lifestyle. Those that do it for five or more years usually do it their entire lives.
Avery Jones is a sophomore in the Department of English and Philosophy at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. She can be reached at: [email protected]
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World Falconry Day. Article may or may not reflect the views of KLEK 102.5 FM or The Voice of Arkansas Minority Advocacy Council