Falconry: A Showcase of Savage Nature

While serving in the U.S. Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, I walked into Nathan Frohne's room one day. Perched, tethered and still in the center of the single-room billet was a falcon. On its head was an unnerving leather hood--somewhat medieval in appearance. The falcon was calm, but its mien was uncomfortably grave. Nathan was preparing to feed it chicken parts. I was apprehensive about moving anywhere near the raptor. Nathan, who is a self-taught falconer, borrowed the Saker Falcon from Ramstein's local falconer. A falconer, or hawker, and their birds of prey, provide a much-needed service to airbases, airports or anywhere in need of bird control. They scare from the skies those birds that are lower on the food chain, birds which can create a deadly hazard for pilots and passengers, and that's something all of us can appreciate. Nathan eventually returned the bird to the falconer (he never would have passed room inspection with falcon crap all over the floor), but I was sufficiently intrigued by the sport of falconry. Years later, after Nathan and I had left the Air Force, he would make annual trips to my hometown of Philadelphia to fill up on cheese steaks, roast pork and other various Philly staples. Likewise I'd vacation in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to fish with Nathan on Lake Butte des Morts, peruse the Milwaukee bar scene and eat butter burgers at Culvers. On my last visit to Oshkosh, in March of 2008, I finally participated in an art in which some find passion and excitement, and others find brutality and cruelty, when Nathan and I took out his red-tailed hawk in search of a meal. After witnessing hawking in person, I can attest to the brutality, but cannot vouch for the cruelty. Birds of prey will hunt lower fauna with or without human assistance, as it is their natural means of survival. Until these raptors learn more civilized ways, or until man domesticates them--perhaps conditioning them to eat Oscar Meyer Liverwurst--these hunters of the sky will continue to prey upon and devour their living quarry in a most primordial fashion.
The red-tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, common throughout North and Central America.
Nathan, who has been hawking for 10 years, handles the female hawk in preparation to "fly the bird," or to take her out to hunt for food.
Perched on Nathan's gloved hand, the hawk's jesses hang from anklets allowing the handler to secure the bird.
Red-tailed hawk, close-up.
The Hawk peers towards the woods where it hopes to find food.
A boy and his bird, in their comfort zone. Nathan has let the jesses go, and this red-tail is free to fly.
Perched on a branch 20 feet above the ground, the hawk is beginning its hunt. It's trained to home in and attack its prey on the call of "Ho! Ho! Ho!"
Raising a gloved hand signals the hawk to return to its handler. Holding a piece of raw meat helps to entice the bird. As you can see, I was still a bit wary.
Soaring at approximately 100 ft the hungry raptor scans the earth for its next meal.
When a hawk finds its prey it swoops down on it with tremendous speed and force. This is what's called "stooping." It's as if the hawk becomes a missile, firing itself talons-first at its quarry, stunning and bounding it within seconds.
After a few kills a hawk learns to repetitively knead the head of its prey, both crushing and stabbing its victim to death.
A cottontail rabbit has succumbed. This was the hawk's second attempt of the day at capturing a rabbit. On its first try the hawk missed, swooping into the base of a tree. Amazingly the hawk was not hurt.
Human intervention, for better or for worse. Birds of prey are selective when it comes to food. They won't attack people, but will attack cats and dogs, so it's important to be at the ready, because the last thing Nathan wants is for the hawk to kill someone's pet.
Assistance, and then some. Nathan is tearing the chest of the rabbit open so the hawk can go straight for the heart.
On it's own the hawk would simply pick away at the rabbit, tearing it apart slowly. Nathan opens the chest to allow the hawk to access the heart, thereby providing the rabbit a quicker death.
I'm about to vomit as the hawk eats the rabbit's heart.
When a hawk feeds it takes a defensive posture. To appear large and menacing, it mantles its prey by spreading its wings and arching it body. This also provides concealment from other animals of prey.
Why is Nathan smiling? "Because hawk food isn't sold in the grocery store," he says, half-jokingly.
Since hawks can injure their wings while mantling their prey during feeding, Nathan takes his hawk to a safer spot which is clear of trees and brush.
Nathan sets the hawk and its quarry down on the ground.
The hawk begins to gorge on the rabbit's insides.
Give that bird a bib. She's going to bloody her plumage. The hawk mantles its prey during its feeding frenzy.
Minnie, Nathan's Springer Spaniel, observes the gorging and perhaps takes a mental note.
A Family Photo. Say "Jeeeeze." Nathan, Minnie and the hawk eating its prey.

OL contributor Anthony Trivarelli visits a self-taught falconer.