Eat, sleep, prey: Falconers flock to Elk City this week
ELK CITY — Chase Delles of Minnesota calls it “our nerd convention for birds.”
He and 230 falconers from across the United States have gathered this week in western Oklahoma to share their passion: hunting with birds of prey.
Falconers from England, Belgium and Scotland have even made the trip overseas for the North American Falconers Association national field meet.
“This is the one time of year we all come together and socialize and we go out and do what we love, which is falconry,” said Amanda Kaufman, who was in charge Monday of the “weathering yard” outside the Clarion Hotel, where several species of hawks, eagles and falcons were perched.
Throughout the week, Delles, Kaufman and more than 200 other falconers will be hunting the western Oklahoma prairies for wild game such as rabbits and ducks.
The national meet also features workshops, speakers and falconry vendors, with the Clarion Hotel serving as headquarters for the event.
No longer just a sport of kings
Delles and Lauren McGough, a falconer from Oklahoma City, spent Monday searching for jackrabbits on western Oklahoma's public hunting grounds with their two golden eagles.
“My job is to actually flush the rabbits and his job is to catch them,” Delles said of Dexter, his 12-year-old golden eagle. “They are not pets at all. They are very much our hunting partners.”
It's called the sport of kings, but modern-day falconers are a diverse group.
“We got all walks of life here,” said Brandi Nickerson, 42, a falconer from Fort Worth, Texas. “We got doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, blue-collar workers and everything in between.”
Nickerson, who flies a red-tailed hawk, has been a falconer for 11 years. The sport, she says, consumes much of her and her husband's lives.
“Our lives literally revolve around this,” she said. “We schedule our work around our hunting. This is our one vacation we take out of the year (to the NAFA national meet). Everything that we do, we do it around our birds.”
A demanding and time-consuming hobby
Falconry requires a major commitment of time and money. It also is highly regulated. In Oklahoma, to become a licensed falconer, you must first find a sponsor and serve a two-year apprenticeship to learn the ropes.
Falconers also must pass a test that covers such topics as the biology of birds of prey, proper handling and care, and laws and regulations.
They also must have a “hawk house” or mews to properly care for a raptor, which must be inspected and certified by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
In Oklahoma, there are only 100 licensed falconers, said Rod Smith, who oversees falconry licensing for the Wildlife Department. There are only about 5,000 in the United States and 1,528 licensed falconers are members of NAFA.
“Falconry is very demanding,” he said. “That's part of the reason their numbers are so small because you have to be really dedicated to get into the sport and do all of this. It's got to be a true passion for people to be able to do this.”
After serving a two-year apprenticeship, a falconer in Oklahoma can apply for a general class license. Then after five years, falconers can apply for a master class license which allows them to keep more raptors.
Falconers usually have the same hunting seasons as all hunters but have special extended hunting seasons on some game in Oklahoma, such as waterfowl.
“We are subject to the same laws and regulations as gun hunters are,” Delles said.
Some falconers buy birds that are bred in captivity and can't be released into the wild. Other birds are trapped, possibly for wildlife rehabilitation or depredation reasons, and can be released back into the wild by the falconer.
“I started out doing wildlife rehabilitation,” Nickerson said. “I wanted to learn more how we could help the birds of prey and get them healthy to release back to the wild and that's how I found out about falconry.”
Kaufman said it's a misconception that falconers starve their birds. Instead, it's about keeping them just hungry enough to hunt, otherwise they might just fly away and never return, she said.
“Our birds don't love us. They see us as a tool,” Nickerson said. “They know they are going to get food whether they catch something or not. It's a love-hate relationship. We love them, and as long as they get food, they don't care.”
A Big Deal In Mongolia
McGough, 29, has a bumper sticker on her vehicle which reads, “I'm Kind Of A Big Deal In Mongolia.”
The Putnam City North and University of Oklahoma graduate spent two years in Mongolia hunting with golden eagles and was featured on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel."
She also has spent time in the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Scotland and Africa hunting with local falconers and their birds of prey.
“Falconers are such a small community, you are instantly in with everyone, so I can travel to any country and if there is a falconer, I can stay at their place and go hunting,” she said.
“Falconry is on every continent except Antarctica, and every continent has its own flavor of falconry and there is just an unending amount to explore and enjoy.”
McGough is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, but on Monday she was searching for jackrabbits in western Oklahoma with her golden eagle, Miles, with Delles and Dexter at her side.
No jackrabbits were found, but the falconers will be back in the field Tuesday for another try.
A front row seat to nature
In addition to hunting with his golden eagle, Delles also owns 22 falcons which he uses in his profession.
“I fly falcons for a living for bird abatement,” he said. “I get paid basically for putting hunting falcons in areas where they want to get rid of birds.”
The bond that develops between the bird and the falconer is what most falconers say draws them to the sport.
“Falconry kind of took over my life,” Delles said. “I get a front row seat to what happens in nature by doing falconry.
“We don't actually train our birds to hunt. They already know how to do that. What we do is train them to work with people as a valuable asset, so that allows me to see exactly what they do in nature, up close and personal.”