PELHAM, N.H. — Dr. Damian Folch makes house calls. Every time he and his buddies want to go hunting they stop at the farmhouse to say hello. Folch will be the first to admit that his buddies and their relatives are far more experienced at snagging game than he is. That’s because his hunting buddies are Aggie, a wirehaired German pointer, Dali, a male goshawk, and Leo, a male peregrine falcon.
In his youth, Folch’s interest in falconry was piqued after reading “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead Georg. It is a story about a young boy who lives in a huge hollowed-out tree with a falcon and a weasel. Then, as a high school student in Puerto Rico, Folch began training birds of prey. He has continued with falconry ever since, with the exception of a 10-year hiatus when he was in medical school and his family was growing.
When asked about the time required to care for his hunting birds, Folch replied, “horrendous.” But, despite the time and effort required in training the hunters, he finds working with them in the field very satisfying.
“It is a privilege to see nature in action and being part of a team where predators and prey interact in a life-and-death game,” he said. “In nature, (the) life of a predator is hard. Three-quarters of all hawks and falcons will not make it through their first winter.”
In comparison with using mechanical hunting methods like archery or shooting a gun, Folch’s hunting takes a good deal of preparation.
“Hunting birds should be hungry, but fit. A weak hawk cannot catch a healthy rabbit. This sharpens their interest and willingness to return to the trainer,” Folch said.
For a hunt this spring, Folch, Aggie and Dali ride in a pickup to the hunting site. Folch drives, Aggie is with him up front, and Dali is hooded and tethered on a perch in the pickup’s cap.
Dali is unhooded and transported on Folch’s gloved fist from the truck to the field, and then released. Dali will find a perch up high where the landscape can be surveyed. Then, Aggie uses her nose and sense of scent to find a rabbit.
“She knows the game and goes on point once the rabbit has been found,” Folch said.
The prey on this hunt, a rabbit under cover, is frozen motionless until Folch can kick the cover or until the “get it” command is given to Aggie.
Once the rabbit bolts, the hunt is on with Dali in hot pursuit from the air.
“Dali will keep going until the rabbit is caught by the head, or escapes into another bush or a stone wall,” Folch said.
Once Dali captures a rabbit, he spreads his wings to mantle it, an instinct to conceal the kill from other birds and predators.
Folch will deliver the coup de grace by removing the rabbit’s head. Should hunting continue, Folch will feed Dali a front leg of the rabbit as a reward.
After the final prey of the day has been caught, Folch will feed the head of the rabbit to Dali.
“They prefer head parts such as ears, eyes, tongue and brains,” Folch said. “I think it has to do with desired nutrients.”
The carcass is bagged and prepared for the family dinner later. One favorite recipe is rabbit and tarragon served on mashed potatoes.
“A rabbit may be bagged in a matter of a few minutes,” Folch said, “or we may hunt for three hours without any luck.”
Rabbits like field edges where food and cover abound. These habitats are good for Folch’s team as well. Although Dali can function in deep woods, other predators, such as great horned owls or coyotes, may turn Dali into the hunted rather than the hunter.
While Folch’s removal of competitive herbivores from agricultural hay fields has relatively little impact on a farm’s production, the use of raptors to reduce pest bird damage is real and growing. According to research done by Michigan State University, the installation of American kestrel nest boxes in cherry orchards in Michigan saved farmers $2.3 million over five years. Folch said that farmers hire falconers to fly their predators over valuable fruit and berry crops to reduce bird damage. This cost-effective pest control is particularly attractive to organic farmers.
Simply installing perches can do much to reduce pest-bird damage by providing raptors with suitable locations to survey the landscape. Perches are cheaper than using rodenticides, which also kill hawks and owls. And, mowing orchards and berry patches exposes rodents and improves the effectiveness of raptors.
Folch estimates that there are approximately 35 individuals in Massachusetts hunting with birds of prey.
Birds of prey can be obtained in a number of ways. “Eyas” are raptors taken from the nest within 10 days after hatching. These birds will imprint on the owner and are very loyal, Folch said. Birds that have left the nest and have not migrated are called “passager” birds. They can be trapped and trained, but require more effort.
“Once a bird has migrated and is a year old, it is illegal to trap it. This bird is successful in nature and we want these genes to be passed on,” Folch said.
To find out more about the role of birds in agriculture, read “Supporting Beneficial Birds and Managing Pest Birds,” online at www.WildFarmAlliance.com.
For more information on falcon hunting requirements, see https://massachusettsfalconryandhawktrust.wordpress.com/so-you-want-to-be-a-falconer/.