Female falconer hunts prey with raptors

Jackie Barry, 22, says falconry, or hunting wild game with a raptor, consumes her life. Photo courtesy of Barry

By most accounts, Jackie Barry, 22, is a normal college student. She goes to class, studies hard for exams, and hangs out with her friends on the weekend. But there’s one glaring difference between her and her peers: Between courses, Barry heads out into the forest and transforms into a hunter, chasing down small animals with the help of a hawk. Armed with a leather glove and a game bag, her long, dark hair tousled by the wind, she’s the striking vision of a new era of sportsmen and women practicing an ancient tradition: falconry.

“The definition of falconry is the pursuit of wild game by means of a trained raptor. Some people say it’s a hobby, but it’s definitely not—it consumes your entire life,” she says.

Indeed, Barry’s life has been totally devoted to birds for the past few years. The Davidson College senior was introduced to the sport while attending an all-girls boarding school in West Virginia, and she knew immediately she’d found her passion. Since then, she’s logged hours working at the England Hawking Center, traveled to India and South Africa to work at wildlife centers, trained diligently under the eye of her mentor, and even worked at the Smithsonian National Zoo in its aviary.

But despite her intrinsic passion for working with birds of prey, she’s careful not to claim expertise. She’s already interacted with the sharp edge of the tightly guarded falconry community, a group of people who are, rightfully, wary of an impending surge in their sport’s popularity—and any trend-hungry newcomers who could give their ancient hunt a bad name.

And Barry wants to make one thing unequivocally clear as we begin our interview: she is not a pet keeper.

“Certain people argue that some species of raptors are more social because they hunt in packs and could be easier to bond with, but that’s pretty debatable,” she warns. “I don’t think they are capable of that type of relationship. But that doesn’t matter—just the fact that you can get this wild animal to cooperate with you is amazing. I don’t need the ‘love’ aspect.”

A bird’s safety is a falconer’s No. 1 concern at all times, says Barry. Photo courtesy of Barry

That’s not to say the human-to-bird relationship is strictly a business arrangement—it’s clear within minutes of talking to Barry that she cares deeply, almost obsessively, for her birds—and the falconry community has strict regulations in place to protect their hunters. During a falconer’s apprenticeship, he or she can only trap a juvenile bird from a small selection of species, and must have the structure she wants to keep the bird in thoroughly inspected. If it seems cruel to keep the young birds in captivity at first, it only takes a few minutes of discussion to be convinced otherwise: While adult birds are strong and independent hunters, juvenile hawks experience an extraordinarily high 75 percent mortality rate in the wild, Barry explains.

“They get hit by cars, electrocuted by wires, they fly into buildings, they aren’t hunting well, and they are susceptible to disease,” she says. “There are a lot of threats during a juvenile’s first year. For us to be able to take a bird out of harm’s way during its first year and provide it with a safe place to live, veterinary care, and hunting opportunities … no part of what we do is designed to hurt the birds; their safety is our No. 1 concern.”

And as for training a bird to hunt? It’s easier than you might think. Barry says her method includes a multi-step process of teaching the bird to trust her—and eventually return to her after a flight—using a long leash and a positive reward system (usually treats). Then? It’s time to hunt.

“Sometimes when you get to the kill, the bird has already done it for you,” she explains. “But most of the time I try to get in there and kill it as quickly and humanely as possible—and that’s not just for the benefit of the animal. A squirrel has incredible jaw strength and could bite the talons off my bird. This past January, my bird got a little too crazy and caught a red fox, so I had to get in there really quickly. The fox could have killed her, and I had to break it up. It’s my job to be there.”

Jackie Barry and her falcon
Jackie Barry says new falconers must train under a mentor for a few years before they can trap and train their own bird. Photo courtesy of Barry

If falconry sounds primal, it is. The method of hunting is an ancient tradition, beginning perhaps 4,000 years ago, says Barry. It grew in popularity in medieval Europe and was considered the sport of the aristocracy, where falcons and hawks served as status symbols. The need for birds of prey dropped dramatically with the invention of the gun, but Barry says the tradition is seeing a worldwide revival. Still, it can be a lonely practice thanks to a small and widespread community and, for Barry, a lack of female hunters.

“You’re hard pressed to find falconers at all, let alone women,” Barry says. “Some men think we’re there just for the pet keeping—to look pretty with a bird on our gloves. When I first got into the sport, I felt like I had something to prove, but now I think we’re getting away from that. Luckily, there are more females joining the sport than ever before.”

But before you go and invest in a glove, be prepared for a complete lifestyle overhaul, warns Barry. The apprenticeship required to be able to trap and train your own bird will take two to the three years—then there’s a state test, the long list of equipment, and the self-constructed bird facilities you’ll need to maintain and have inspected. Barry suggests contacting a state falconry club to get started (they’ll provide you with study materials and resources so you can find a sponsor) but is quick to remind interested falconers of the downsides to the sport: “You have the highest of highs and lowest of lows. Birds can be so strong and hardy but other times they are super fragile animals. Losing a bird (or sometimes you fly a bird too high and it flies away) can happen. You’ll see people in tears; it’s really hard. The hardest part can be releasing a bird you’ve had for ten years. We’re not supposed to get attached, but that’s easier said than done.”

Still, the perks are hard to ignore.

“Just being able to go out into the woods between classes with my bird and getting in a good chase … it gets me away from stress of everyday life.”

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