One “Hawk” Of A Sport…

My Grandparents had a myna bird, years ago. Its name was Joe, and it could imitate a dog. When someone knocked on the door, Joe would growl and bark, scattering kids, and making the postman nervous.

But that was nothing, as I recently found out. You see, I decided to tag along with the Michigan Hawking Club at their annual winter field meet.

Joe was a good imitator, but that was just a trick. What these hunting hawks do puts him to shame.

I found out about the club through a through a fellow member of North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA). We were running our bird dogs when he told me about the Michigan Hawking Club. Intrigued, I went home and found the website at, where I read about the upcoming field meet. After contacting Barry Ollette, a club member, who sent me a large packet about the sport of falconry, I decided to attend.

I read the packet to educate myself about the sport. The gentlemen I spoke with on the phone told me that falconry is the “most regulated hunting sport in the country,” and I believe it. That packet lulled me to sleep three nights in a row before I finally finished it.

The gist of it was something like this: To get started in the sport, one must pass a test about birds of prey, serve a two-year apprenticeship, be sponsored by a General or Master falconer (there are only about ninety in the state, and only a few thousand in the country), and you can only own certain types of birds until you become experienced. The DNR comes to your home to make sure that you have all of the necessary equipment, and that the housing you have prepared for your raptor meets certain standards.

After that you are subject to periodic visits from the DNR and you must continue to report to them each new bird you obtain, and each that you release. For each bird, the DNR sends you a leg band, and for each that you no longer have, the leg band must be sent back to them.

And that’s the condensed version.

Consider this: When my wife and I had our first child, we didn’t even get a manual; we had to reverse engineer the diaper that he wore home from the hospital to figure out how to install a new one. If he had been a hawk, I would have had to pass a test, serve an apprenticeship, and someone from the state would have periodically checked to make sure I was doing things correctly.

These birds are well-looked-after.

Anyhow, I showed up at the field meet, and my friend Gerome and I tagged along hunting with a group of falconers.

We hunted with Gregg and Jacob, who each had brought a red-tailed hawk, Tom, who has been a falconer for thirty-five years, Wayne and his son Robert, who Wayne allowed to attend due to a satisfactory report card, and Chris who brought his son Jerrod. All of them happily answered my questions about the sport and about the birds.

I was happy to see the kids, and they seemed to really be enjoying themselves. I enjoy seeing kids in the outdoors. Being the father of two, I understand the value of these outings; in a world where meat grows spontaneously on styrofoam trays, and ‘outdoors’ means the backyard, we need to get kids involved in our sports in order to get them in touch with the natural world, and their outdoor heritage. The future of the sports and the places we love lies in their hands.

But the key members of our group were the birds.

Jacob Hopson brought his hawk out first, and it perched in a tree while we kicked brush. We flushed several rabbits, but the hawk was having a bad morning and missed four attempts. Or maybe the rabbits were having a good morning. Either way, Jacob’s bird failed to produce.

Later, as we pushed brush for Gregg’s hawk, Sophie, he called to it like one would call to a dog; something Jacob hadn’t done. “C’mon, Sophie — move up! C’mon girl!”

Later, he sheepishly said, “I talk to my bird,” with a little grin that seemed to offer apology. Why wouldn’t you, I wondered? Sophie caught three rabbits in an hour and a half. Again, why wouldn’t you talk to her? With a record like that, I would sing ballads to her and buy her flowers.

When my dog is having a good day I tell her how pretty she is, and what a good girl she is. To her, I’m sure this is no more than indecipherable babble, seeded occasionally with her name; but she likes it anyway. If I can be this ‘dog-dumb,’ why shouldn’t Greg be affectionate to Sophie the hawk?

Watching the hawks was a thrill. They would perch above, while we kicked the brush. When a rabbit ran from cover the hawk would dive at it, hopefully landing on it, and grabbing it with those stiletto talons. All of this was done at full-bunny-running-speed, making it no easy task for the bird.

We all know how tough it can be to shoot a running bunny with a shotgun; imagine trying to land on one.

I was also surprised at the toughness of the birds. Sophie pounced on one rabbit at the crest of a berm and then, clutching the struggling rabbit in her talons, somersaulted about ten feet down the hill, going tail over tea kettle. She never let go of the rabbit. These are not delicate songbirds; they’re tough predators!

And hunting isn’t all this club does. Among their ranks are wildlife rehabilitators who nurse injured birds of prey back to health. They do educational presentations, as well as participating in bird banding and counting activities, to help ensure that wild populations continue to thrive, and they participate in the “Hawkfest” every year, where they put on demonstrations and band migrating hawks for the DNR.

And did I mention that the success of re-introducing the Peregrine falcon hinged on the help and experience of recreational falconers? What a hobby! Just imagine: “Hey, Bob, I bowled a 250 this weekend! What did you do?” “Oh, nothing much; I reintroduced an endangered species back into its traditional native range.”

Like most outdoors clubs, the Michigan Hawking Club sees fit to put something back, a concept with which I agree whole-heartedly. That’s what makes a hunter, angler, or trapper an outdoorsman, worthy of the title.

Every time I hear a success story about a species on the rebound, I don’t have to dig too deeply into the matter before I find hunters, anglers, trappers, and their voluntary efforts.

And despite all their talk, and all their resources, I never seem to meet the Antis out there when the real work is happening. Odd, don’t you think?

But the irony of this doesn’t deter the Michigan Hawking Club, and others, from doing the right thing. We know who cares about our outdoors; we see them there.

I was very impressed with the sport of falconry, and with the falconers who were kind enough to let us spend the day with them. That’s another thing that I find common among the clubs; another hunter, fisher, or trapper, isn’t a non-member; he’s just another sportsman. Sportsmen are the most welcoming and gracious people that I have ever come across.

As for me, I’m not about to trade in my twelve-gauge for a feathered friend. The hawks were awesome, but they require more time and dedication than I have to give. It’s important to know your limitations. My hat’s off to those who can muster so much time and effort for these wonderful animals. I’m glad they are there to do it.

Without these folks, how would people learn about raptors?

As we all know, books and T.V. are no replacement for experience; if they were we wouldn’t have zoos or aquariums, and the outdoors would just be a thing that belongs on the wrong side of a window.

To truly understand some things you have to be there, and Michigan’s outdoors is full of people who understand that.

I’ll tell you this much: After all is said and done, even after this article is read, you haven’t ‘been there’ until you’ve looked one of these birds in the eye, or seen them practice their craft. Only then can you appreciate the beauty of these predators, and their special role in nature.

And without folks like The Michigan Hawking Club, I would never have had the chance.

At the present time, a sunset deadline on the legislation which allows falconers to trap new raptors in Michigan has been allowed to expire due to political wrangling. It is my hope, along with that of the Michigan Hawking Club that the necessary legislation will be in place as rapidly as possible, so it doesn’t hinder Michigan falconers, a law-abiding and already highly regulated group.