Swooping, spiraling, diving and whirling. Seeing the graceful movement of a hawk on the hunt, you can start to understand why they are compared to Olympic athletes and why there is still an immense interest in falconry.
“Falconry is recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Activity. It’s been practiced for 4,000 years. And while it’s not widely celebrated here in Alberta, there is a global tradition of hunting with birds of prey,” Provincial Wildlife Status Biologist Gordon Court says. “While some people in Alberta would like to own a falcon, it’s strictly regulated and you must hunt with them. It takes a lot of work to look after one of these birds – that’s probably why there are fewer than 40 people in Alberta who are licensed to do so.”
In Alberta, to own a bird of prey for the purposes of falconry, you must belong to the Alberta Falconry Association, ever since the provincial government created a legal framework for the sport in 1982.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about owning a bird of prey,” says Steve Schwartze who owns Falcon Ecosystems Solutions, a company that uses falcons to help control problem bird populations. “People might see a falcon at a wildlife rescue facility and form the impression that it would make a cool pet. They are not pets. They’re meat-eating birds. They can be loud, they are often not social or friendly. We have a high standard of expectation for licensed falconers in Alberta. You are not allowed to get a falcon just to get a falcon. You are expected to hunt with them and to give them a life that is comparable to the one they would have in the wild.”
Schwartze’s business offers an environmentally sustainable way of disposing of ‘problem’ prey animals such as pigeons and seagulls. Some human environments such as granaries, rural electrical plants or landfills can offer an unnatural habitat for prey birds, leading to unnaturally large populations of these wild animals. As a solution, Falcon Ecosystems brings in an unnatural number of predators to reduce that population.
“I don’t particularly care for killing anything, but it’s an integral part of a raptor’s existence,” Schwartze says.
For several years before falconry was legal in Alberta, some individuals hoping to organize the falconry community became adept at rehabilitating injured animals for release to the wild; the tradition has continued ever since.
Traditionally, these falconers would get the bird to chase a lure that was swung around on a string or on a kite. It’s a process of teasing the bird of prey into flight, and keeping it interested, and getting it into flying shape. The problem was that the birds get bored of chasing a lure that moves in a low height and relatively predictable pattern, like something that’s swung about.
“We started using the quad-copters about five years ago,” Schwartze says. “The kites were dependent on wind, and the quad copters are infinitely more versatile. No matter what the conditions are, we can give the bird the exercise it needs. To get them into condition, you show them a lure attached to a quad copter, hit the gas and get them to pursue it. The birds will fly longer and faster to run it down as if it were prey.”
Although there are only a small number of falconers in Alberta, they have an active association that helps promote the sport, and ensures that falconry is practiced ethically. The organization offers numerous resources about falconry at their website AlbertaFalconry.com
In Part 2 of this blog series, we’ll talk about recovery efforts that are helping ensure birds of prey remain an important part of Alberta’s natural ecosystem.