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Keep an Ancient Sport Thriving

A red-tailed hawk trained by falconer Kelly LaBarbera, of Black River Falls, Wis., looks out from a perch during a hunt, Jan. 25, 2014. (Paul A. Smith/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)

A red-tailed hawk trained by falconer Kelly LaBarbera, of Black River Falls, Wis., looks out from a perch during a hunt, Jan. 25, 2014. (Paul A. Smith/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT)

Hazel Green, Wis. — Our ground crew of five pushed through the snow-covered hills of the Driftless Area, prodding brush piles and brambles with hiking sticks.

The sixth member of the team looked down from the branches of a nearby oak tree. Her expression seemed to say: “I’m waiting!”

I joined Patrick and Kelly LaBarbera, of Black River Falls, Wis., and Mark and Coni LaBarbera, of Hazel Green, for a winter small-game hunt.

We carried no firearm or other weapon. Any game would be taken by the handsome partner sitting in the tree, a red-tailed hawk named Agnes.

Patrick and Kelly LaBarbera are falconers. For them and about 100 other licensed falconers in Wisconsin, hunting means flying a bird of prey.

And if it’s a winter outing for cottontail rabbits, it likely involves a lot of legwork.

“These are fresh tracks,” Kelly said, following a rabbit trail through the woodlot. “Let’s work this pile.”

With that, the group assembled and attempted to roust any rabbit from the warren.

Humans form close relationships with their animal hunting companions.

But in falconry, the normal roles are often reversed.

“We work for them, you bet,” Patrick said. “The birds know it and stay close to us.”

The fifth brush pile of the day yielded the first rabbit. A brown streak bounded over the white snow.

“Ho, oh, oh!” Patrick yelled. “Yeah, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya!”

It wasn’t clear if his excited call attracted Agnes’ attention. Or if her keen eyesight already had spotted the prey.

By the time we looked skyward, the hawk was in flight. Agnes flapped and veered through the woodlot, avoiding trees and rapidly closing on the rabbit.

Patrick and Mark LaBarbera are cousins who grew up in and around Milwaukee. Like many in their families, they learned to love the outdoors, including hunting.

The men could fill a library with photo albums of past hunting trips from North America and abroad.

But until about three years ago it never included one of the oldest forms of hunting. Patrick and Kelly were introduced to falconry by a friend.

“We knew we had to get involved,” Kelly said.

Patrick and Kelly found sponsors —Dan Orth, of Fairchild, Wis., and Patrick Hoge, of Alma Center, Wis., respectively — and became licensed.

The birds’ health and care is paramount. Patrick and Kelly spend more than two hours a day training and caring for their birds. The daily schedule may include feeding, exercising and weighing the animals. The birds are trained to fly to their handlers to get pieces of raw meat.

Like other forms of hunting, falconry has critics.

Some consider it a needless “blood sport.” Others dislike the occasional practice — authorized by Wisconsin and federal officials — of falconers taking young birds of prey from their nests.

Falconers often counter by saying their skills are used to rehabilitate sick or injured birds. And by taking in young birds for falconry, they can increase survival of the animals.

The LaBarberas have acquired their birds by trapping juvenile birds from the wild. They keep no more than two birds at a time. Last year they released a pair of kestrels to the wild after raising them to adulthood.

The kestrels stayed in the area and are doing well, Kelly said. The birds have colored leg bands so they can be identified.

Agnes was outfitted with jesses, leather straps tied to her legs, and bells. The jesses help Patrick and Kelly hold the bird. The bells help them follow Agnes’ location in the woods.

The LaBarberas also clipped a tiny electronic transmitter to the bird, an emergency measure to help find her if she flew away.

The first flush of the day ended with the rabbit diving into a hole along an old stone wall. Prey animals are also well-equipped for survival.

We continued to look for fresh tracks and likely holding spots. Over the course of two days and about four hours of hunting, Agnes showcased her supreme abilities and caught two rabbits.

Each time, Kelly rewarded Agnes with a piece of raw meat.

“I’ve hunted lots of ways,” Patrick said. “There is nothing like having a relationship with a magnificent bird of prey and having a front-row seat to see it in action. I wish I would have started this 30 years ago.”