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Modern Falconers Keeping Sport Alive

Fly fishermen wade into a new season at Bennett Spring State Park. (Kansas City Star - Brent Frazee)

Fly fishermen wade into a new season at Bennett Spring State Park. (Kansas City Star - Brent Frazee)

Milwaukee — It was once the sport of kings.

Now it’s the sport of the most devoted.

Falconry is not for the casually committed. The education, training and housing of these great flying hunters requires constant care and effort.

But the payoff, said Pat LaBarbera, a semiretired sheriff from Jackson County, is like no other in outdoor sports.

“Falconry can be described as bird watching at its extreme,” said LaBarbera.

“These birds are hunting on their own, every day in nature, but this sport allows me to have a front-row seat.”

Essentially, falconry is the hunting of wild prey with trained raptors.

The sport originated in Asian countries, such as Mongolia, China and Japan, and then took off in the northern parts of Europe, such as England.

“Falconry is the oldest sport known to man; it is approximately 4,000 years old,” said LaBarbera. “Falconry is often referred to as the sport of kings because of the medieval times.”

Now it is a highly regulated sport; in Wisconsin, falconers are required to be licensed both through the state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for keeping and caring for the falcons and hawks.

Falconers are rated at three levels: the apprentice, who is a beginner and requires a sponsor; the general; and the master. Each level is achieved through years of experience and testing.

The intended result, said LaBarbera, a general falconer, is a unique partnership between man and his raptor.

LaBarbera lives in the Black River Falls/Jackson County area and with his wife, daughter and son cares for both a red-tailed hawk and American kestrel.

Part of his maintenance is to weigh the birds each day to make sure they are getting enough nourishment.

He said the kestrels are true falcons, the smallest in North America, with a high metabolism: “a parakeet on steroids.”

The red-tailed hawk, he said, is more like an F-150: “tough and resilient.”

LaBarbera will share facts with his audience, which typically includes lots of kids:

The birds can have as many as 1,000 feathers and molt every year, and do so aerodynamically, meaning a lost feather on the left means one on the right, in the exact spot, will soon follow.

These birds also have incredible eyesight, as they are visual hunters. He said his hawk, Nala, could sit in one end zone of a football field and see the details of the fine print of a newspaper in the opposite end zone.

The raptors use this skill to catch rabbits, squirrels, quail and, most commonly, mice.

What’s most fascinating of all, however, might be the teamwork behind the falconer and his bird.

They are not tethered to the falconer in any way and could leave of their own free will, which does happen, though rare.

The thrill is seeing the hawk or falcon return from flight, ready to share the hunt or begin again.

“We do not teach these birds how to hunt; they know how to hunt,” said LaBarbera. “Nature has already taught them how to hunt.

“The only thing we’re teaching them is to come back to us and to allow us to hunt along with them as a team.”