Falconer embraces a sport like no other

November 4, 2012 

Out of the gray sky a speck grows into a red-tailed hawk.

Inside a blind on top of a ridge near Skytop, Fran Gray peers at the approaching bird through binoculars. It’s closing fast over red and gold foliage, toward the captive pigeon Gray and his 12-year-old son, Nate, have placed as a lure.

“OK, there he is,” Fran Gray says, rising excitement in his voice. “He’s coming hard.”

The Grays, from Ferguson Township, practice the ancient sport of falconry, hunting small game with raptors. On this day, they’re trying to capture a hawk to keep and train, as permitted by law.

Snug in a kangaroo-hide harness, the pigeon flaps upward, tethered to a line running into the blind. A few pulls can catch keen hawk eyes from a mile away, drawing them to a net snare triggered by another line.

As an additional measure, and for smaller raptors such as sharp-shinned hawks and kestrels, there’s also a small cage with a live mouse — and ties on the outside that trap landing talons.

“I compare it to aeronautical fishing,” said Karl Streidieck, a longtime Halfmoon Township falconer who lends his rustic property for trapping and, as a sponsor, trained Fran Gray and is now working with his son.

Once a hawk is caught — and it must be immature to protect breeding patterns — the real work begins. The Grays and other falconers begin a week or two of training to acclimate birds to people and noise and teach them to return to gloves for food after snagging prey.

All the while, and especially during hunting, falconers must feed their birds carefully. Too much meat, and hunters lose the motivation to stick around.

“When a bird’s fed up, it won’t come back,” Fran Gray said.

Compared with other hunting, few take up the sport’s expenses and challenges. In Pennsylvania, 169 falconers currently hold state Game Commission licenses, only available after passing a rigorous test. Gray, who said his license was the 345th issued by the state since the 1960s, estimates that North America contains fewer than 5,000 falconers.

“A lot of people have an interest but it’s not like any other sport,” Fran Gray said, noting that the financial and time commitment deters many would-be falconers. “It’s a whole lifestyle change.”

There are easier ways to hunt rabbits and squirrels, but Gray, 42, and his son — who may be the youngest apprentice falconer in the state — enjoy the sport for more than fresh game. Beyond the rush of trapping, the satisfaction of training and the pleasure of hunting on a winter morning, it comes down to fascination.

“It’s a hunting sport, but it’s really glorified bird-watching,” Fran Gray said.

What they constantly see soaring — the marriage of fierce beauty and graceful power — intrigues both.

“I just think it’s all about the birds,” Nate Gray said. “I love the birds.”

Seeking a sponsor

Growing up in Renovo, Fran Gray hunted, trapped and fished from an early age.

Back then, raptors were hunting competitors, not partners. But TV sparked his imagination that some day one would perch on his arm.

“I liked falcons on ‘Grizzly Adams’ when I was 5,” he recalled. “He had a big, old golden eagle and, I don’t know, I wanted one.”

As an adult, he became interested in falconry, only to spend years securing a sponsor. In the falconry world, that’s a necessary but often difficult step. It may be simply hard to find one. Centre County has a relative abundance of falconers — five by Gray’s count — with a few more in the surrounding region due to the supply of raptors migrating along the area’s ridges.

But other parts might not have a falconer within hundreds of miles.

Even if a falconer lives close enough, he or she may be reluctant to take on an apprentice.

“It’s a lot of work,” Gray said. “Your apprentice isn’t going to go out and catch his bird without someone teaching him.”

A sponsor also bears responsibility in the close-knit falconry community for his or her student’s actions.

“You are saying you are vouching for this person, that they are going to do it right,” Gray said.

Streidieck, a retired Air Force fighter pilot and world-class glider pilot, took the chance. A few years ago, Gray approached him and he accepted, as he has for others to maintain the sport.

“It’s nice to have others around to enjoy their company in the same activity,” Streidieck said. “Because I like to encourage people to do outdoor things, whether it’s hunting or whatever.”

He immediately saw a kindred spirit in Gray, and an “old hunter from way back” serious about falconry.

“I was just talking to him and seeing he wasn’t a will-o’-the-wisp, fly-by-night guy who had seen a TV show,” Streidieck said. “This guy had a commitment to being outdoors, he had the facilities to do it, and he had the backing of his family.”

Since then, Gray’s enthusiasm and dedication to treating his birds well continue to impress Streidieck.

“You can tell he’s raring to go,” he said. “He’s mechanically competent and knows about wildlife, and he’ll listen to me.”

Gray said Streidieck’s generosity in sharing his land and expertise isn’t unusual among established falconers.

“Once you’re in the inner circle, they’re very forthcoming about information and how to do things,” Gray said.

Next year, Gray, a general-class falconer, will be eligible to take on his own apprentice. Even with the demands of being a husband, raising three children and running a food truck business, he’s looking forward to passing on Streidieck’s kindness.

“I’m not going to let someone wait as long as I had to,” he said.

Hungry for the hunt

Gray presents an unusual sight in his Park Hills neighborhood, even though his neighbors are used to it.

He stands on his lawn holding Zoe, a female red-tailed hawk named after his daughter. It’s a typical training session for the hawk, which Gray hunted with two years ago, lost, then re-caught near Stormstown this fall.

He brought the hawk out of her mew, the walk-in enclosure he built in his garage for his and his son’s birds, so he could teach her anew to fly to his arm. She’s beyond the “dumping” stage, when new birds initially refuse to perch and constantly fall off.

On a small stepladder, his designated yard training perch, he places Zoe. She’s on a leash called a creance line to keep her from flying away.

But this afternoon, she’s not going anywhere.

“She’s not hungry enough,” Gray says.

Eventually, as she grows more responsive, Gray will move on to longer distances until he feels ready to hunt.

Hunting boils down to hunger. After birds, which wear leather straps called jesses so falconers can tether and control them, kill prey, they’re located by bells on their legs or, increasingly, radio telemetry.

Once found, the birds usually relinquish their catches with only a few rips and pecks, retiring to branches. The falconer then must entice the raptor back with food.

Sometimes, they don’t return — even good birds, a reminder that they’re not pets.

“None of them are going to like you,” Gray said. “They’re much more likely to not hate you.”

But regardless of their feelings, he’s enamored of them. He can rattle off facts about different species and the history of falconry going back to the Middle Ages. And he’s excited to share them with his oldest son, with whom he has hunted and fished for years.

“My son has caught more 20-inch trout than most grown men,” he said with pride.

That bond partly convinced Steidrieck to sponsor Nate Gray.

“When a father and son get something they share together, I think that’s rare,” he said.

Talk to Nate Gray for a few minutes, and it’s clear he has been bitten by the falconry bug, especially trapping.

“They come straight in, and at the last second, they just pull up and lock in,” he said. “Like it’s heading straight for your head, and then it pulls up. It’s crazy.”

Because his father seldom keeps birds for more than one season, he has plenty of chances to see drama unfold, such as a recent scene on Steidrieck’s land.

One that zeroed in on the bait pigeon escaped when the snare didn’t deploy in time.

“Hawk 1, falconers zero,” Fran Gray said.

Not long after several close calls, each one prompting a crescendo of giddy whispers, the Grays struck pay dirt. A red-tailed hawk, appearing out of nowhere, swooped in. The snare released, draping the unharmed hawk in soft netting.

Too small for Fran Gray’s liking, the hawk would be set free to continue on its way along the ridge. But for a few glorious moments, standing at his father’s side and soaking up every detail, Nate Gray didn’t care.

“That was pretty sick,” he said, bounding back to the blind.

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