Fasten Your Bewits: Falconry Rules Take Off

Virginia has overhauled its laws on falconry, once called the sport of kings. Under a bill signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, Virginians who hunt with falcons and hawks will gain legal protections for their birds that previously applied only to hunting dogs.

From Jennie Price, Capital News Service

The American foxhound is the Virginia state dog and a popular companion for hunters. A handful of Virginia hunters, however, hunt with an animal that is more mysterious – and feathery.

Falconry, once called the sport of kings, is alive and well in Virginia.

The sport is a demanding one, and requires a daily time commitment and stringent permitting process. It’s really more of a lifestyle, says Dr. Eva King, president of the Virginia Falconers’ Association.

“It’s not something to pick up on the weekend,” she said.

A Glossary for Falconry

Here are common terms from the Virginia Falconers’ Association:

Bewit – small leather strip used to secure a bell to a raptor’s leg.

Creance – a long, strong cord or line used to secure a raptor during its first training flights.

Eyrie, Aerie – the nest or nesting ledge of any of the raptors.

Hood – a close-fitting leather cap used to cover the head and eyes of a raptor.

Mantle over – the stretching of wings and tail over food or quarry in a protective or disguising maneuver.

Mews – a building or room in which birds of prey are kept.

Quarry – any bird or animal a trained raptor may pursue; also those particular species that the falconer attempts to condition his bird to hunt.

Raptor – bird of prey. Strictly, a short form of “raptorial,” which means “predatory.” Also, falcons and hawks were once erroneously included in the order Raptores, which indicated that their feet were adapted for seizing prey, and their bills were adapted for tearing flesh.

Strike – the instant of contact between a hunting raptor and either quarry or lure.

Terms excerpted primarily from “North American Falconry & Hunting Hawks,” by Frank L. Beebe and Harold M. Webster with James H. Enderson.

Under a bill signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell last month, some state laws governing falconry will be relaxed and the sport’s practitioners will gain legal protections for their birds that previously applied only to hunting dogs. This will include broadened penalties for anyone who intentionally removes a transmitting device from a bird.

House Bill 1442 also extends the state’s right-to-retrieve law, which allows hunters to go on to prohibited lands to retrieve their dogs. That right will now include hunters hunting with birds of prey, also called raptors.

This is important, said the bill’s sponsor, Delegate Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, because falcons fly so far they can sometimes come down on someone else’s property.

Falconry has been practiced for more than 3,000 years all over the world, King said, and in that time, the sport hasn’t changed that much.

Apprentice falconers tend to start with red-tailed hawks and Harris hawks. More advanced falconers may hunt with peregrine falcons. Some hunters choose to work with owls.

Today, there are around 100 licensed falconers in Virginia and about 4,500 nationwide. “It’s not terribly widespread,” King noted.

King became involved in falconry 12 years ago in England. Today she lives and hunts in Charlottesville with her husband, Andrew King.

Falconry is the most regulated field sport in the country, she said. Aspiring falconers must score at least 80 percent correct on a written test, have their equipment and facilities where their birds are housed inspected and approved, and serve at least two years as an apprentice under a licensed falconer.

After the two years, an apprentice may apply for a general class license – and only after five years with that license can a falconer apply for a master class license. Permits are required at the state and federal level, in addition to whatever game permits are necessary.

“It might sound crazy, but it ensures that people are serious,” King said.

The sport is largely self-regulating, she said. “The standards we put on ourselves are usually more stringent.”

John Moore, a master falconer in Middlesex County in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, carefully tracks the weights of his birds daily, down to the gram.

The goal is for the birds to be “athletically fit,” he said. Weight is crucial because an overweight bird may lose interest in the hunt and an underweight bird may be lethargic. Temperature and metabolism also play a large role, Moore said.

Moore, who lives in the town of Saluda, first approached Delegate Morgan to sponsor the bill. A member of the Virginia Falconers’ Association, Moore has been involved in the sport for nearly 20 years. Morgan is a family friend, and Moore felt the delegate’s affinity for the outdoors and position as chairman of the Agriculture Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee would be a good fit for the bill.

Moore monitors his birds’ diets carefully; they require a fresh whole food diet – whole mice, whole rats and other small mammals. It is also important that the birds be kept sheltered and dry, he said, as well as monitored for parasites.

And what makes the birds cooperate?

“It’s a bond that forms through repetition,” Moore said.

The type of hunting will vary by bird. The natural prey for a hawk is rabbits, squirrels and other small mammals on the ground. Falcons, however, hunt in the air and go after ducks, pheasants and quail.

U.S. falconry regulations have always been strict because the rules are an exemption to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Without the exemption, handling the birds would be illegal.

In 2008, falconry regulations began to change as the federal government moved to shift the permitting process to individual states. Updating the Virginia regulations will bring the state in line with changing federal regulations, King said.

One change will now allow master falconers to have five wild birds, up from the old state rule of three. Also, the number of captive-bred birds a master falconer may possess will no longer be restricted.

The new laws will also allow apprentices to fly different types of birds, lower the age limit for apprentices and create online databases to track the purchase and transfer of birds.

When the falconers testified before a House panel in January – with birds on their fists – they had no problem holding the attention of the committee, Morgan said.

“I just didn’t want to take my eyes off the bird, it was so pretty,” Morgan said. “It’s a lovely creature.”

The falconers impressed the committee with their knowledge and understanding, he said.

The bill enjoyed unanimous support in the House and the Senate.

“Only certain people have the patience and skill to practice falconry,” Morgan said. “They devote a lot of themselves to the practice.”

Photo by Stephan Richter

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