Falconry is an ancient practice, but this is not about having a bird of prey for a pet. That is actually against the law. You can’t just read “Harry Potter” and decide you want an owl, though that does sound cool. Falconry is instead an active hunting partnership, where the bird remains wild the entire relationship, free to take off and not come back, like my last editor.
So why does it come back to the falconer’s arm again and again?
Because the falconer trains the bird to understand that when hunting from the sky, it’s a huge advantage to have a land animal to work with, and the only animal not smart enough to stay away from killer birds is the homo sapiens.
It seems like you’re making fun of falconers, but I detect a hint of jealousy. Is this because your wife won’t let you have a raptor?
We’re not here to talk about me. But yes, she says it’s on the list of things I’m “not responsible enough” to have.
How are you still employed?
Because I get great quotes like this: “I’m basically a beagle.” That’s how Silva described his role to me as I followed the 23-year-old University of Massachusetts Amherst student through the woods behind his house in Attleboro, watching him literally beat the brush with a stick, trying to startle mice, rats, voles and other gross things. As he did, Chance the Raptor flew behind us, soaring from tree branch to tree branch, ready to murder anything moving, which is a weird feeling when you’re the only thing moving.
The bird’s name is Chance the Raptor?
Yes, and I’m going to resist the urge newspapers have to explain away a perfectly good pun. [Editor’s note: Chance the Rapper is the name of a popular hip-hop artist.]
So I can just go out and capture a bird?
Afraid not. First you have to check off a painfully complicated list of legal requirements designed to discourage all but the most serious applicants. MassWildlife, the state’s conservation agency, reports that lots of people make inquiries about the licensing process each year, but only one or two become a licensed apprentice allowed to capture a bird. For that to happen, you must first pass a 100-question exam. Then you need to build a dedicated shed, known as a “mews,” to house the bird and the required gear, all of which must be inspected by Erik Amati, the state’s falconry coordinator, which is an actual job title. And finally, and most challengingly, you need to find a licensed falconer willing to sponsor you for the required two-year apprenticeship, and there are only 48 of them in Massachusetts. I’m pretty sure we have more Wahlburgers.
Why do I picture this happening in Mongolia and not Massachusetts?
Yeah, you’re not the first person to be surprised that this still exists in a state that won’t allow you to possess a firecracker. Other than the fact that it goes back a long time and has never been taken off the books, there’s a strange conservation component to the whole thing, which my wife needs to hear, because this is definitely about conservation and not about feeling like a superhero that has a trained killer bird for a best friend.
Were you about to say something about conservation?
Here’s the pitch: in the wild, most raptors don’t live long enough to reproduce. But in the care of a trained falconer, a juvenile – the only ones they’re allowed to capture – is practically guaranteed to make it to sexual maturity, at which point Silva plans to release Chance the Raptor so he can fly off and try out that “Wanna take a dance with Luck?” line he’s probably been practicing.
On that day when you release the bird, does it follow you around like a stray puppy while you fight back tears and say “Go on, git”?
Not really. This is not a cuddly thing, Silva explains to me. No snuggling on the couch. This is about food. When hunting is good, Chance kills enough to stock the freezer with plenty of leftovers. When it’s slow, Silva defrosts and chops up mice and squirrels to feed him and I just threw up a little bit.
How does a UMass student get into falconry? I thought they were into Natural Light?
Silva grew up close to the Capron Park Zoo, has either been going to camp, volunteering, or working there for most of his life, and was always drawn to the raptors and the people who cared for them. So I guess that makes him “responsible enough” to have one.
What happens after you complete the apprenticeship?
Well, then you can buy your next bird — including owls! Or you can keep capturing them, or you can get a license to breed them, or you can become a mentor, or you can leave them alone and get a pair of binoculars and just look at them like my wife keeps suggesting because she clearly doesn’t ‘t get it.
So did you see Chance kill anything?
Heck yeah I did. We were walking along, and the woods were dead silent. Suddenly, Chance swooped down behind us and sunk his heels into a pile of leaves. “There’s only one reason they go to the ground,” Silva said, and we hustled back to find Chance dining on a garter snake. Turns out this is kinda gnarly up close, because Chance quickly decapitated the snake, then slurped it down like al dente spaghetti. I wear I could see the snake still squirting inside the bird’s crop.
So what’s next?
Binoculars. Definitely binoculars.
Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.