photos by Gerry Tetzlaff

Falconry: an ancient practice in hunting and companionship.

For more than 10 years, Matt Hoover’s time and money have been consumed by Falconry. To the layperson, it seems like an intricate method of hunting. But to Hoover, Falconry is an ancient art involving man, bird and trust.

Hoover became interested in Falconry in the fourth grade when a raptor center brought birds of prey to his school. “I asked my teacher if I could have one as a pet,” Hoover says. “She told me, ‘No you can’t, you have to be a falconer.’ So that’s what I did when I turned 16.”

Hoover’s current falcon is named Jet, and he’s still teaching him how things work. With Jet off perched in a tree, Hoover reaches into his pocket and pulls out a live pigeon with tape over its eyes. “Some falconers sew the pigeons eyes shut or clip their wings to make them easier targets,” Hoover says. “I use tape so they can scratch it off if they manage to escape.” He throws the bird into the air and lets out a loud whistle.

Jet flies from the tree and catches the pigeon in midair then takes it to the ground.  If this were a real hunt, Hoover explains, he would give Jet some food to compensate for the animal he just caught.

Hoover gives Jet some time with his kill. Patience is key in the sport of falconry, even more so than regular hunting. While waiting, Hoover talks about the large number of regulations he has to deal with. “Falconers are rare, yet here in the United States we are the most regulated hunting sport there is,” Hoover says. “But it makes the sport more honest. You have to be really committed to become a falconer.”

Jet, who is three-fourths Peregrine Falcon and one-fourth Gyrfalcon, is vigilant with humans around, although people are not out of the ordinary for him. He was born and raised in captivity. But this isn’t always the case. As an apprentice falconer, Hoover and his training sponsor had to catch a red-tailed hawk in the wild to train with.

First things first, it’s off with the head. Jet removes the pigeon’s head and then proceeds to pluck off its feathers. Some fly off in the wind and some go down his throat. The feathers aren’t bad for Jet. “It doesn’t hurt, they just come back up in pellets,” Hoover says.

There’s a bell attached to Jet’s leg. This practice dates back to the early days of falconry as a way to find the bird. It’s easy to see falcons in the sky, but when they dive into seas of tall grass, it’s just as easy to lose them. But some falconers have ditched the bell system — it can tip off others to the meal at hand. Some say smart birds will know not to move. No movement, no bell sounds. Hoover still uses the bell as his go-to way of finding Jet, but he has a tracker in Jet in case he can’t hear the bell.

Jet tries to get in a few final pecks as Hoover reaches down to take the rest of the pigeon. “An important part of falconry is keeping your bird at weight,” Hoover says. Falcons have to be kept at a certain weight otherwise they won’t want to hunt. In the wild, if a falcon gets a kill and eats his fill, it might be some time before the bird needs to eat again. By monitoring a falcon’s weight, a falconer is able to hunt every day, if they choose to.

Back in Hoover’s hand, Jet pecks at the pigeon leg that he was given for compensation. The pair has developed a level of trust that comes with the amount of time they spend together. “Falconry is not a hobby, I’ll tell you that,” Hoover says. “It’s not like hunting with a shotgun where, when you’re done with it, you can put it away for a year. I have to take care of him 365, 24/7.”