This week I hung out with Sybil, a kestrel who measures at a mere 12.2'' and a weight of 127 grams, and falconer Katharine Eisenhart. When I first arrived at Sybil's residence I was greeted by a cheery Katharine, an apprentice level falconer from Upstate New York. She's somewhat of a rarity in the world of falconry as the hobby tends to be predominantly male dominated. Katharine stumbled upon falconry last November after befriending fellow master level falconer, Vince, when working at the local Hilltop Hanover Farm in Yorktown Heights.
"Vince came to the farm seeking permission to fly his red-tailed hawk, when I mentioned my interest in birds of prey and working with them. He didn't take me seriously at first but after talking to me for a couple of months and seeing what kind of work I did and how easily I didn't give up he offered to take me as an apprentice"
Katharine went on to acquire the proper licenses needed to start this hobby and soon found herself out on the field looking to capture her own bird, with Vince's help. As an apprentice, you have the choice of two types of birds, a kestrel or a red-tailed hawk. Most sponsors are reluctant to give their apprentice the choice to capture a kestrel. This is due to the fact that kestrels require more dedication, as they are smaller birds and their body weights are extremely sensitive to fluctuation. Never the less, Katharine would chose to train a kestrel. The kestrel would be named Sybil and from then on the two would build a relationship. This began with the tradition of "waking" - where the apprentice falconer and their new bird stay awake with each other for a total of 72 hours, in order to tame the bird and build a trust between them. The tradition is usually done in shifts with the help of other falconers, to give the apprentice time to rest.
Katharine explained the daily responsibilities needed to care for and keep the Sybil fit. Activities such as "jump-ups" focused on keeping Sybil's weight at certain grams for optimum performance. This exercise is preformed by Katharine three feet away from a small work out ball. As she lowers her fist, Sybil is trained to jump to the ball and then return to Katharine's first when she whistles. When Sybil completes the routine correctly she is given meat tidbits as positive reinforcement. This basic routine teaches the bird to listen to commands and opens the door to more complex routines such as mock hunting and lure. Mock hunting is preformed with a live bird ,a "baggie", or occasionally is used with a frozen bird, a "frosty", to simulate an actual event in the real world. However, one of the most important routines taught is the "lure" routine. The importance of the "lure" exercise is crucial in the safety of the bird in the field. With successful training and the use of positive reinforcement, the kestrel will identify a leather shaped bird with food. When out on a hunt, the falconer will use this tool when a larger bird of prey enters the area, bringing the kestrel back to safety.
Now three months since acquiring Sybil, Katharine has hopes of training Sybil to preform more advanced hunts. From hawking out of a car, to training Sybil to spot her from extreme heights. The hobby has truly become a way of life for her and with the guidance of her falconry sponsor Joe, she hopes to reach a master level in falconry; A level that will allow her to train other varieties of birds such as goshawk, cooper hawk, or eagle.
After talking briefly about the responsibilities of being a falconer, Katharine introduced me to Sybil. The bird displayed a very cautious nature, keeping her stare directly on me as I navigated around the room. Making my way to Katharine's work desk, she shared with me the different items and tools needed to be a falconer. From the kangaroo leather anklets that are worn until the bird is set free to various "hoods". She explained the importance of the anklets as they are used to keep the bird safe and perched when at home. Afterward Katharine spoke the "hoods" and their current use in aiding to keep the Sybil calm when the area has an increased amount of stimuli that could otherwise panic her. This is achieved by covering the birds eyes, and limiting its sense of sight.
I ended the day with some images and a new found interest in the world of falconry. I hope to continue this project with other falconers. Stay tuned for any updates!