- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2016

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - Falconry is a game of cat and mouse, only with falcons and hawks, and seasoned falconers who need to be cagey like a fox.

As an engineer and natural history enthusiast, the intellectual component of hunting prey with these highly trained predators appealed to Jeff Kisak as he began to learn about this 4,000-year-old sport while on a flight to Canada for a business trip in 1997.

Now, a passion that began while reading wildlife biologist Daniel O’Brien’s book, “Equinox: Life, Love and Birds of Prey,” evolved into a way of life a decade ago, when he left engineering in favor of property management to spend more time with his family and birds.

“It is a lifestyle,” said Kisak, 49, of Erie, who hunts with his six Finnish, Russian and Siberian goshawks. “It’s not like going out and playing golf. It’s something you have to do every day. There’s a lot to it, because every bird is different. Every situation is different.”

Falconry, which Kisak describes as “the art of taking wild game with a trained bird of prey,” attracts a small but dedicated group of hunters who relish the extensive time and financial commitment needed to train, care for and hunt with their birds.

A total of 182 licensed falconers live in Pennsylvania, said Chad Eyler, chief of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Special Permits Division in Harrisburg, which annually oversees about 90,000 permits in nearly 50 categories involving wild birds and mammals.

Six falconers from Erie are among the 32 living in the PGC’s Northwest Region, which covers Butler, Clarion, Crawford, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, Mercer, Venango and Warren counties. North American Falconers Association president Scott McNeff said about 6,000 licensed falconers reside in the United States, with about 4,000 still active in this heavily regulated sport.

“It’s a very demanding sport that is rewarding if you put the time in,” said Ken Felix, 69, of McKean, who has been involved in falconry for 40-plus years, and in 1978 earned master falconer status - the highest of three designations that includes apprentice and general. “But if you don’t put the time in, it’s both bad for the bird and for the falconer because you don’t have any success.”

Total dedication

Kisak wishes he could take several trips a year to enjoy the thrill of the hunt set against a picturesque backdrop.

He spent nearly three weeks this fall hunting jackrabbits in Kansas. It was a test of intelligence, instinct and focus as Kisak and his birds battled prey and Mother Nature. For example, he takes temperature into account because his birds have heartier appetites in cold weather. Wind speeds above 15 mph makes hunting a challenge, especially when prey run into the wind.

“You’re like a conductor of an orchestra,” said Kisak, a general falconer, “because you’re working with multiple species. You’re working with the prey. You’re working with the birds. You’re working with the dogs (who flush out prey).”

Yet, everyday life makes it challenging to devote the time needed to be a successful falconer.

“The ones that stay in it their whole lives are like me. You’re just intrigued with hawks. They’re your life,” said Rod Gehrlein, 71, of Summit Township, a falconer for six decades, who co-owns a sailplane repair business and radio-controlled hobby shop. “Others look at it and think it’s neat, and they get into it. When they find out how much work it is, and all the legalities of it, they back out of it.”

Kisak said falconers take from three days to 2½ weeks to train a bird. He uses operant conditioning, a process well known in dog training that uses signals such as clickers and whistles and food as rewards.

“Its hunger overcomes the fear of you,” Kisak said. “You get to a point where you blow the whistle, and that bird will come from 40 yards (away) without a hesitation to get that reward.”

Birds are fed a specific diet each day to maintain top physical condition during the hunting season, which runs from September through March. They aren’t overfed, Kisak said, because “if they’re not hungry, they have no incentive to come back to you.”

They are fed in the offseason to be in a “fat condition,” Kisak said, to allow them to molt and regrow healthy feathers. Falconers also need to maintain the facilities where their birds live. They face annual inspections from wildlife conservation officers.

“The vast majority of falconers are excellent because this is what they do,” PGC’s Eyler said.

Invaluable experiences

Falconry has its practical benefits, such as the 60 pounds of jackrabbit meat from Kisak’s trip that will feed his goshawks this winter.

Successful hunts minimize the cost of food. Kisak also constructed the portable facilities behind his home, which include indoor and outdoor enclosures with necessary features like perches, and serves as a licensed breeder.

Pittsburgh-area master falconer Jeff Finch, 46, a past president of the Pennsylvania Falconry & Hawk Trust, the state’s falconry association, said startup costs range between $2,000 and $5,000.

There also are annual expenses, which can include veterinary costs.

Falconers save money by trapping birds like red-tailed hawks, which are found in northwestern Pennsylvania. Kisak said birds can cost between $200 and $70,000, depending on the species. Still, falconers create invaluable memories through their experiences.

Gehrlein and his wife of 52 years, Ellen, enjoy flying their five hawks together, most recently on a 2-month trip to Kansas to hunt jackrabbits. Finch sponsors his son Sam, 17, a first-year apprentice. Kisak simply appreciates watching nature take it course.

“I don’t know if there’s much relaxing. It’s focused. That’s how intense it is,” Kisak said. “You get out what you put into it. If you work really hard to be good at something, when the plan comes together, it’s a success story.”

FLIGHT SCHOOL

Steps required to become a licensed falconer:

Apprentice falconer

.- File an application, letter of recommendation from a sponsor, valid hunting license or license exemption with the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Special Permits Division in Harrisburg, as well as a letter from the applicant’s local government stating there are no ordinances prohibiting the possession of a raptor for use in falconry in that jurisdiction. A $25 fee also is required.

.- Once approved, the applicant needs to score at least 80 percent on a 150-question exam covering laws and regulations, raptor biology and raptor identification, trapping methods, facility requirements, care of raptors held for falconry, disease and health problems of raptors and training methods.

.- The facilities where birds will live are required to be inspected by a local wildlife conservation officer, followed by approval at the law enforcement supervisor level in the PGC’s Northwest Region office. Then the applicant pays a $50 permit fee.

General falconer

.- Apprentice falconers need to meet all criteria and regulations for housing, keeping food and equipment for birds, under the supervision of a sponsor for a minimum of 2 years. Sponsors assist with trapping an immature (less than 1 year old) red-tailed hawk or American kestrel (most common and smallest species of falcon). Falconers need to maintain at least one bird for 12 straight months, which includes flying the bird for the purpose of hunting, and face annual inspection of facilities.

.- After the 2-year period, sponsors can submit letters of recommendation to the PGC for apprentices to gain general status, which allows falconers to have two birds from a diverse list. They can become sponsors to apprentices after two years as general falconers.

Master falconer

.- General falconers need to stay active in falconry and maintain their permits for a minimum of five years to request master status, which allows them to have more than two birds from a more diverse list. They also face inspection of facilities.

Sources: Chad Eyler (Chief, Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Special Permits Division), Jeff Finch (master falconer, former president of the Pennsylvania Falconry & Hawk Trust)

For more information on becoming a falconer, go to www.pgc.pa.gov/HuntTrap/Hunting/Falconry/Pages/default.aspx

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Online:

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Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com


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