- Associated Press - Saturday, March 12, 2016

DANVILLE, Pa. (AP) - High in the air, Houdini pauses.

She sees something.

The 9-year-old peregrine falcon drops hundreds of feet in seconds. She closes in on her target, each turn narrowing the gap.

Her prey, a small bird called a chukar, tries to escape. Houdini gets closer.

Then, she runs out of room. The ground rises up. Her claws aren’t close enough to snatch, and the chukar is getting closer to brush. Houdini is out of her domain as the chukar flees to a thicket of trees and hides. Some feathers remain, but the bird is gone.



“She couldn’t get it,” said Lynn Appelman, Houdini’s trainer.

Another quarry has escaped. Luckily for Houdini, she would still eat that night. Appelman already has a snack ready for her. On another day, they’ll try again.

Appelman is one of the few dedicated falconers in Pennsylvania. The sport is rare and requires a special dedication to an ancient form of hunting.

Falconry has existed for thousands of years, depicted in Roman mosaics from the fifth century, Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels through Asia, and in 16th century Belgian tapestries.

If you could go back before people began writing things down and making art, you might see it there, too.

“We are certain the origins of falconry go back much further than the origins of writing because the earliest written records found describe a highly organized and technical falconry that must have taken many hundreds, if not thousands of years to evolve to that level of sophistication,” says the website of The International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey.

In 2016, in a field behind Appelman’s West Hemlock Township home, you can still see the real thing.

Appelman bought his falcon for $1,000 from a breeder in Utah. Falconers put hoods over their falcons to calm the birds, but Appelman couldn’t keep a hood on his, so he named her Houdini.

When Appelman was a boy, he loved birds of prey. His brother knew a falconer, so they went together to see the bird.

Falconers used to need to be at least 21 years old to get a permit, but after the voting age changed to 18, Appelman wrote to the state game commission to see if the age limit for falconry permits had also dropped. It had, so the 19-year-old bought his first bird of prey, a great horned owl named Olly. They hunted together for about five years. One night, Appelman took Olly out to hunt on a snowy field during a moonlit night. He flew away, and Appelman never saw him again.

More birds followed - kestrels, goshawks, red-tailed hawks, Harris’s hawks and falcons.

The ancient sport is now a modern hobby. For thousands of years, the sport changed very little, but in the last 15 years, many things have changed, Appelman said.

To train Houdini, Appelman uses a transmitter for tracking and a remote-control drone for training. Because she escapes from her hoods, he keeps her in a large metal box when he needs to transport her, and in place of a leather falconry glove, he uses a less expensive welding glove.

The transmitter is one development that’s helped falconers. Hunters want their birds to be hungry enough to hunt, but nourished enough to be strong. With a transmitter, Appelman said, he can lean more toward the well-fed side of nourishment with Houdini. If she loses interest in the hunt and flies off, the transmitter helps him track her.

Falconers can hunt in the same locations as other hunters, although Appelman never hunts on state game lands because there are too many hunters there. He prefers private lands.

On a windy day in January, he took Houdini out for practice and to show off what she could do.

Appelman starts by sending his drone high into the sky. The machine carries bait, and it’s supposed to lure Houdini up, getting her in position for an attack. She circles, gaining altitude, until Appelman thinks she’s at a good height. Then, he suddenly sends the drone soaring and throws out a chukar. The idea is that Houdini will lose interest in the first bait and zoom toward the small bird below her, hunting the way a wild falcon would.

Success can be fickle for a falconer. Houdini usually catches a bird about one in four times Appelman throws one out during training. In the field on a real hunt, the success rate is more like one in 10. When she went out recently, on one attempt she ignored the chukar and snatched the bait from the drone. On a second attempt, she went for the chukar but missed.

The sport is a rare form of hunting these days. There are three active falconers in Luzerne County and 182 falconry permits in the state, said Travis Lau, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. In comparison, the game commission issued about 943,000 total general hunting licenses in 2014.

Falconry is a commitment. The game commission asks novices if they can commit a minimum of an hour during daylight each day, every day to the sport and cautions that for every hour of hunting, much more time is needed to care for and train the bird.

“If this time is not available - if other obligations interfere - it is far better never to begin the process of becoming a falconer,” the commission website says.

Appelman is hopeful he will be able to hunt pheasants next year at a wild pheasant recovery area near Washingtonville in Montour County. He’ll have to wait for the game commission’s decision. The commission wants to open the area to hunting, but has no plans now to do that, said Lau. The commission has seen some promising reproduction from the area, but not enough to sustain a huntable wild population.

In the meantime, Appelman will keep training Houdini, preparing for the hunt.

“Falconry is a blood sport, and some people are turned off by that. All we’re doing is trying to get a closer look at what happens in nature every day,” Appelman said. “The competition between predator and prey is something a lot of people never get a chance to see. It gives me a better understanding of the whole natural process. Up close, you see how they both react. That’s what got me in the first place and has kept me all these years.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1TXQbQE

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Information from: The Citizens’ Voice, https://www.citizensvoice.com

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