When Newport police officer Jack Billings was a young boy in Utah, he watched as a great horned owl landed on a utility pole near where his father was barbecuing. When Billings put on a leather glove and held a piece of meat out to the owl, the bird flew to his glove. That bird had
escaped from a local falconer, and that moment was the beginning of Billings’
passion for falconry. Today the Exeter resident, 39, is one of just two master
falconers in Rhode Island. Every year he captures and trains a wild hawk to
hunt for squirrels and rabbits and return to his hand without losing its
wildness. “As comfortable as you get with them,” he said, “they’re always wild
animals, and it’s up to you to treat them with respect and treat them as wild
|Falconer Jack Billings (photo by Mike Salerno)|
Q: How do you describe what falconry is all about?
A: Falconry is just a really intense form of bird watching. It is the opportunity to observe life at its most primal and basic level – the relationship between predator and prey. The bird works with you in the pursuit of quarry, but the majority of the workload falls on the bird. It gives you the opportunity to see what goes on around us every day, but at a more personal and intimate level.
Q: How does one become a falconer?
A: The regulations in Rhode Island are pretty strict, and that is very much intentional because the amount of work and care and understanding required to successfully fly and maintain these birds at an optimal level is amazing. There is a two-year apprenticeship that’s required under a general or master class falconer. Prior to the apprenticeship, you’re required to take a state examination that covers everything from housing, feeding, and equipment, all the way up through general raptor biomedicine. After you pass the test, there is also a facilities inspection required. The bird has to have access to an outdoor facility called a mews, which is like a custom aviary, so the inspection ensures that your mews meets the requirements of the state regulations.
Q: Tell us about the birds you hunt with.
A: I’m a big fan of our native eastern red-tailed hawks. They are very good at catching all kinds of quarry. Squirrels and rabbits make for great sport for them. Every year I trap and train a new bird, and each bird has a very different personality.
Q: How do you trap them?
A: There are many ways to do it. My preferred way is with a bal-chatri, a domed cage usually made out of some hard wire mesh. You tie monofilament fishing line nooses on top of it, and you place a bait animal – a mouse, a starling – inside the bait cage. Once you identify an immature hawk you want, you deploy the trap. The hope is that the bird sees the bait animal, comes down to grab it, and in the process of landing on the cage gets tangled in the nooses, at which point you extricate the bird and begin your training.
Q: If you’re trapping a new bird every year, what do you do with your previous bird?
A: Because they’re always wild, the old bird gets released right back into the wild. I’ve seen birds that I’ve released in the same areas years later.
Q: What’s involved in training them?
A: The basic premise of training a falconry bird is time equals influence. The more time you spend with them, showing them that you’re not going to hurt them, they start to come around and you start to build a trust. As soon as they’re brought home, I like to go down into a quiet darkened room with no stimulus, and I put the bird on the glove with leather anklets and jesses on, and I just try to get it to sit on the glove and gain that trust. The aim is to get the hawk to eat off the glove. When that happens, it’s almost like a switch has gone off. Everything changes. The bird has identified you as not being so much of a threat. From that point on, the training proceeds pretty rapidly. The next day, maybe you put it on the back of a chair, then hold the garnished glove six inches away, and all you’re asking her to do is step forward and she can eat. A bird that will step will hop; a bird that will hop will fly five feet; a bird that will fly five feet will fly 20 yards. Once you gain field control while the bird is tethered and will react to your cue and reward, then it’s time to unclip the bird and begin hunting.
Q: What’s it like to take a hawk hunting?
A: Clearly, these animals know what they’re doing. It’s ingrained in their being. It’s just up to you to introduce them into a game-rich environment, and through walking around and flushing squirrels or rabbits for them, present them with the opportunity to pursue game. You can learn a lot by watching the bird. They’ll tell you what’s going on in the woodlot or the briar patch. The most successful falconers I know are able to interpret what that bird is doing and react accordingly. A bird that’s looking intently at one spot and starts bobbing its head left and right has spotted something they’re interested in catching, and they’re triangulating and determining exactly how far away that prey item is and how much energy it’s going to take to get there. So by interpreting that behavior correctly, you can move into position and offer a flush. And once the animal flushes, the hawk engages.
Q: What do you enjoy most about falconry?
A: It’s simply being witness to that predator-prey relationship, the very basic premise of life, and being able to observe nature on a level that most people only read about in books. These birds are very intelligent, and they ask a lot of you. Falconers, at best, are the dog to these animals; we’re the flushing utensil. They are in control of the show, and you’re there to provide a little assistance.
Q: Sounds like falconry is a huge commitment.
A: It is a huge commitment. My first divorce was a result of falconry. It’s not like having a dog that you can bring to the kennel when you’re on vacation. A falcon isn’t something you can just walk away from.
Q: What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a falconer?
A: Far too often you see people who are interested in an activity, but when they become engaged in the activity, they form that activity around their life. This doesn’t work like that. Raptors are hunting machines, that’s what they were built to do, that’s what they want to do, and anything short of that you’re doing a disservice to the animal. So if you’re thinking about falconry, think about whether you can modify your life around that bird, not the other way around. It will never work the other way.
This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on August 23, 2017.