The Wild Side: Inside the sport of falconry
My middle son, Brett, and I were walking the dog the other day. Brett was asking lots of questions, like usual, and the topic was birds. We saw chickadees, robins, cardinals and jays right here in town.
“Dad, can we catch wild birds to keep as pets?”
“Is it against the law to take baby birds out of the nest?”
“Yes. Wait, no. Well, sometimes.”
Brett was shocked. In fact, officially it is illegal to take chicks from their nests or keep wild birds as pets. The exception is a little known practice associated with the sport of falconry. Under a very strict set of circumstances, experienced falconers can collect up to two chicks from nests of a number of species of raptors, which is a general name for birds of prey such as hawks, eagles and falcons. The first season for collecting eyas (young raptors not capable of flight) ended April 5, with another season opening in May. Falconers can set traps to capture first year raptors in the fall as well. The birds are used to hunt for as little as one season, or possibly for a number of years, and are then often released back into the wild.
I contacted Stacy Rowe with Wisconsin DNR in Madison and asked her a few questions for this article. I asked her how many chicks are collected annually, and she used the Northern Goshawk as an example. Records indicate that two or three Goshawk chicks are collected in a typical year, the highest being eight in one year. Goshawks are a species of special concern in Wisconsin, and are included in our list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need. I have been told that Goshawks are highly prized by falconers as a status symbol. It is my understanding that they are not legal to collect in our neighboring states (Minnesota and Michigan). The falconers I have heard from are knowledgeable, concerned sportsmen who really respect these birds and wish to see them and their habitat protected. They contacted me to ensure that timber sale plans had provisions to protect the birds and their habitat, including nests. This was my first exposure to chick collection by falconers.
The sport of falconry itself is not one of the better known hunting methods in Wisconsin. Falconers basically use a trained bird of prey to harvest small game species such as rabbits, squirrels and birds. I first saw this sport in action while working for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It was very impressive, and I briefly considered pursuing it-until I looked into the requirements and obligations. Falconers must undergo rigorous training, meet stringent testing and housing requirements, and dedicate hours each day for many years to maintaining their birds, their facilities, and their falconer’s licenses. It was a lot easier to get a Labrador retriever.
In Wisconsin, if you choose to enter the world of falconry, you need to find a sponsor, someone who has years of experience and a license who is willing to sign their name on the line next to yours. Then you have to pass a written test. You need to construct appropriate housing including an indoor pen (a mew) and an outdoor (weathering) area to specifications. This housing has to be inspected by the warden or myself. If you make it through all of that, you can fill out the appropriate paperwork for Wisconsin and Federal permits, pay the appropriate fees, and secure a permit.
Then the work begins. You can secure a bird by trapping through legal means or by gift from a falconer. You work with your sponsor to train, tend and hunt with your bird, and if you pass your apprenticeship, you can get a general class falconry permit with two years of experience. With seven years, you can become a master falconer.
For more information, check out falconry permit application procedures and applicable laws at dnr.wi.gov.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.