BOSSIER PARISH, La. (KTAL/KMSS) — It’s a brisk winter’s morn just before Christmas, and Francie Forrester is taking members of the KTAL/KMSS family, their spouses and kids into the heart of the Red River bottoms. For most who have joined in the adventure, it’s their first time to be in close proximity to a Harris’s hawk.
Nicknamed the “wolves of the sky,” Harris’s hawks are the only birds of prey that hunt in groups
Francie Forrester says it’s good luck to see the shadow of a wild hawk, and she knows hawks better than most. She spends much of Louisiana’s squirrel-hunting season with her two sharp-eyed Harris’s hawks, Nova and Terzia, and much of the rest of the year teaching others about the beauty that is falconry.
Francie has been chasing after hawks since she was a little girl.
“When I was growing up, we moved around a lot,” Forrester said. “Whenever we got in the car to move to a new town, I’d get upset. Finally, my Mom started telling me to look out the car window and count the hawks.”
Forrester still hasn’t stopped counting.
“When I got older, I was working for Akins nursery, and we did a job for Richard Sloan, a very famous bird artist who had an atrium in his house out by Cross Lake. He and his wife Arlene traveled the world to study birds and take pictures, then he would come back and paint them.”
Inspired by an artist, Francie now inspires others
Sloan was a staff artist for the Lincoln Park Zoo early in his career. In 1966, a sellout of a solo exhibition at the Abercrombie & Fitch Gallery in Chicago allowed him to become the first wildlife artist from North America to document the exotic animals of the world’s rainforests in paint. He has been honored as a master wildlife artist, and his works are displayed in prestigious public and private museums across the world.
Norman Rockwell even used Sloan as inspiration for one of his paintings.
“He had a Harris’s hawk named Mrs. Piggy,” Forrester said of Sloan. “That was the first time I met a falconer.”
Francie says twenty years after she worked for Richard Sloan, she met another falconer who asked if she wanted to go hunting.
“I said yes, and that was it. We went hunting by Rocky Mount, and the bird twirled up the tree and forced the squirrel to jump out of the top. I couldn’t get over it after they helicoptered down–it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen.”
Harris’s hawks hunt cooperatively and are agile when they fly, even in the thick Louisiana underbrush. When a squirrel escapes one Harris’s hawk, it doesn’t have much chance of getting away from the second when they’re paired. Nor do rabbits, rats, small birds, lizards, or even large insects.
Forrester also hunts cooperatively, both with her birds and with humans who are genuinely interested in the ancient art of falconry.
Falconry is unlike any other form of hunting
Falconry predates recorded history, but we know it has been practiced in China for thousands of years. Ancient Egypt most likely first bred birds of prey in captivity.
The Persian king Tahmooreth trained raptors to hunt with humans more than 8,000 years ago, Today, the sport is for anyone dedicated enough to spend hours a day tending to the requirements of the birds.
Is Santa Claus a falconer?
There is no need for guns in falconry. Long wooden canes are used to beat against trees and poke holes in the ground to scare out the prey, making the festivities perfect for folks of all ages. Vines are grabbed and shaken, and when the presence of a squirrel, rabbit, or other prey is seen, the word “ho!” is yelled repeatedly until the birds notice what all the fuss is about. Hunting season coincides with chilly temperatures, so beards make a lot of sense if you can grow one.
Between the jingling bells attached to Nova and Terzia’s feet and the hollering of “Ho, Ho, Ho!” KTAL/KMSS’s adventure with Francie and her hawks left some adventurers wondering if perhaps Santa himself might be a falconer. It would explain a lot about him, after all.
Francie says that in the modern world of falconry, there are three levels. After two successful years of training under a master falconer as an apprentice, they become a general falconer. After five more years, they become a master falconer.
“As an apprentice falconer, you trap and train your first birds and typically start with red-tailed hawks,” Forrester said. “Apprentices can only change out one bird a year.”
She also says that as a general falconer, you can take a baby, called an eyas, out of a nest.
“General falconers can change out two birds a year, and after five years of being a general, you become a master falconer.”
Master falconers are allowed to have five birds that are migratory in the United States. Many different types of birds are used in falconry, though some, such as eagles, require different types of permits.
Francie says it’s time-consuming to be a falconry apprentice, so it’s not for the faint of heart.
“As an apprentice, you have to spend a lot of time with your birds. You should weigh them almost every day, and you must also weigh out their food. They have a certain weight where their body is physically wanting the food to hunt, and their mind is set on hunting. If a bird is too heavy, it will just watch a rabbit run by. If body weight is too low, it will fly too low and go after bugs.”
A good hunting weight for your bird/s is essential, and so is understanding there is some danger that comes along with the thrill of falconry.
“My birds catch a lot of copperheads and never have gotten bit, so I just let them handle it,” said Forrester.
She stays out of the way when Nova and Terzia catch a venomous snake, and she usually lets them eat it, although she says she did cut off a cottonmouth’s head one time after they pinned it down.
Here are a few more fun facts about falconry that you may find interesting:
- Mound A at Poverty Point in northern Louisiana is shaped like a giant hawk and has been nicknamed the “bird mound.”
- In 1300s England, you could receive the death penalty for stealing a trained raptor.
- Moctezuma (late 1400s to early 1500s) kept falcons as pets prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, but it’s not known if the falcons were used for hunting.
- Migratory bird protections were enacted in the United States for all native birds in the late 1950s.
- New federal regulations for falconers were put in place in the 1960s, but falconry regulations vary from state to state.
If you’re interested in learning more about what it takes to become a falconer, click here for Texas’ falconry permit information, here for Arkansas’ falconry permit information, or here for Louisiana’s falconry permit information.