How much do you know about falconry in Wisconsin? In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist examines the centuries-old sport of kings.
This time of year, there are a lot of birds with nests, either hatching eggs or feeding young birds. In some cases, they may already be teaching their young how to fly. 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 2 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 5th, 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 oftentimes released back into the wild.
Some time ago I contacted the state’s falconry coordinator 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 2 or 3 Goshawk chicks are collected in a typical year, the highest that I know of being 8 in one year. Goshawks are a species of special concern in Wisconsin, and are included in the 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 of Minnesota and Michigan, but nonresidents are allowed by law to take fledgling raptors here in Wisconsin.
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 a resource management agency in a neighboring state. 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, an established master falconer 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 the local wildlife biologist. If you make it through all of that, you can fill out the appropriate paperwork for state 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.
This is a proud sport with a long, storied history. Tales of noblemen with falcons perched on their arms weave their way through the ages. With careful oversight and training, this sport can continue with relatively little impact to our game and raptor species, as long as our nesting raptor populations can withstand the numbers of young removed from their broods.
Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.