Working with birds of prey
When you think about hunting, you may imagine a person with a shotgun and his trusty dog by his side. Or, perhaps, an individual high in a tree stand with their bow.
But what about an individual who hunts with a hawk?
Falconry is the art of hunting with raptors like hawks and eagles. The sport dates back to 2,000 B.C. where raptors were used in ancient China. Around 1900, falconry came to the United States. Today, an estimated 2,000 people are falconers in the U.S. Of those, 35 are licensed in the state of Nebraska.
The road to become a falconer requires a serious amount of effort. A falconer must train a bird of prey to fly free, hunt under the guidance of a human being and then accept a return to captivity. Becoming a master falconer takes at least seven years, with two of those years under an apprenticeship.
Beginners must learn about gaming birds including stages of life, characteristics, prey, care, feeding and suitability for the falconer and hunting environment. Proper housing and knowledge of equipment is also necessary. A falconer must know the rules and regulations that affect the sport and the laws that apply to birds of prey.
Because all raptors are protected by state, federal and international laws, all potential falconers must acquire the necessary permits before obtaining a hawk or practicing falconry. This includes taking a written falconry exam, inspection of facilities and being sponsored by an experienced falconer. Falconers are required to follow Nebraska’s game laws and are not allowed to hunt out-of-season or hunt protected species.
Chris Remmenga, a falconer from Elm Creek, hunts with his birds as often as possible during open season. Specifically, he hunts rabbits, pheasants and ducks, as state law allows falconers to hunt game birds and game animals. Like other hunters, falconers in Nebraska must follow bag limits and obtain the proper permits.
“I love the challenge of hunting with falcons,” Remmenga said. “It’s so different than hunting with a gun. You can’t hang a bird up on a wall or lock it in a case and forget about it; you have to work with them every day. It’s rewarding to take a wild bird and train it to hunt with you.”
Remmenga hunts with two female hawks, a Northern Goshawk named Krieger and a Ferruginous Hawk named Dega. With gray feathers and orange-red eyes, Krieger weighs in around 2.2 pounds and has a wingspan of three and a half feet; about the size of the common red-tailed hawk. Dega weighs 3.09 pounds with a four-foot wingspan. Her feathers are a mix of white with brown speckles and her eyes are a bright yellow color.
Falconers hunt with their birds in a variety of ways, but Remmenga prefers gloved fist hawking. The falconer wears a thick leather glove, usually on their left hand, and the bird perches on it. The falconer walks though the tall brush, beating the vegetation until a game animal or game bird comes out. Then, the falconer releases the bird to catch its prey.
“It’s a lot of work to prepare the birds to hunt. They have to make weight first,” Remmenga said. “This means that they can’t be so full that they’re not interested in hunting, but they cannot be too hungry because then they’re too weak. It’s finding this perfect balance with nutrition and medical care to keep them strong; a lot like what an athlete does.”
The birds are equipped with anklets and jesses. Think of a collar and leash on a dog. It is not used to harm the bird, but simply to hold them until they are released to hunt. Remmenga also outfits his hawks with backpack transmitters in case they fly away.
Falconry has been a rewarding experience for Remmenga, but he emphasizes that the sport is more than a hobby – it’s a lifestyle.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s warm and sunny or negative five degrees,” he said. “These birds need constant care and the opportunity to hunt. They are born hunters, not pets.”
Dawson PPD’s Avian Protection Plan
Dawson PPD is committed to minimizing its impact on migratory birds and complying with bird protection regulations within its goal of providing reliable, cost-effective electrical service. Proactive measures have been carefully planned with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. This plan includes modified avian-safe construction standards to prevent accidental line contact.