On Thursday, Michael Kuriga described a typical hunting trip — walking alongside a trusted dog through fields, brush and brambles while trying to flush out game like rabbits and pheasants.
But when they successfully kick up prey, Kuriga doesn’t pull up a shotgun and aim.
Instead, he releases a bird from a gloved fist, hoping the raptor will fly out, swoop down and capture the game, taking it for the hunter.
“This is as close to the predator-prey relationship as a human can be,” said Kuriga, president of the Pennsylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust, a statewide organization.
He was describing a rare method of hunting called falconry, a centuries-old practice that allows hunters permitted by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to train and hunt with raptors — hawks, falcons or owls.
It’s a practice now under close scrutiny in Lancaster County after a falconer recently climbed to a great horned owl nest at Little Chiques Park in Mount Joy and removed a baby bird for use in the sport.
It was a legal but controversial move that has since drawn outrage from locals and wildlife photographers who see the local nest as a must-see natural attraction.
“Was it legal? Yes. Was it ethical? No,” Kuriga, of Lycoming County, said Thursday, criticizing the falconer for tarnishing the reputation of the little-known sport by removing such a beloved bird. “That's our standpoint on the whole thing.”
207 permitted falconers in PA
A local game warden recently revealed there are only 207 permitted falconers among the state’s more than 800,000 licensed hunters.
And there’s a reason for that, Kuriga said. Namely, it’s highly regulated and requires serious dedication.
In fact, the commitment is so great that Pennsylvania Game Commission officials offer something like a warning on their falconry webpage.
“Unlike a shotgun, a falconer’s bird cannot be stored in a gun cabinet and forgotten when not in use. For every hour spent hunting, many more hours are required to care for and train the bird,” it reads. “If this time is not available — if other obligations interfere — it is far better never to begin the process of becoming a falconer.”
A years-long process
In Pennsylvania, it’s a years-long process that requires newcomers to complete a hunter education course, pass a written test about falconry and serve as an apprentice under an experienced falconer.
That’s all in addition to constructing, cleaning and otherwise maintaining regulation-specific housing for the birds.
“It’s unreal how well they are cared for,” Kuriga said. “The last thing we want to do is even bend a feather.”
But that doesn’t mean the removals are without critics. Among them is Allen Schiavoni, a Berks County resident with 40 years of experience photographing wildlife, including the owls at Little Chiques Park.
“Nature provides us the opportunity to see its natural law and the beauty of that,” Schiavoni said, insisting it should be witnessed at a distance. “To remove a great horned owl from its mother in her own nest for financial or personal gain should be prohibited.”
Schiavoni emphasized that he was speaking about healthy birds, and said he’d be OK with human intervention in the case of a owlet that was sick or injured.
Last week, Kuriga described falconers as wildlife stewards. And in a way, it was damage control after the Mount Joy incident.
Yes, Kuriga said, falconers take young raptors because they are easiest to train. But that should be done with respect for local communities, he said, and never at such a beloved spot like the nest at Little Chiques Park, which had housed two baby owls before one was removed.
In general, though, the taking of an owlet from a nest with multiple young could improve survivability, Kuriga said, explaining the young birds will no longer have to compete for food or contend with other threats.
Margaret Brittingham, professor of wildlife resources at Penn State University, put that into perspective, explaining 5 to 10% won’t survive to leave a nest.
“For those that do fledge, about 65 to 70% will survive the first year,” she said, later elaborating. “Even without any disturbance, the number of young that successfully fledge from the nest can vary given the amount of food available, so loss of a chick is not an unusual occurrence.”
Taken by a falconer, those young are instead cared for and taught to hunt, giving them the survival skills they need to succeed when, typically, they are released back into the wild, Kuriga said.
The vast majority of falconers see themselves as conservationists, he said, specifically noting that they played a role in the recovery of peregrine falcons — a species that was nearing extinction, largely hurt by widespread use of chemical pesticides.
“We developed methods of captive breeding raptors,” he said. “Not only did we raise them for ourselves, we raised them for reintroduction.”
It’s to share those positive sides of falconry, that Jack Hubley shows off his birds regularly in central Pennsylvania, where he hosts The Falconry Experience at The Hotel Hershey.
There, the Lancaster County-based master falconer aims to educate guests, he said, providing a history and overview of the sport. But it also draws attention to how the birds and hunters coexist, he said.
“You’re taking a totally wild bird and forging a hunting relationship with it. That’s the real beauty of falconry,” Hubley said. “To me it's a magical thing.”
Kuriga has a similarly poetic view of falconry, reluctant to even call it a sport.
“It's an art form,” he said.