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Falcon and Hawk Trust meet in Chambersburg

January 09, 1999|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - In a typical scenario, Mike Kuriga's hunting dog picks up the scent of a rabbit hiding in a brush pile. Kuriga moves in and shakes the pile, sending the rabbit scurrying into the open in a mad dash for new cover.

In most cases a hunter would kill the cottontail with a shotgun. Not Kuriga.

His harris hawk, watching from her perch in a nearby tree, spots the fleeing rabbit, dives on it in a flash of speed and violence and kills it.

The hawk gets to eat the head and neck, and Kuriga gets to keep the rest. "I make hasenpfeffer out of it," he said.

Kuriga is a falconer. He uses falcons and hawks the way a conventional hunter uses a gun. The sport is 3,000 years old, he said.

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Kuriga and 90 fellow members of the Pennsylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust are holding their annual winter banquet at the Quality Inn here this weekend. The meeting will include trips by members to nearby fields and woods where they will unleash their falcons and hawks on whatever small prey they can scare up - from wild ducks to rabbits and squirrels to crows and blackbirds.

The key to falconry is letting the birds do what they do naturally. The trick is to get the birds to return once they are unfettered, something that's usually easy to do with a handout of food. "You try to get the bird to hunt in front of you," Kuriga said.

Falconry is one of the most regulated sports. A string of federal and state laws keep a tight rein on participants. There are about 120 falconers in the Pennsylvania Trust and more than 2,400 in the North American Falconers Association, Kuriga said.

It takes seven years to become a master falconer like Kuriga. It begins with two years of apprenticeship under a master, followed by five years of general practice.

No one except licensed falconers or apprentices serving under a licensed sponsor can capture or possess a raptor.

About half of all falconers own birds they caught in the wild. The rest are raised in cages by guys like David Mancini, 54, of Falmouth, Va.

Mancini, a retired biologist, raises about 40 birds a year in a variety of species, from peregrines to goshawks to harris hawks and the large arctic gyr falcons. He also develops hybrids by cross-breeding species, often by artificial insemination, he said.

Hunting hawks and falcons cost from $400 for a small kestrel to several thousand for larger hawks and falcons.

Different species are used for different prey. Redtailed hawks, the most common in the Tri-State area, usually kill rabbits, making them popular with rabbit hunters. Waterfowl hunters prefer peregrine falcons, which can dive down on a flying duck at 200 mph, Kuriga said.

"We don't want the bird to do anything it won't do in the wild. We let them hunt what they normally hunt," Mancini said.

Regulations allow only young birds in their first year to be captured, Kuriga said. "About 80 percent of wild birds don't make it the first year anyway," Mancini said.

Mancini has his own Web site, birdsofprey.staffnet.com, for anyone interested in learning more about the sport or about raptors.

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