Falconry is an art. It requires long hours, constant devotion, finesse, subtlety and skill. The falconer must train a wild and merciless predator to fly free and kill at the falconers whim, then return to captivity for food and rest.
Falconers begin with a very young bird and nuture it until it is ready to fly. For a time, the young falcon is allowed to fly free until it is ready to hunt its own food. Then, the bird is returned to captivity and is constantly exposed to people, their surroundings and other factors like dogs that may be used when the raptor is ready to hunt for the falconer. The bird is trained to come to a lure, a dead bird on a string used as a simulated quarry. Finally, it is ready to hunt. And if all goes well, the bird will kill its prey and then return to its captor.
Falconry is ancient. More than 4,000 years ago, hunters in China were using birds of prey to catch game. Ancient Egyptian wall paintings depict falconry. Horus, the ancient Egyptian God of the sun, was a peregrine falcon.
English falconers once had to select breeds based on the mans rank: a king could fly a gyrfalcon; an earl would fly a peregrine; a yeoman could have a goshawk; the sparrowhawk was reserved for priests; and servants would have a kestrel.
Poet and playwright William Shakespeare, 1564-1616, was an avid falconer.
The sport is not without its detractors. Many environmentalists and animal rights advocates believe wild birds should not be held in captivity. On the other end of the spectrum, some environmentalists and hunters are opposed to the restoration of raptor species:
- Environmentalists because the raptors further threaten endangered prey species.
- Hunters because raptors can reduce the game they hunt.
A Man of Many Hats
Dan OBrien is a renaissance man.
He is a short-story writer, essayist, novelist and author of non-fiction books; a wildlife biologist; a rancher; and a world-renowned falconer.
Nature is the star of his books, both fiction and nonfiction, his essays, and, for that matter, his life. The thread of falcons, especially the peregrine, is a constant in the fabric of his existence.
This 50-something falconer from Ohio left his heart in the Bear Butte grasslands as a boy. He returned to South Dakota in the 70s, as a teacher at the University of South Dakota and a biologist for the State of South Dakota. He bought a ranch in the shadow of Bear Butte and joined efforts to save the peregrine from extinction in the Western United States.
He describes the bittersweet journey that evolved out of one of these efforts in a well-received nonfiction book: "Rites of Autumn: A Falconer's Journey Across the American West."
He published his first novel, "Spirit of the Hills" in 1986, and followed up the next year with "Eminent Domain," a collection of short stories. They were followed by "Rites of Autumn" in 1988, "In the Center of the Nation" (fiction) in 1991; "Brendan Prairie" (fiction) in 1996; and "Equinox: Life, Love, and Birds of Prey" (nonfiction) in 1997. His articles and short stories have appeared in publications ranging from the New York Times to the Michigan Quarterly Review. He has written four screenplays, one for Steven Spielberg.
As a rancher, hes got his eye on the bottom line - he raises cattle - as well as the skies. He has replanted native grasses on his land, reconstructed a wetland and has started raising buffalo.
Now, hes entering the video market with A FALCONERS MEMOIR, produced by H2O Productions, which he owns along with Sam Hurst, a former NBC News producer who also raises buffalo; and Bill Harlan, award-winning columnist and writer whose byline appears often in the Rapid City Journal.