Feathered Friends

Go beak-to-beak with a Harris hawk at  Vermont’s British School of Falconry.

As my falconry instructor demonstrates the proper technique for launching the cola-colored Harris hawk perched on my gloved left hand into the brilliantly-blue sky, it hits me: The quasi-magical partnership between man and beast that is at the heart of this so-called “Sport of Kings” feels like equal parts science and sorcery.

The setting for this wildlife wizardry is The British School of Falconry, located at southern Vermont’s Equinox Resort.  One of only a handful of similarly experiential programs in the United States, the school’s hands-on approach gives ordinary folks the extraordinary opportunity to skip the years of study and apprenticeship required to become a master falconer and actually begin handling these magnificent birds within 20 minutes of walking through the front door.

The school’s Introduction to Falconry course begins inside the operation’s converted turn-of-the-century dairy barn with a tour of the small rooms, called chambers, that the birds call home.  Our instructor explains a bit about the history of the sport, the types of birds used in the school’s program, and the exacting exercise and diet regimens that keep the two-pound birds within a half-ounce of their designated “flying weight.” This careful weight management helps ensure they are strong enough to fly and yet not so overfed that they have no incentive to return to the falconer’s out-stretched glove.

After this brief orientation, my classmates and I don heavy leather gauntlets and are paired up with our avian partners.  Then we all head outside to the adjoining pasture for the main event, an experience that includes flying our birds to distant perches and recalling them to our gloved fists.

A short stroll allowed us to free-fly our birds just as a falconer in the field would have done centuries ago. A demonstration of training techniques—including the somewhat delicate process of extracting the bird’s fresh-caught prey (in this case, a man-made lure) from its powerful talonsrounds out the basic lesson.

No matter which program you opt for, the moment you must return your bird to its chambers at the end of the session will come much too soon.  Based on my experience, however, the upside is that the magic of this close encounter will return to you every time you see a hawk turning graceful circles in the sky.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Though these birds may be lightweights, their grip is powerful enough to plunge their talons straight through your unprotected palm.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Legendary figures including Alexander the Great, Kublai Khan, and King Henry VIII were just a few of falconry’s long list of notable devotees.

The Facts
Name: The British School of Falconry
Location: Equinox Resort, Manchester Village, Vermont (about a 3.5-hour drive from Boston).
Phone: 802-362-4780
Website: www.equinoxresort.com/thingstodo/falconry/

My Advice

  • If you’re really excited by this idea, consider signing up for the package deal that combines the introductory lesson with the school’s hour-long “Hawk Walk” that allows students to fly their birds on an extended amble through the tranquil Vermont countryside.
  • For an authentic falconry experience, the school also offers half-day outings in September and October where a master falconer will take you on an actual hunt for small game such as rabbit or quail.
  • Just in case the idea of keeping these beautiful birds of prey for sport makes you uneasy, keep in mind that even a hawk that’s been used in a falconry program for 10 years forms no bond with its human handlers and can therefore be returned to the wild with no ill effects.
  • Don’t forget your camera.  This is one of those experiences you’re going to need photos of if you expect people to believe you.