Turns out the sport of kings is less about the Kentucky Derby than about birds that fly faster than horses run.
Long before horses ran around race tracks in any organized fashion, the original “sport of kings” was falconry. Falconers meeting recently at Taylorsville Lake State Park remarked with amusement on this irony in a state better known for its horse racing.
Falconers in Kentucky continue to practice this ancient sport, developed some 4,000 years ago in Asia. The meetup at Taylorsville Lake was part of a statewide effort to revive the Kentucky Falconers Association, dormant since the 1980s. The group has a Facebook page.
A few red-tailed hawks and goshawks, along with one American kestrel, attended the meetup with their handlers. The birds rested tethered to their perches in the shade with water bowls nearby, while falconers lunched at a pot luck and put down money for a raffle on hawk training equipment. Popular raffle items included a radio transmitter sized for a bird, hawk-size hoods, leather gloves and humane traps for capturing birds of prey.
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These birds will hunt during a season that opens Sept. 1 and runs through March 31. Because birds of prey are federally protected, their keepers were licensed only after passing a written exam administered by Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Resources. Each falconer must undergo a two-year apprenticeship under a licensed mentor. Fish and Wildlife also inspects and must approve each hawk’s housing, called a mews. Housing is constructed according to regulated specifications.
The number of falconers currently holding permits in Kentucky totals 73, according to Mark Marraccini, communications director for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Resources. The number is up slightly from the 55 falconers licensed in the state 10 years ago.
The national demographics have changed: more women have become falconers than in previous decades, according to Scott McNeff, president of the North American Falconers Association. However, the numbers of falconers nationwide do not indicate an upswing in popularity of the sport, McNeff added in an email.
“There are many folks around the nation who would love to take up falconry as a lifestyle, but normally when they learn what is required in terms of time, to become a successful falconer, most people decide that it isn’t for them, or they decide to put it off until they are at a better time in their lives,” McNeff wrote. “The most recent numbers from the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service show that there are 6,062 individuals in the United States with currently valid falconry permits, but only about two-thirds of those (are) in possession of their own hawk or falcon.”
The falconers attending the picnic in Kentucky spoke enthusiastically about their sport. “The ones that are interested in it are passionate,” Marraccini said.
Jess Hogan, 76, said he’d been wanting to take up falconry for 65 years when he began hunting with a bird in the last decade. He has found hunting with a live bird more satisfying than hunting with a firearm.
“This guy is going to come back to your hand and get something to eat,” Hogan said, “like he’s your pal. Doesn’t that sound like a cool thing to do?”
The birds of choice for hunting in Kentucky are hawks and goshawks, according to Jared Smith of Owensville. Many people associate the peregrine falcon with falconry, but those birds require wide open spaces not typically found in Kentucky. Marraccini, at Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Resources, said it is illegal to take a peregrine from the wild in this state.
Most of the other birds used in falconry are taken from the wild, often with a humane trap. State regulations stipulate the number of birds that can be taken according to the permit level the falconer holds. Hogan said training the bird takes patience and is a lot of trial and error. The bird must be taught not only to hunt for its handler but to return to the handler’s leather-gloved fist.
Falconers are also bird conservationists, according to Stuart Ray, acting president of the Kentucky Falconers Association.
“Typically the mortality rate of a juvenile bird is 70 percent for a 1-year-old bird, and 90 percent die before they reach 5 years old in the wild,” he said. “We take those juvenile birds and we get them through their most dangerous year or two of survival and often we release them back into the wild as an experienced, mature bird of prey. Nobody is more passionate about conservation of birds of prey than falconers.”
Conservation aside, falconry still is a hunting sport, Ray said.
“We discourage and don’t want pet-keepers. I think one of the objectives of Kentucky Falconers Association is going to be to help Fish and Wildlife vet out individuals that just want to keep them as a pet. It’s a little bit of what we call the Harry Potter syndrome, when you see kids with owls that fly into the magic mansion.”