ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Anna McBeain had a hard time finding a licensed falconer who would take her interest in falconry seriously enough for an apprenticeship.
“I think it’s because I’m young and I don’t look like someone who would be into it,” the 21-year-old said.
Thanks to a personal recommendation, McBeain connected with Winona County master falconer Carolyn Standlee-Hanson, and they've been hunting together for two years.
Falconry is the practice of trapping and training a raptor to hunt wild game, and, in addition to a falconry license, requires a small-game hunting license from the state.
“Once you hunt with a hawk, you can never go back to a gun,” McBeain said.
McBeain’s father became an apprentice falconer to help her get started when she was a 14-year-old junior apprentice falconer. Kirk Payne, a master falconer who taught at Quarry Hill Nature Center in Rochester, sponsored them both. That allowed McBeain to legally keep a raptor.
Under Minnesota falconry law, only a licensed falconer can legally keep a raptor at home unless they're an apprentice at least 16 years old and sponsored by another licensed falconer. An apprentice must work with another licensed falconer, which is where Payne came in. However, to become a general apprentice, McBeain had to find a master falconer to sponsor her directly.
Payne was unable to take her on due to family commitments, but he personally recommended her to Standlee-Hanson.
Standlee-Hanson was impressed by McBeain's knowledge and dedication, and agreed to take her on.
Despite rigorous requirements and restrictions, falconry has seen a resurgent interest in the U.S. and Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, there are 75 licensed falconers in the state, up from about 60 five years ago.
Just 16 of Minnesota’s licensed falconers are women.
'Sport of kings'
Falconry is an old sport. Paintings more than 4,000 years old depicting people hunting with trained birds have been found in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). People have used falconry to hunt for sport or food throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Technology such as firearms propelled other hunting techniques into wider use, and falconry became a niche activity known as the "sport of kings."
Standlee-Hanson chuckled at the phrase as she waded through snow-covered brambles and waist-high briar on a farm in western Winona County. She and McBeain had brought McBeain’s red-tailed hawk, Minokawa, to hunt on a sunny afternoon in late January.
“This isn’t what people are talking about when they say (sport of kings),” she said. “This is what we call 'dirt hawking.' ”
They crashed through the brush and thorns to stir up a rabbit or other prey into the open for Minokawa to hunt. Minokawa perched in nearby trees, watching.
“She’s doing her job,” Standlee-Hanson said. “We just need to do ours.”
According to Philippine legend, Minokawa was a hawk large enough to swallow the sun. McBeain's Minokawa has a wingspan of nearly 5 feet. She'll get new adult feathers, but at a year old, she's likely at her full size.
The master-apprentice pair trapped her in October, and they trained her together.
Under Minnesota law, falconers can only use birds bred in captivity or trap raptors in the wild that have left their nest but aren't old enough to be part of the breeding population.
Standlee-Hanson said an older bird likely wouldn’t be receptive to training. A young bird is still learning to hunt and is more easily enticed with an easy meal.
“There’s no incentive once they’re already feeding themselves,” she said.
About half of young raptors don’t survive their first year on their own in the wild. The red-tailed hawk Standlee-Hanson caught last fall had a respiratory infection similar to pneumonia when she caught him. He more than likely would have died in the wild.
After several veterinarian visits and some training, that bird, named Tamale, is slowly putting on weight and learning to hunt with her.
Standlee-Hanson said Minokawa has been a fast learner and an effective hunter.
“She’s one of the top three red-taileds I’ve worked with,” she said.
In for the kill
While Standlee-Hanson and McBeain were trying to flush prey from the brush during the January hunt, Minokawa spotted a gray squirrel in a nearby tree and dove in for the kill.
Minokawa caught the squirrel at the base of a tree. The hawk had its talons firmly around the squirrel, but the squirrel had one of the hawk’s legs in its teeth.
McBeain hurried through the brush and killed the squirrel to reduce risk of further injury to the hawk. McBeain then offered Minokawa fresh meat to distract her from the squirrel, which will likely be used for training.
After the hawk ate, McBeain placed a hood over its head. The bird puffed her feathers as she perched on McBeain's gloved arm.
“That’s a sign of contentment,” McBeain said.
“The hood shuts them off, so to speak,” Standlee-Hanson added. “She’s no longer in hunt mode.”
McBeain plans to continue her training, build experience, and expand her raptor repertoire with a kestrel. For her, falconry is more than a hobby.
“I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone,” she said. “It’s going to be a lifestyle — not a hobby.”