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Falconer hunts with birds, not bullets

Staff writer

Imagine a blurred object hurtling from the sky as fast as 250 mph and striking a small moving target with pinpoint deadly accuracy.

No, it is not a smart bomb, or even Superman. It is a raptor, a bird of prey, doing what Mother Nature designed it to do with a little help from its human friend.

Falconer Bob Martin, 70, towed his silver Airstream trailer behind his beat up Dodge pickup truck to Marion County Park and Lake all the way from of Hamilton, Montana, to fly his falcons.

His truck has a topper on the back. Peeking inside, one can see two peregrine falcons. Bells on the falcons’ ankles jangle faintly when they shuffle across their Astroturf perch, but the hoods they wear act as blindfolds to keep them calm.

Meet Salt and Pepper. Martin said each falcon has a distinct personality.

“Salt is tame and Pepper has a horrible attitude,” Martin said. “They’re like night and day. It’s a result of their upbringing, but I love them both incredibly.”

Where Salt returns affection by turning its head upside down to look at Martin, he said Pepper would likely bite.

Martin took Salt from its parents’ eyrie when she was five weeks old.

“Salt was beyond the age of imprinting, which means that she didn’t use me as her parent,” Martins said. “I kept her with me 24/7 while I raised her.”

Salt “screamed her fool head off” when she met Pepper, who is the older of the two because, he said, Salt thought Pepper was her parent. Most young peregrine falcons scream at their parents, he said.

Martin acquired Pepper when she was 2 years old. Her parents raised her in captivity in what falconers call a breeding chamber.

Martin attributed Pepper’s extreme attitude to minimal human contact. He said the previous owners had only flown her for a couple months.

“Pepper doesn’t like people,” Martin said. “Sure, she likes me just fine at mealtime and she’ll come back to me, but she’s kind of like me — she just wants to be left alone.”

Primarily, falcons are trained to return for food. Martin tries to fly his twice a day. Sometimes they train. Sometimes they hawk prey.

During training, he uses a lure, which is a bird-shaped piece of leather he binds carrion to. He then spins it around his head like a lasso while a falcon flies. He also uses the lure to draw his falcons back after a kill. Each falcon also has a tracking device.

Martin also conditions falcons using food attached to a kite that flies up to 3000 feet overhead.

He uses a leather glove to protect his hands from the strong grip of the falcons’ sharp talons.

“Once when I was careless and not wearing my glove, Salt pierced my fingernail,” he said. “It was such a terrible pain, like a nail had been driven clear into my bone.”

Martin’s body language and movements with his falcons are a series of gentle, quick, and sure maneuvers. He removes their hand-sewn hoods swiftly, and when putting them back on, he cinches the tightening straps with his other hand and teeth all in one fluid motion.

“I generally don’t do anything to surprise them, no big arm movements, no loud noises, and I know better than to walk up behind them,” he said.

Martin has been transfixed by raptors since he was six years old when he used to live in Los Angeles.

“It’s a lifetime passion,” he said. “I have no idea what drew me to it, but I had a friend who lived in San Fernando Valley whose grandparents had sparrow hawks. We spent most of our time looking at them.

“When I was 11, I learned to make traps. It took me about a year to catch my first hawk.”

Now, Martin is a licensed master falconer, the highest of three licenses a falconer can achieve, but he calls himself a “hawker.”

He has hawked sage grouse, sharp-tail grouse, ducks, Hungarian partridge, and pheasants with raptors such as Cooper’s hawks, prairie falcons, gyrfalcons, goshawks, and sharp-shinned hawks, as well as other peregrine falcons like Salt and Pepper.

“I try to hawk every day except when it is too windy,” he said. “High winds can be hard on the birds.”

Martin’s tactics depend on what type of game he’s hawking, but he’s not interested in just any prey. He hawks greater prairie chickens for the challenge.

“The only reward I get is bragging rights on my hawking buddies,” he said. “Others might argue, but greater prairie chickens are the most difficult bird to hawk.”

Over the last several months, Martin has secured permission from area landowners to fly his hawks. He said he got one last year up at Ft. Riley, but this year was a different story.

“I’ve been here since Thanksgiving and I’ve yet to get a greater prairie chicken,” Martin said. “If I had a shotgun I’d have two birds a day every day I was out.”

He said greater prairie chickens are easy to find but difficult hawk this time of year.

“Their habits cause them to be hawked in a specific manner,” Martin said. “I generally look for a wheat or corn stubble field where they feed.”

He said greater prairie chickens typically feed in fields at sunrise and just before sunset.

“The field has to have a little cover nearby so you can get in position to let the falcon fly while you’re still out of sight,” he said. “They might flush wild if they see you.”

Sometimes he uses his English setters, Bud and Junior, too. The dogs walk ahead while a falcon flies overhead, until a dog points and Martin flushes prey out with a loud shout.

He said a hawker’s end goal isn’t to hunt and kill, but rather to watch falcons fly.

“Falcons are capable of amazing things,” he said. “They fly and shift gears so fast, they turn on a dime, and they’re capable of striking something then doing what I call a ‘wing over’ before they hit it again and bind to it to kill it.

“At full speed, a peregrine falcon can reach 250 mph during a vertical stoop [dive from altitude] before they pound their prey into the ground,” Martin said.

A vertical stoop has three phases in which a falcon narrows its body and takes on a “teardrop shape” as it accelerates toward a target.

“It’s a done deal if they get a hold of something,” he said. “Some falcons have the ability to knock things dead, but prairie chickens are so tough you could about hit one with a baseball bat and they’d get back up.”

His peregrine falcons typically grab hold of their prey and kill by breaking the neck with a special tooth on their beak.

Martin is leaving the county soon but plans to return to hawk again.

Last modified March 3, 2016

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