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Master falconer raises different sort of crop in Hadley — one that hunts

Chris Davis has raptors at his beck and call — on their terms

  • Master falconer Chris Davis with a Harris’s Hawk. Davis has worked with raptors since 1979, when he became a state-licensed falconer. Since then, he’s trained and bred countless birds. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • A Harris’s Hawk seen at New England Falconry in Hadley. Davis spends hours each day preparing commercially purchased food and cleaning cages. A few times each week, he takes three or four hawks out into the woods to hunt, often cooking and eating what they catch back at home. Andy Castillo

  • Chris Davis holds a Harris’s hawk at New England Falconry in Hadley. While hawk-human relationships can be somewhat developed, there’s no bonding, so Davis doesn’t name his birds. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • A Harris’s Hawk seen at New England Falconry in Hadley. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Master falconer Chris Davis with a Harris’s hawk at New England Falconry in Hadley. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • A close-up of the foot of a Harris’s Hawk at New England Falconry in Hadley. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Master Falconer Chris Davis with a Harris’s Hawk at New England Falconry in Hadley. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo



For the Bulletin
Tuesday, December 05, 2017

A Harris’s hawk perches in a craggy maple tree overlooking a grassy clearing. Its feathers ruffle, head swivels, and piercing black eyes scan for prey. Suddenly, the raptor dives in a graceful arc, inches from the ground, broad dark wings silently buffeting a cold breeze, landing deftly on Master Falconer Chris Davis’ gloved hand.

“They are a mixture of grace and ferocity together,” says Davis, a Shutesbury resident who owns New England Falconry.

Davis leases land in Hadley across from Porter-Phelps-Huntington House Museum, and in Woodstock, Vermont, where people can have hands-on falconry experiences.

The bird tears into a small piece of meat — a reward for returning to captivity — then cleans its vicious claws, ready for the next meal, and flies back to the maple tree.

“Raptors, birds, have always been an interest,” says Davis, watching the hawk resume hunting. He has worked with raptors since 1979, when he became a state-licensed falconer. Since then, he’s trained and bred countless birds. About 15 years ago, he starting New England Falconry to educate the public about birds of prey, falconry and the need for conservation.

Today, Davis has more than a dozen Harris’s hawks, a Peregrine falcon and a few owls. Giving people a hands-on falconry experience is a full-time job.

Unlike most raptors, Harris’s hawks, which are native to the southwestern United States and Latin America, often hunt in groups. Prey is flushed out by one bird, and others swoop in for the kill. Harris’s hawks are intelligent, which makes them easy to train and popular as falconry birds, explains Davis.

“It’s a lifestyle. It’s really a matter of time,” he says, highlighting the effort and skill that’s needed to train juvenile birds. Mostly, training means getting birds used to people, introducing them to falconry equipment and teaching them to associate humans with food — a training method called “manning.”

“They’re in a routine — comfortable with me and other people,” continues Davis. At first, hawks are trained indoors with commands and given rewards when they climb onto a gloved hand. Later, they fly outdoors on a tether, returning to the falconer for food. And finally, they’re outfitted with a radio collar and released.

Over the years, only one bird didn’t return, he said. It was in 1996, recalls Davis, “early in training, broke routine. He got spooked and never came back. I learned a lot from that bird.”

While hawk-human relationships can be somewhat developed, there’s no bonding, and that’s why Davis doesn’t name his birds.

“It’s on their terms,” says Davis. “It’s not pet-like, I’m the one adjusting. It’s based on food. The birds are conditioned to return to the glove for a reward of food. It sounds cold, but it’s habitual conditioning.”

Davis spends hours each day preparing commercially purchased food and cleaning cages. A few times each week, he takes three or four hawks out into the woods to hunt, often cooking and eating what they catch back at home.

Falconry isn’t that common in the United States, which Davis says is at least in part because it’s strictly regulated. In order to become a falconer, applicants must pass a difficult written test covering things like biology and medical care. Cages and other equipment are inspected by the state. And, a falconer’s first bird must be captured from the wild, Davis says.

He notes wild hawks have about a 70 percent juvenile mortality rate. Thus, capturing a wild raptor, as opposed to breeding in captivity, doesn’t impact native population numbers.

Historically, falconry was first practiced in ancient Middle Eastern countries, and later spread throughout Europe. The first falconry club in the United States, The Peregrine Club of Philadelphia, was formed in the early 1930s. Currently, there are about 4,000 licensed falconers nationwide.

After about 30 minutes, Davis begins walking out of the clearing toward a small parking lot near the road. The Harris’s hawk follows close behind, gliding from tree to tree.

After all these years, Davis says he’s still excited about working with raptors.

“Is it amazing they can see an earthworm and pick up ultraviolet light from its skin? Yes. Is that any more amazing than chasing and catching a squirrel?” asks Davis. “There’s all the innate behaviors they’ve evolved to survive. They’re smart, always learning.”

To book a hands-on experience in Hadley or find out more about New England Falconry, visit: www.newenglandfalconry.com.

For information on Davis’s Woodstock, Vt., location visit: www.falconryatwoodstockvt.com.