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Chris Paparo with Emmy. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

For those of you that follow my various social media accounts (@fishguyphotos), you will notice that during the winter months I frequently post pictures of a red-tailed hawk.

Typically, the hawk in the picture is located on the ground and holding a freshly caught squirrel or rabbit in her sharp talons. At first glance, it appears that I always seem to be at the right place at the right time, capturing a moment in nature that so few of us get to see in person. That feeling of awe quickly turns to disbelief when the next post is a “hawk selfie” or a video of a hawk landing on my hand. Why would such a majestic bird allow me into its world time and time again?

In addition to being the “Fish Guy,” I am a general class falconer and the hawk featured in those posts is my red-tailed hawk Emmy.  

Falconry is the sport of hunting game with a trained bird of prey such as a falcon, hawk, or even an eagle. It is an activity that dates back thousands of years and although most modern-day falconry experiences occur at local renaissance fairs, there is still a fair number of people around the world that practice this ancient sport. In fact, there are approximately 4,000 men and women who are active falconers in the United States.

Nadia a Finnish Goshawk. (Credit: Chris Paparo)
Nadia a Finnish Goshawk. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

My first experience with falconry was eight years ago when I joined my friend Mario and his Finnish goshawk Nadia on a hunt. I watched in amazement as the duo worked an overgrown cedar field that was located on the North Fork. The bond between the two was truly captivating to observe. While free flying, Nadia paid close attention to every move and command given by Mario. At any moment, she could have easily flown off, but the relationship that had been forged between the two was strong and the team was successful at catching their quarry. After that outing, the sport of falconry had gotten its talons into me. Fast forward to today and I have been practicing falconry for just over seven years.

Of all my hobbies and responsibilities, none require as much time and dedication than being a falconer. Unlike other types of hunting, a bird of prey is a live animal that requires constant attention, 365 days a year, no matter what the surrounding circumstances might be. A hunter that uses a gun or bow can easily leave it in the gun safe if they do not feel like hunting. This is not the case with a bird. They need to be flown often, no matter what other responsibilities you might have or how you feel that day. Typically, I fly Emmy at least three times a week. If I am lucky, one of those days will fall on a weekend so I can sleep in a bit. Otherwise, we are in the woods at sunrise so we have enough time to hunt, and I still have plenty of time to get to work.

A bird of prey’s needs are extremely specialized, much more than those of a cat or dog. For starters, they do not eat kibble, seeds, or can food, they feed strictly on other animals. Emmy is a skilled hunter, so supplying her with food is not difficult as she catches plenty of critters to eat. This was not always the case however. When I first got Emmy, she would miss often and we would return home empty handed. After these hunts, I would have to supplement her diet with frozen rodents that I purchased from the local pet store.

Emmy at first light
Emmy at first light. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Health care is much different for a bird of prey than it is for a cat or dog. I do not have to worry about heart worm or ticks with Emmy, but I do need to be concerned about avian (bird) diseases. These aliments can be difficult to diagnose and treat, so finding a properly trained veterinarian is crucial. Luckily for Emmy, Dr. Robert Pisciotta of The North Fork Animal Hospital is an avian specialist. Each year he not only gives her an annual checkup, he vaccinates her against the West Nile Virus.

Housing a bird of prey is no easy task either. Cats and dogs can have the run of the house, which will not be suitable for a hawk (or your house for that matter). Pet birds such as parrots, cockatoos, and lovebirds are relatively small and can be easily kept in birdcages. Due to their large size, a suitable “birdcage” for a bird of prey would be too large to fit in the confines of your home. Emmy’s enclosure, which is known as a mew, is 10 feet wide, 20 feet long, and eight feet tall, which takes up a fair amount of my backyard.

As you can see, being a falconer has required an enormous commitment on my part and at this point I have only discussed some of the husbandry procedures. Getting Emmy out to hunt adds another level of responsibility to being a falconer, but I would not trade it for anything.

Chris paparo