Firearm deer season starts today and thousands of hunters are heading out with their rifles. But around this time of year, there's a tiny group of Michiganders heading out with birds instead.
That's the sound of a red-tailed hawk, one of the species of raptors used in falconry to hunt small game.
Falconry is an ancient way of hunting and right now, there are only about a hundred falconers in Michigan. Chris Wysocki is one of them. He's a master hunter in the Grand Rapids area and a member of the Michigan Hawking Club.
Listen to Stateside's conversation with Wysocki above, or read highlights below.
On the kinds of birds falconers use in Michigan
“Here in Michigan, probably because of the terrain, most falconers will probably fly a red-tailed hawk. Some of them fly goshawks, which…very few people get to see, because it’s a hawk of the woods. A few of the falconers fly cooper's hawks, which there’s a lot of them here in Michigan, but they’re a very high-strung bird and very hard to use in falconry. But I would say most of us probably use red-tailed hawks because the game species here is rabbits and squirrels, and those are perfect for a red tail."
On what a typical hunt is like
“First of all, you’ve got to do a little bit of homework so you know what rabbit habitat is and you know what squirrel habitat is. You’ve got to have seven, eight, nine, ten fields with that sort of habitat in there to take these birds out hunting. You can’t go to the same field all the time, you know, the prey know this when you’re out stomping around in the field day after day. They won’t come out.”
“Basically on a day, like I’ll be hunting today – go right around the same time – three, four o’clock. Bring the bird in. I weigh the bird. You always got to take your hawk out when your hawk is hungry. Your hawk does not kill for the fun of it like what a cat would. If you take your hawk out and it isn’t hungry, it’ll sit up in that tree and watch you and it will not come down to you, no matter if I had that bird for five years. That bird would not come down to me if I threw it up into a tree while it was overweight.”
“So I put her in a box that I have in my vehicle and I’ll go out to my field and I’ll release her, and then I’m out in the field with a stick trying to beat brush, trying to get rabbits up. If it’s squirrels, I try to keep that squirrel up in the tree because the hawk has a better advantage of chasing a squirrel while it’s up in a tree than with it being on the ground.”
On why most falconers wait until this time of year to hunt, even though falconry season starts in September and goes through March
“The reason is because of the tall brush and the leaves on the trees. And it’s tough out there right now. I mean, as the year goes on, most of these red tails, their percentages will go up because the snow will knock down this brush and it makes it easier for the birds to catch a rabbit trying to go through six inches of snow instead of no snow at all.”
On the conservation aspects of falconry
“When we trap a young red tail out of the wild – those are the only ones we’re allowed to trap. A red tail, the first year of their life they have a brown tail. They already have proven data that out of all raptors – now this is all raptors, you know eagles, red tails, falcons – 70 to 90 percent will die the first year. That’s the way nature is.”
“Or else they’re not good hunters and they can’t catch nothing, and they starve to death. When we trap them out of the wild, work with them together, and we supply fields that have game in them where they can fine tune their skills – that’s why, when we release them, they will be good hunters.”
“Now we take one of these brown-tailed red tails out of the wild and we train it for one year and we decide to release it, the chances of that bird surviving is 90 percent – completely the opposite.”
On what a good day with his bird feels like
“Being able to walk out in the woods and most of these red tails will have bells on their feet when you’re out hunting. It’s mainly so you can hear them following you. And to be able to go out and know your bird is 50 feet up into a tree and following me along, and then I can bust a rabbit out and I see this bird do stuff that most people never get to see in the wild. You know within 50 feet of myself – seeing these birds crash through brush, through pricker bushes, rap around trees. And most of the time they don’t get hurt. They’re built like a truck. And be able to see that, and then they catch a rabbit or squirrel, they let me go in there and dispatch that rabbit or squirrel that she’ll hop up on my glove while I put that game in my game bag. You know, it’s a high for me by doing that.”
Listen above for the full conversation. You'll learn more about this highly regulated sport and how one becomes a falconer in Michigan. You'll also learn about the time commitment required to be a falconer, and why Wysocki says these animals are not pets.