By Carrie Pitzer
Hunting is more than just a sport for Daniel Parker — it’s an art.
That’s because the Neligh man is one of just a few dozen people in the state who practice falconry, which is hunting prey with a bird. Parker is a licensed falconer and uses a trained Red-tailed Hawk to hunt rabbits.
Each fall, Parker captures a juvenile hawk, trains it to hunt and then releases it back to the wild a few months later, only to start the process over again the next fall with a new bird.
Last week, Parker allowed the Antelope County News to experience falconry first-hand as he, the hawk and his two small dogs hunted rabbits.
That day, the hawk dove from the sky to claim the rabbit after being flushed by the dogs. The action took just seconds, although hundreds of hours went into training for that moment.
“This is where everybody gets excited about falconry, and they want to do it,” Parker said. “But there are a few hundred hours to get to here.”
What Is Falconry?
The Nebraska Game & Parks Commission doesn’t waste any time breaking down the sport, saying it takes “long hours, constant devotion, finesse, subtlety and skill” to train a raptor to hunt. After all, it’s about training a bird to fly away, catch its prey and then return to the falconer.
If it sounds difficult, that’s because it is and why not just anyone can be a falconer and why it’s heavily regulated by the Nebraska Game & Parks. Even the building that houses the raptor must be inspected, besides having to pass the tests to become licensed falconer.
The first step in the process is to find a sponsor and begin a three-year apprenticeship. Five years of general falconry follow that before becoming a master falconer.
But to even be an apprentice, you must find a sponsor. Parker’s sponsor was from Yankton because there were none in Northeast Nebraska. He calls the group “a tight-knit community” who know which falconers treat their raptors appropriately.
“You have to come into this and know it’s not about me,” he said. “That bird is solely my responsibility. He would be fine probably in the wild by himself, so it’s a big responsibility to take him into captivity…You have to have a ‘not on my watch’ mentality.”
Parker, who is a Trooper with the Nebraska State Patrol, watches his raptor’s diet closely, weighing it twice a day. The weight helps Parker determine how he will fly that day. By the end of the season, Parker said he can open the door and know by the raptor’s behavior if he’s ready to hunt.
“He has to be the right weight and have the right motivation, so he has to be strong enough and fit enough to hunt but be still hungry,” he said. “Kind of like a person - a little bit late for lunch is how we want him. He has to be in full fitness, good and strong and a little bit hungry.”
Training The Raptor
Parker said his current Red-tailed Hawk, named Rip, was a probably a few months old when he was caught. He was out of the nest and feeding himself, so he knew how to hunt. But Rip had to learn how to hunt with a human and two dogs.
“All I’m teaching them to do is be cooperative with me and cooperative with the dogs. Obviously, in the wild, you never know what they’re hunting or how they’re doing it, so we basically just have to show them that chasing rabbits and running full speed with dogs chasing them is ok,” Parker said.
During last week’s hunt, Rip was the star of the show with an extra person and camera watching his moves. But it didn’t bother the hawk. In fact, from the hunt to the meal, he barely noticed an extra person, much less a camera.
Parker said that comes with the way he’s trained and being around children. Parker and his wife, Nicole, have three busy daughters. That’s why the raptor stays in the living room for the first two to three weeks.
“It helps to quickly get them socialized into what we’re doing. They’re not a social animal. They don’t live in groups or families, just in mated pairs only,” he said. “They’re solitary animals, and have to be around my dogs. I make them be around the kids who are running around, the TVs on, the phone’s ringing, lights are on at weird times in the night. It helps calm them down faster.”
In another couple of years, Parker will have the experience to be someone’s sponsor, but he doubts he’ll take on that responsibility for quite a while. Each raptor is different with their own personality, and Parker admitted he’s just not ready to help someone.
“I’m not sure I’m at the point now I could help somebody else with problems that they would have and I didn’t experience,” he said. “After next year I’d be eligible to be a sponsor, but under no circumstance would I be ready to take anybody on, no way.”
It takes teamwork to make Parker’s hunts successful. It’s his two dogs, Buggs and Mavis, flushing out the rabbits for Rip to swoop in and catch. And they hunt three to four times a week, turning what should be a hobby into a demanding part of Parker’s winter routine.
After reaching the hunting area last week, Rip was taken out of this carrier and prepared with his gear. As he left Parker’s arm, the bell could be heard dinging through the sky. As the dogs led Parker toward the trees, a quick yell was all Rip needed to return to the area.
It’s been a tough hunting year, Parker said. The rabbit population is low, and he hasn’t had much luck in the past with other prey. A pheasant would be a prize, but Parker has never caught one, which he said dispels the myth that hawks are to blame for the low pheasant numbers.
On this 25-degree day, Parker worked his small dogs, who look more like they should be in a small handbag rather than hunting rabbits. About five minutes into the hunt, Parker signaled as the dogs yipped at an elusive rabbit.
Rip dove, grazing the rabbit, but was unable to grab hold of it. The rabbit escaped into a hollow log. The log was too small for even Parker’s dogs, who would not give up and eventually flushed out the rabbit.
From the log, it was mere seconds until Rip swooped down from a nearby tree and grabbed hold of the rabbit.
“Their reflexes are amazing. You can get into a more wooded area and they’ll chase the rabbit that fast, dodging the trees to catch him. Their vision and reflexes are just amazing,” he said.
While falconry is a sport focusing on raptors, Parker’s dogs play a vital role in the way he hunts. And lives, too. After all, they are part of his family.
“Falconry is as much about the dogs or more than it is about the bird because I run the dogs every year. They get better and better and better,” he said. “These two little dogs, every year they’re there. The birds change but the dogs don’t.”
Although he previously hunted with a larger dog, Parker has found his “wiener dogs” are better suited for flushing rabbits.
And just like a proud father, his eyes light up as he talks about them, especially Buggs, a dog he rescued and trained himself.
Buggs was a stray dumped in Riverside Park in Neligh. Parker said he believes Buggs is half Dachshund and half Terrier, probably Jack Russell. But he’s 100 percent a falconry dog now, despite his original owners leaving him in the park.
And then there’s Mavis, a long haired miniature Dachshund. The Parkers drove to meet the breeder from Delaware, who was bred and trained for falconry.
Minutes after the rabbit was caught, Parker was quick to praise his dogs.
“I get probably more joy out of running the dogs than I do flying the birds. I love those little dogs,” he said. “It takes a special kind of male to be running around with a 7-pound dog that you think is awesome, a little wiener dog, but it’s fun to run them.”
Rip has been part of the Parker family since mid-November, but it’s time to let the hawk go. In a couple of weeks, Parker will release the hawk back into the wild.
That’s what’s great about falconry, Parker said, the raptor will be fine on his own. Parker has helped Rip through his first winter, which is hte hardest, and he’ll take his lessons back to the wild.
“He’s going to go back to doing what he was doing before. He’ll be ok on his own,” he said. “He’ll go back to the wild, hopefully find a mate and go be a red tail the rest of his life.”
It’s illegal to sell anything trapped from the wild, so the Parkers let theirs go each year. But next year, the family plans to purchase a captive-bred raptor that can be kept year round.
With a new species comes new challenges and new lessons for the falconry family. Even so, the idea of falconry remains incredible to Parker.
As he drives his cruiser through Northeast and North Central Nebraska, he spots raptors often, especially in the fall. But the only time he sees one feast on prey is while hunting with his own.
“You still see things that you just don’t think are possible. It’s amazing this is going on every single day out in the world, you just don’t know it,” he said while shaking his head. “How many times have you seen a wild raptor catch something before today? I hadn’t seen it hardly ever in my life, and it’s happening multiple times a day and happening all over.”