- [Hesper] Today's our Freedom Day.
You know, I have to tell myself that he's a fully functional adult, wild bird.
- Goats, horses, dogs, cats, chickens.
Humans have been forming relationships with animals for thousands of years, domesticating them for food, transportation, hunting, even companionship.
But these bonds are often the result of generations of taming and breeding wild animals primarily for our benefit.
But there is an ancient sport that's still being practiced today, which breaks this mold.
If you look it up, falconry is defined as the traditional art of keeping training and flying birds of prey to hunt wild quarry.
But the sport goes beyond the hunt.
For many practitioners falconry is also about protecting the birds and forming a surprisingly intimate bond with them.
- There we go.
He's actually not much of a morning bird.
- Falconry is kind of an ultimate human wildlife interaction.
I got to test this a little bit several years ago when a falconer let me pose with an owl and an eagle but I had no idea what I was doing or what really was going on.
That's very different from my guest.
Meet Hesper Lana Fang, she's been a birder for several years and she even has a pet parrot named Ruby.
But during the pandemic, she decided to take her love of birds to a whole new level.
- All right here he is.
- He's little Goji.
- Oh my gosh, he's so small.
(Hesper chuckling) What a beautiful bird.
Not all raptors are this colorful.
- Despite the name, falconry isn't just for falcons.
A lot of different birds of prey or raptors can be used.
Merlins, hawks, even owls.
Hesper works with an American kestrel the smallest falcon species in North America.
- He's actually a really personable little bird which is atypical for most raptors.
In the falconry world, we call kestrels murder-keets.
- He's a murder that's a stone cold killer that you're holding.
- Because they're so small and cute.
But Goji hunts starlings.
So to see a kestrel be willing to take down a starling because he's confident in you, the falconer that you are going to be there to help him it's a really special thing.
And so you've gotta be reliable too.
How do you establish and grow that trust between you and Goji?
- What a falconer does is give the bird chances to catch prey.
You train them to come to you when you whistle for a tidbit of food.
And those tidbits are really how you win them over.
- As soon as they know that then they're free flying from that moment on.
- They say that when your bird catches their first game that's when you become a falconer.
It was a slow start for us.
I was this close to just calling it quits but one day, something clicked and he dove down and he caught the bird.
And it was total utter disbelief.
Everything just came together into this one perfect moment where the bird understood what the purpose of our relationship was.
I would've loved for it to have happened on on top of a beautiful mountain surrounded by blue sky.
But as it happened, it was in a Taco Bell parking lot.
- No, no, it wasn't.
- It was.
But that day I was like, "Yeah, I'm a falconer.
I did it."
- But the relationship between Hesper and Goji, her falcon it's not one of owner and pet.
Raptors are wild animals.
A falconer's bird is trained to see its relationship with the human as a partnership.
- That's one of the sweet things I think about falconry, is that it's one of the few, maybe the only relationship that you can have with a wild animal.
While the animal always has agency to leave if they want to cuz they're flying free and they only come back if they view you as worthy of their partnership.
But there's also a certain loyalty there.
Goji will come to me from any distance whenever I call him.
He follows me from tree to tree.
He waits for me, he looks for me.
- And how long does this relationship last?
- It really lasts for as long as you want it to or as long as the bird wants to.
- So you both have like a mutual opt out clause?
- Yeah, yeah.
You can think of it that way.
- Lots of animals.
We have partnerships with other species.
They're called mutualistic relationships.
This means they work together for the benefit of both.
And from the beginning falconry has been about the mutualistic relationship between the falconer and the bird.
- One of the world's oldest and noblest forms of hunting still survives, Falconry.
- The origins of falconry aren't entirely clear.
We know for sure that it's been practiced for at least 4,000 years.
Some scholars think it's even longer maybe 10,000 years or more.
- Falconry predates written human record.
The general consensus is that it either started in Central Asia or in the Middle East, and both of those cultures back then were not record keepers.
- The earliest real evidence of falconry comes from what's now Syria.
But cultures from all over the world practice various forms.
For thousands of years they've hunted on horseback with golden eagles and before guns birds were the hunting tool.
They were given protection by the falconer who also helped flush out prey.
In turn, the human shared the fresh meat caught by the bird.
As the practice spread along the silk road it became an important diplomatic tool.
Birds were given as gifts and techniques were shared along with them.
- Each culture does have little things here and there but the practice of falconry has not changed very much in that whole time.
- Do you ever think about it in those terms of like the ancientness and the historical ties that you're participating in?
- I like to think that I might not be the first falconer in my ancestry.
Somewhere down the line, somebody was a part of ancient Chinese falconry living their life.
- As for the United States the first falconer came to the new world with Columbus but the sport didn't become widespread until the 20th century.
- Here, it's a very regulated process.
From the first time that you Google how to become a falconer to getting your license, it can take years.
- You see, falconry isn't just a free for all.
There are federal and state laws governing the sport and what those are depend on where you live.
- Here in Texas, you need to pass an exam.
And then the most important part of it is that you need to find a sponsor somebody willing to take you under their wing, so to speak.
- Ah, I see what you did there.
(Host and Hesper laughing) - And the apprenticeship lasts two years - After the apprenticeship, you become a general falconer.
- I just, just upgraded.
I'm a brand new general falconer you are able to fly a wider variety of species and without the supervision of your sponsor.
- And then when you've been a general falconer for five years you are eligible to upgrade to be called a master falconer and that's kind of the top tier.
- So at a minimum, it sounds like seven years, feels like more than a hobby.
- I think most falconers will tell you that it's a lifestyle.
- No matter the differences in how falconry is practiced or the role that it plays in a particular society.
One thing is clear.
These birds are highly revered.
Many falconers still see themselves as conservationists and believe that they have a role to play in educating the public and protecting the birds.
- The United States government, they keep very close tabs on them.
So every bird that you take from the wild needs to be in a registry - In the US, falconers either obtain their birds through captive breeding programs or by trapping wild birds.
So tell me about how you and Goji met.
- He was trapped from the wild.
- When you are an apprentice falconer you have to trap a bird from the wild and they have to be first year birds.
- That's because the goal of falconry is not to keep these birds as pets but eventually to release them back into the wild.
- So Goji, I've had him for two years.
He was my first falconry bird and my only one and I'm actually planning on releasing him in a few weeks.
- How does that make you feel?
- Mixed feelings.
(Hesper laughing) This bird comes into your life and you just fall totally in love with this little bird.
But at the same time, he'll have a wildlife and he'll have a chance to go out there and contribute to the breeding population of kestrels.
- Many wild raptors live difficult lives.
Roughly 60% of falcons die in their first year.
But falconers like Hesper give these young birds a chance to learn to hunt and hone their skills without the threat of starvation.
- We're able to take those young birds and provide guaranteed food and healthcare and protect them from predators so that by the time we release them, it's like releasing a fit Olympic athlete back into the wild.
And they're just set.
- Humans benefit from their relationship with the birds too.
Raptors are often deployed on farmlands coastal areas and in cities to chase away nuisance animals.
Several airports are also using falcons to clear their skies from bird strikes and on an individual level falconry offers people a closer connection to nature.
- When you're a falconer, by the very nature of it you're changing the life of your bird.
It's like an invitation to go out there and interact with the scenery - Which isn't scenery if we're active in it.
It becomes kind of our our home.
It's the world we were born into.
- And the world we live in.
- How has your relationship with Goji changed your relationship with the outdoors?
- There's this culture of just observe, don't disturb it.
And I think there's a beauty to that too but having this relationship there's a sense of connection and belonging and I think that's something that we've kind of lost over the years and it's really healing to get a little piece of that back.
- The idea that we could be assistive and not just dominant or abusive or extractive.
There's a subtlety to that shift that makes it less hierarchical.
It's a partnership.
And these birds need us and they get something from us and we need them and we get something from them.
That feels like a profound revelation in terms of our place in the world.
- I'm mainly just grateful for the time that we've had together and for how forgiving he was of my mistakes and how he's rewarded my best efforts.
He was a really good first bird.
Hope to see you again.
Oh, there he is.
There he goes.
This is a, this is a happy moment.