The First Year, An Apprentice Perspective

by Larry Dickerson

It is hard for me to believe it has been a year since I earned my coveted permits and license as an apprentice falconer from USFWS and North Carolina WRC. The optimum word being earned. An apprentice must earn those permits. Earn by study, commitment, questioning, examination, construction, inspection, persistence, dedication, and a genuine love of the sport and passion for the birds.

I wanted to impart just a few of the millions of things I have learned in the past year, perhaps my words will bring memories for some, insight to a few, rhetorical comments from others, and the ever present "well I certainly wouldn't have done it that way."

I read some articles recently in publications from other apprentices. One in particular seemed to blame his problems and difficult first year on his sponsor. His bird did not fly well because his sponsor could not be with him. His bird didn't do this, his bird didn't do that. Get a life! One of the primary things I have learned in my first year apprenticeship is that "there are no bad birds, only bad falconers." Granted some birds are more difficult to train than others. To me, that would be one of the challenges of the sport. If you are predisposed to whining, put up your glove. You have yet to earn that right. "If it is to be, it is up to me."

Learning is a life long experience and I must say this first year in the sport of falconry has been fabulous. There is no way I would trade a million dollars for the experiences, the learning, the friendships, the learning, the time spent outdoors, the learning, the time spent with "my" bird, the learning, the thrill of the chase, the learning, the long hours of manning and "vertical jumps," the learning, making the mistakes and living to tell about them, the learning, reading everything I can get my hands on, the learning, listening to the masters, the learning, my sponsor, the learning. I hope the point is getting clear. But being dumb as a brick, I often have to repeat things to myself to make them stick.

There are many people throughout this country that have made a difference in our sport. I will never forget those who have gone before and the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice they made, so we can enjoy a now legitimate activity. My daddy once said that "in order to know where you are going, you need to know first from which you came." I can't recite the names, the dates, and the placesyetbut I know the history. How do I know it? I listen and I read and I learn.

When did I begin this trek into falconry and how did I get started? I was lucky, my wife. Yes, my wife actually got me interested. There is now another apprentice to add to the ranks, my wife. Together we started work with the Carolina Raptor Center. For those of you who have never heard of it (shame on you), it is near Charlotte, North Carolina. Yesa rehabilitation (shock) center, I must say that this was the spark that lit the fire. Some rehabers look upon falconers with great disgust, and some falconers feel the same about rehab folks. From my perspective, it was/is an exceptional opportunity to learn and for a little bit of my time, the rewards have been a hundred fold. My wife and I have often remarked of our admiration (actually it borders on confusion) at how someone with no experience in dealing with raptors can trap a bird, mann it, properly care for it, or have sufficient knowledge of raptor biology.

I know that the majority of falconers today have not been as fortunate. I learned and I am still learning. An understanding member of the staff, pointed me to a (gasp) falconer and to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission for information. I studied the materials they sent to me. I was also lucky to have Bob Pendergrass, an exceptional master falconer, nearby. Bob set me straight about falconry and set me upon this road that I will travel the rest of my life. Later, Bob not only became my sponsor, but my friend.

BEFORE he would consider sponsoring me he "insisted" on my attending falconry meets and individual field hunts. Although he has never said so, he was giving me a test. My first test. The test of dedication and determination. I was hooked!

I learned that I must take an examination given by the state. A what? Where? What are the questions? I studied and studied and studied. I listened to my sponsor and to other falconers, I learned and I studied some more. I visited other falconers and saw their "facilities." I heard their advice and learned from their mistakes. Exam day. I passed. It gave me an appreciation of those who went before. We all have to go through the same thing. It is my opinion that our regulations (gasp) are just right. They not only instill but enforce ones dedication. During the past year, I have heard rumors of a very few falconers who might wish to snub the "regs." Don't. They are our legitimacy. One falconer, one, can cause enough disrepute to cause serious problems for everyone. I vowed the one would not be me. Does Operation Falcon ring any bells?

I learned that I would have to build "facilities." What? Where? How? Where are the plans? Again I listened, I learned. Listening to all the advice, reading all the books. It gets confusing, especially to an apprentice. A wise sage of a falconer once told me: "Read all you can, listen to those who have experience, read some more, study, and then make the best decision you can, based upon all the information you have." Are you confused yet? Good!

Joining NAFA and the NCFG were among the best things I did early on. I had never heard of either. The information that flows from these wonderful organizations is invaluable, and it is there for the asking. Any apprentice that does not join is going to miss out.

The day came for my inspection. My what? My inspection. I also learned that there are requirements for "facilities" that one must meet. Another regulation, and a good one. One thing. In North Carolina, a jump box is required in a weathering area. Great! But the minimums on the width are not sufficient for a Redtail. Remember the wing span on a Redtail? Build your jump box with a minimum fifty (50) inch width. When you are ready to mount it, chances are you will think the same thing I did. What is going to be using this box? An eagle? She needs the width (and height). When you see stripped primaries and are asking yourself why, at least think about your equipment as a cause. Have everything you need and have everything completed before your inspection day. In North Carolina, the wildlife biologists don't mess around, and they will not cut you any "slack." How do you know what you need? It is all in the regulations. Ask your sponsor. You can even get a copy of the checklist the biologist will use by simply asking the WRC for it. Mews and weathering areas all vary in the method of construction, some of the materials, locations, etc. But they must all meet minimum standards. My primary concern was for the safety of "the bird." I later learned there are a million other things to consider too.

I learned you had to do ALL of this before you even got a permit or a license. Equipment ain't cheap. I learned that while you can be innovative, you are going to need some cash to get to inspection day, not to mention exam fees, then later permit fees and license fees. Gas money, construction cash, etc., etc., etc. And the etc.'s just keep going.

With me so far? Learning is the key. Asking the right questions. If you expect your sponsor to give you every single detail, hold your hand, take you to the potty, then you have set your expectations way too high. Remember your place. I am often reminded of mine during hunting trips. "Get in those briarsflush 'em out." Which like a good, obedient apprentice, you do. Even then your sponsor or other hunting companions are teaching you something. I confess to not knowing exactly what this is. But I learned the value of chaps or brush pants, heavy coats, gloves, a good beating stick, and water (the kind you jump, not the kind you drink). As I get older, I am really beginning to appreciate dogs. A good hawking dogwell maybe someday.

Trapping day(s). I can't remember when I had so much fun. I also confess to being a (gasp) road trapper. Forgive me of my many shortcomings, but I actually got a thrill, a real rush, from dodging tractor trailers and counting birds. I also learned that in the beginning it is amazing how much crows fly like Redtails, but later they don't really even come close. A belly band? A good slip? Do I toss or not? Do I use a harnessed pigeon or a BC? What is the plan? Look out for that mercedes! Yes, I have permits officer. Dang my butt is sore! No ma'am we won't stomp on your flowers. Quit hitting meI see the bird! I wish spotting scopes were lighter. Okwho broke wind! I wonder if she'll come to the trap before dark? Do birds fly in the rain? White rat or dark mouse? Dove? What blue lights? What stop sign? Maybe I shouldn't have backed over the BC. Lord this drag weight is getting heavy. If I get hung in these nooses one more time!

Finally, she comes to the trap and is caught! You have her. You can breathe. She is removed from the trap, careful of the talons. Where is the tape? I know I have tape. She is inspected, socked, taped, and gently placed in my hands. I named her Patch. A 48 ounce (1361 grams) female Redtail with an attitude. There is no thrill that can compare. There are no words that hit home like those said to me at that very moment. "This bird didn't ask to be trapped. She neither wanted it or deserved it. From this day forward, as long as you have her, she is your responsibility." MY responsibility! Not my sponsor, not my spouse, not NCFG, not NAFA, not Beebe or Webster, Oakes or Layman, not Pendergrass, but MY responsibility!

I listened, I learned, I studied. When it came to training, at best you could call my training techniques a hybrid. I believe in "waking" as described by Scott Simpson in the December 94 Hawk Chalk. Scott has since become a friend of mine (although he will claim no knowledge of meScott is like that), and we have discussed the merits of this "getting to know you" method at length (as well as a hundred more topics). It worked for me. I learned that this period is very time consuming and critical in the future. I loved every minute of it and training was something I looked forward to each and every day after work.

I read Bill Oakes' book, The Apprentice Guide It worked for me. I called Bob about every night, until he put an answering machine on line just for me. I honestly think Bob Pendergrass has more patience than Job. Imparting wisdom and sage advice and working with meI am very lucky indeed. I know almost every apprentice thinks their sponsors walk on water. I know Bob can. I saw him do it. He was doing real well too until the rock slipped. A word of advice. NEVER laugh at your sponsor when he misses the rock, is wet, tired, and has just lost sight of his prized Harris' pair. Never! I learned that you will pay dearly later.

A million mistakes later she was ready to fly free. Her first "hunt" since coming into my care. So far I hadn't killed her, and she (although she tried several times) hadn't killed me. Before changing her jesses, I wondered if now might be an appropriate time to take up drinking. I was sure it was after I saw her fly from my fist. I learned the value of telemetry (or Apprentice Valium, as some falconers call it), and the value of that time spent with the insurance policythe lure. It worked for me! Yes she was a bit high, yes I was nervous, and after I remembered to breathe, I had a pretty good time until the crows came. I learned crows have a loathing for Redtails, and Redtails have no tolerance for crows. Did you see what tree she landed in? But a memorable tail chase on a (gasp) squirrel and bird on the fist later, I learned you can actually find your way home.

Ah hunting. Actual hunting with "my" bird. She has taught me many lessons. One is how long a Redtail can actually sit in a tree and scan an area. At first, I really believed she knew what "ho-ho-ho" meant, until that incident with Santa Claus at Christmas. There had to be a rabbit in that bag, at least she thought there was. I learned the value of "the pick up piece." It worked for me! I learned the value of "positive reinforcement," and I learned it is not always necessary to "blow that dang whistle." I learned that by watching her, she would give me clues. Sometimes I think she would "say" the game is HEREcome help me. We continued to practice consistently with one another through the entire season. I consistently worked her, consistently fed her, consistently rewarded her, consistently flew her. She, in turn, consistently taught me lessons every day, and she continues to teach me. She consistently reminded me of when I was stupid. Talons do not feel good burying themselves into your arm and prying them loose is a lesson I will not soon forget. Nor will I forget the chases. I also learned that Redtails are not real obliged to releasing the prey they have flown hard for. I am grateful for those falconers and guests that allowed me to just sit (catch my breath) and watch Patch eat her fill. I learned that (if allowed) yesa Redtail can and will eat an entire cottontail in one sitting. Dolly Parton would envy such a crop.

At the end of the season, we had become partners. She still thought of me as the refrigerator, and I thought of her as the most magnificent bird in the world. My respect for her has only increased, and she still thinks of me as the fridgeas she always will. I learned a few lessons about the mystic art of weight control and physical fitness for her. I have to confess this still confuses me, even though I keep all the records, weights, food, amounts, temperatures, weather conditions, training length, and type. There are just so many things that are not in books. You can read how to feel a keel, but until you have done it and know what it means, you can't learn. Some birds, however, do resist this harmless invasion. It worked for me!

Summer rules. Why are there summer rules and winter rules? Why do birds moult? Why is "my sweetie" now a witch? Why does she bounce around her aviary? Why does she always seem to be upset (stressed)? Why won't she come to me when I call her? Why should I not feed her on the fist? What is the matter? It is my humble opinion that until you have asked yourself these questions (and a million more) and attempted to have them answered, you have not experienced "THE MOULT." I have learned this is all "perfectly normal." After going through the trauma or "why my bird doesn't like me anymore (she never really likes me) to the elation of that very first glimpse of actual RED on the tail. The first moult is indeed a learning experience for an apprentice.

Feeding her "off season." I have learned this is still controversial. Some say a slight increase over flying weight, some say feed her all she will eat. Some are in between. I made my best decision based upon the information I had available to me. It worked for me! A well balanced diet, plenty of good old sunlight, and an opportunity to exercise all she wants. Yes, she is "free lofted" in her aviary. She has almost completed, yescompleted her moult. Not a "stress" mark to be found (yet). It is not yet mid July. I use no drugs with her. Don't believe in them. Yes, I am lucky. But I don't know if it is so much a matter of luck as it is a credit to all of the people I have listened to and learned from. I have learned from "my" bird. I have learned from books, videos, articles, rehabers, my sponsor, other falconers, and even my local animal control officers and forestry agents (they are a world of information). A shy person I am not. I ask questions.

After having said ALL this, my final words. I hope I never stop learning. I hope I will never be so snobbish as to think "my" bird or my ability are any better than another's and that my way is the only way. I hope I never shun a person who has a genuine interest in the sport, and I hope above all else that I will gain the knowledge and skills necessary to be a competent falconer and to bring credit to the forbearers of the sport. I will strive to be the very best. So watch what you do at a meet, on a hunting trip, in a training session, every article, every publication, because every move you make (right or wrong), I will see and I will learn from. Ask yourself, as you ask when training your bird, what am I teachingthis apprentice?

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