Hunting Partner: Mastering the ancient art of falconry

As a hang glider pilot, a paraglider pilot, a bush plane pilot and a wingsuit BASE jumper, Jeff Shapiro is clearly passionate about flight and all things flying. So, it’s less surprising that his fascination with being airborne led him to the ancient art of falconry. Harvesting food for his family through his partnership with a bird of prey, and then together sharing that meal next to a fire under a wide open sky makes this post one you might want to check out. Wolf and Grizzly is all about cooking in nature and adventures in the natural world. This story uniquely embodies living in rhythm with that ethos.

 

Falconry and hunting

Photography: Jeff Shapiro

Falconry is one of the most ancient ways to hunt. In fact, humans partnering with raptors to hunt for food is the oldest documented relationship between people and animals. For close to ten thousand years, we have been training raptors to cooperatively hunt other birds and mammals for us to eat in every corner of the world. From using Peregrines and Sparrow Hawks in the United Kingdom, GyrFalcons in Norway, to the famed eagle hunters of north western Mongolia and Kazakhstan, and even today's contemporary falconer here in North America, the process literally remains grossly unchanged. Contrasting the use of guns, training a wild raptor to partner with a human in the process of hunting, eating (and sharing) is still a viable way to put food on the table. Not to mention, the realization of a relationship with a hawk or a falcon, still very much a wild animal, is one of the most special interactions someone could have, in my opinion.

Over twenty years ago now, I was on pheasant hunt with a friend. In those days, we were hunting in the more common way to harvest upland game birds; with shotguns and a dog. After a long hunt through the alfalfa and golden fields of western Montana, I was walking through cool, Autumn air back to my truck when I noticed my bird dog, Cedar, looking intently in the grass at something. He wasn't pointing like he would if he'd found a game bird but was without a doubt, interested in something particular. I walked over and quickly saw that he was staring a Short-Eared Owl in the eyes. The bird was laying on it's back, wings fully extended, beak open, and I immediately saw blood on the underside of one of its wings. I figured that it'd been injured and most likely shot accidentally when another bird hunter mistook it for a pheasant flushing from the grass. Short-eared Owls nest on the ground and they're constantly flying up and out from the tall grass, likely to escape hunting dogs searching an area.

I was presented with two choices. I could either leave the injured Owl in the grass for nature to “take its course” or, I could do what I could to find a facility that was qualified to care for a bird like this, and hopefully give it a second chance. In the end, I decided because it was humans who'd caused it's inevitable demise, it would be a human who would try to save it. So, I carefully folded it's wings, gently wrapped it up in a dry towel I had in the truck, and placed it in a box in the front seat. On the drive home, I made some calls. Being Montana, I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to find a proper “raptor rehab” facility that was willing to take this little Owl as a patient. Long-story-short, the woman who owned the rehab facility was a passionate falconer and upon noting my excitement and interest, offered to help me learn more and get involved.

It's been a long process with numerous lessons over the last two decades but through dedication, I've earned my master falconry permit and have hunted with many species of raptors. From Red Tail Hawks, Sharp Shinned Hawks, and Goshawks to Peregrine and Prairie Falcons, and have even spent time in the northern Altai mountains of northwest Mongolia with an eagle hunter and his family, Falconry has taught me about patience, humility and nature in ways that have had a dramatic affect on my life.

 

Hunting in the plains

Photography: Jeff Shapiro

Fast-forward to now and after moving to Oregon from Montana, I've had to transfer all of my license and permit paperwork to remain legal to hunt with a raptor. My current hunting partner is a hybrid Gyr-Peregrine Tiercel named Cirrus, who's in his 8th season with me. I've raised Cirrus since he was eighteen days old and was nothing but a “ball of down feathers” with a beak and huge feet sticking out. Now, he's exactly what he was born to be, a lethal and skilled hunter but, I haven't been able to introduce him to his new hunting area until all of the required paperwork and procedures are completed. Luckily for us both, yesterday marked that day.

The last step was for ODFW (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) to come to our new (to us) home to inspect all of the required falconry gear, Cirrus's housing and to generally insure that I, as a licensed falconer, am properly caring for such a special creature. Now that we had been signed off, Cirrus and I would once again have the legal opportunity to hunt together.

 

Falcon named Cirrus

Photography: Jeff Shapiro

My wife Kara and I felt like a good way to celebrate the end of this process would be to cook up one of the pheasants we still had frozen from a previous Montana hunt where Cirrus had found his mark and successfully brought another prey bird to table (or in this case, the freezer). I thawed out the bird and carefully cleaned and seasoned it's rich dark meat while Kara built a fire out back next to Cirrus's perch.

In a dish, I mixed flour with a dash of salt, pepper and paprika. Then, we put the Wolf & Grizzly Grill over the hot coals and in a cast iron pan on the grill, melted a half stick of butter. I took the breast filets and first, dredged them through the flour mix before placing them in the pan and sprinkling onion powder over each piece. After browning them, I pulled them out and set them in a small glass pan off the heat before adding about a half-cup of honey to the still sizzling butter. Once thoroughly mixed, I put the filets back in the pan and added some chopped parsley before putting the skillet back on the Grill over the fire. We cooked them for another few minutes while sprinkling garlic powder and flipping them in the honey-butter sauce. While they were cooking, I got the legs and remaining bird parts and brought them to Cirrus to enjoy a full crop's worth of healthy food.

 

Cooking pheasant on campfire grill

Photography: Jeff Shapiro

I must admit, as we took bite after bite of delicious honey baked pheasant cooked in the open air over a hot fire, a pheasant that Cirrus and I had harvested together, Kara and I found what felt like a primal satisfaction while also watching our bird and hunting partner enjoy that same meal. It was a little like our version of stepping back in history and a worthy celebration of what's to come here in Oregon; hopefully more successful hunts.

While sitting by the fire after our dinner, I thought back to that little owl. I was grateful for that chance opportunity and grateful for meeting people who I have to thank for many perspective opening lessons and experiences. My choice to pick that owl up that fateful day has led to so many unique adventures and to a relationship with a bird who's arguably trained me more than I've trained him.

Also, it was lucky that that rehab facility, so many years ago, was able to successfully set and pin that Short-Eared Owl's wing after carefully removing all the shot from its body, and get it flying and back to the wild. Little did I know at the time, but that choice led to a tangible improvement on both of our lives.

Shop Jeff's campfire Grill here.


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