Emma Frankart Henterly gets up close and personal with three raptors.
It's a beautiful, mild day in August, and I am staring into the dull blue eye of a decapitated chick head on the leather glove covering my outstretched fist.
A whistle blows—two short, shrill tweets—and I feel a rush of air on the side of my face from the 3.5-foot wingspan of Ki-Lo, a male Harris's hawk that silently swoops from the nearby woods and, in one graceful motion, snatches the chick's head in his beak and grips my fist in his talons.
He's surprisingly light, but I can feel the power of his grip even through the thick leather glove. I'm mesmerized as he struggles to fit the entire head in his mouth, my trance broken only when he hops to the outstretched glove of his handler, Joe Dorrian, and finally succeeds in swallowing his snack.
We're at Camp Mary Orton near Worthington, and my group is finishing a Walk with Hawks class offered through the Ohio School of Falconry, which Dorrian owns and runs.
“Our main driver is to help people understand the nature of the sport of falconry,” Dorrian tells us in a presession chat. He's quick to note that falconry is a hunting sport, not a bird-keeping hobby. They're not pets. “Nowhere else do you have this partnership in nature,” he says, “between two entirely different species working for the same goal … which is to catch something.”
His passion is contagious. By the time he's done giving our group its falconry briefing, we're all itching to get a bird on our gloves. In fact, we get three.
First up is a 4-month-old barn owl named Dr. Hoo, followed by Chase, a 3-year-old captive-bred red-tailed hawk. Finally, each person in the group works with one of two Harris's hawks—either 5-year-old Ki-Lo or Sedosa, a 4-year-old female. Class participants are treated as apprentice falconers. “We use three birds to simulate you working with one bird over four weeks,” Dorrian tells us. Over the next few hours, we “teach” the hawks to fly to our gloves from various distances.
In addition to individual classes like the one I'm in, the Ohio School of Falconry also facilitates corporate team-building. “We're the only place in the world right now that does it how we do it,” Dorrian says. He's dismissive of programs that claim to do something similar without allowing actual interaction with the birds. “Our mission is really using the metaphor of falconry to help individuals and teams build stronger and better trusting relationships. Everything comes down to trust.”
Falconry is a highly regulated sport at both the state and federal levels, and in fact it's illegal for raptor owners to even let others touch their birds unless they carry a special federal permit, which Dorrian does. To become a falconer, one must complete a two-year apprenticeship with an experienced practitioner and pass a lengthy, difficult written test. Then you have to catch a wild, juvenile bird that's between 3 months and 1 year old and train it to hunt with you.
Trapping and training juvenile raptors supports the wild population—Dorrian cites government studies that indicate up to 90 percent of juveniles die in their first six months due to man-made hazards. Most falconers release their hunting partners back to the wild when hunting season ends the following spring. By then, the bird has grown to adulthood.
“There's a bond, a partnership if you will, between ourselves and those birds,” Dorrian explains. “What they learn very, very, very quickly is, life is very advantageous with us. … They're always warm; they have a great place to stay.” And, of course, finding food is never an issue. “When we're hunting with them, game appears out of nowhere, because instead of sitting there, waiting for three or four hours for a field vole to wander across, they're going to sit on that same pole and they've got two or three people who are beating bushes and trying to get rabbits and squirrels to move for them.”
Dorrian says the partnership between falconer and bird is built not on emotion, but on mutual benefits (or as he puts it, “trust and snacks”). He's tender with the raptors that are often intimidating, gently directing the class as we practice “keeling”—checking a bird's weight by feeling its breastbone, or keel—on Chase, the red-tailed hawk.
“See how he's looking away?” Dorrian asks me. I nod, thumb and forefinger running through the soft down of Chase's chest. “That means you're pressing too hard. He doesn't like that.” I ease the pressure, and Chase swivels his head, locking golden eyes with mine. “There you go,” Dorrian says. “That's perfect.”
I stare into Chase's eyes—acutely aware of the lethal-looking beak and massive talons that could gouge my eyes out in an instant. But, of course, he doesn't. And I realize Dorrian's right—everything does come down to trust.