Falconer practices ancient sport for rare look at nature (Video)
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Bo Mallette looked over at the bird perched on his gloved fist.
The Harris hawk beat her wings, but a small tether on her left leg kept her on Mallette's glove.
"She's getting more wild now," he said.
Mallette has had the hawk, Lumen, for more than six months, working with her to teach the bird the ancient sport of falconry.
Now, after months of effort, he has stopped teaching her as he prepares to let her go back to the wild.
Mallette is a part of a small society in Texas. Falconry, the hunting of animals using birds of prey, is an ancient sport thought to date back to about 1500 B.C.
Mallette, an electrician who grew up in Victoria, was raised with a love of nature and the outdoors. He loves to hunt, fish and spend time outside, but hawks always held a special fascination for him. One night, he saw a program on television about falconry, and he decided to learn it.
In Texas, falconers may only catch wild birds and practice the sport if they have a license. The process is intensive - you have to find a licensed falconer to apprentice with, take an exam that requires months of preparation and study and get the facilities for keeping the bird approved by a game warden with Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Texas has only about 230 licensed falconers. State Parks and Wildlife Game Warden Rex Mayes said he has only ever permitted two falconers since starting his job in 1983.
The sport requires a considerable commitment of time, money and effort, so it's not something people enter into lightly, said Megan Russell, a wildlife permit specialist with Texas Parks and Wildlife.
To start as an apprentice, the person has to work with someone who has a general falconer's license. To move from being an apprentice to having a general license, he or she has to trap, train and release a bird of prey, displaying the necessary skills needed to safely work with the animal, she said.
"In places where they've practiced this sport for centuries, there isn't any licensing, but the respect is built into the culture. Here, licensing is a way to protect the integrity of the sport and to make sure people who are doing it are bringing these birds into proper facilities and aren't getting hurt," Russell said.
Mallette worked with his mentor, Anthony Yanta, of Beeville, to learn the practice of falconry. When he had passed his licensing test and been approved by Mayes, he went to West Texas to trap his first bird.
He was looking for a Harris hawk that would be at risk during the coming winter. Young hawks are most prone to early death in the first year of their life. Hawks like Lumen burn through their calories so quickly that they often die of starvation because they can't eat fast enough to keep themselves alive, Mallette said.
Mallette spent hours driving around before he finally got his hawk. He brought her back to his home in Victoria, admonishing his children to stay away from Lumen, a beautiful bird with gleaming, coffee-colored feathers and light brown eyes. She looked pretty, but her talons were those of a killer; her beak was made to rip apart flesh. She wasn't a pet.
He started working with her, training her to associate him with food, to get used to sitting on his gloved hand. As he worked with her, she became more comfortable with him, and he forgot his own advice, letting her perch on his shoulder and nuzzle against his chest.
"That wasn't smart. I won't do that again," he said, shaking his head.
The first time he took her out to hunt, she pushed off the glove, and it was an exhilarating moment watching as she went for her prey and knowing all the while that she could fly away at any moment if she wanted to.
"It was surreal, really. The average person doesn't get to see that God created an ultimate machine in this bird, how effective they are. Getting to witness that is amazing," he said.
They went hunting every few days, saving the rest of her kills to feed her on their days off.
"I had to get used to finding dead rabbits in my refrigerator," his wife, Katie Mallette, said with a laugh. "I might deserve wife of the year for that."
They hunted as often as possible, but the days flew by, and the seasons changed, and Mallette knew it was getting close to time to let Lumen go. He stopped working with her as much and began to distance himself from the bird. Left to her own devices, Lumen's domesticity dropped away and her instincts kicked in, reminding her she was a wild creature.
Just days before he set her free, Lumen perched on his glove, beating her wings and watching for a chance to snap at Mallette, to get loose and fly up and away.
"Part of me is going to miss her, but I got into it knowing I wasn't going to keep her. She won't miss me at all, though," he said, grinning at the bird as she twisted her neck and cocked her head to the side, eyeing him.
He gently put her back in her cage. Just weeks ago, he had been able to let her rest on his bare hand, but now he watched her closely, careful not to expose himself to injury.
The day he released her somewhere near Choke Canyon, she flew away without a backward glance.
Mallette started planning what kind of bird he'll work with next season.