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Falconry a 4,000-year-old sport thrives in Idaho

Outside of Arco, hunters get ready to take flight. Falconers use birds of prey to hunt game birds, waterfowl, rabbits and more. For practice, Stephen Buffat releases a pigeon into the air and calls his hawk Helga, a Gyr Prairie falcon hybrid. Flying at over 80 miles-an-hour, Helga takes it down with ease.

"It's like bird watching on a more intimate level," said master falconer Stephen Buffat. "Watching the bird flying, seeing what it can actually do when it reaches its full potential, Twisting and turning all through the sky it's amazing."

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But if you think Helga is Stephen's pet, you would be wrong, she's a wild animal and she can fly away anytime she wants. But a bond built on passion and patience keeps them together.

"Their training is based on food and positive reinforcement, and unlike a dog or cat they won't respond to negative reinforcement,' said Mike Garets president Idaho Falconers Association.

At the Idaho Falconers Association's biannual meet, over 20 falconers from Idaho and beyond take to the skies and share their love of the sport and the birds. Many of them using birds that were once on the brink of extinction including the fastest bird in the world - the Peregrine Falcon. Falconry has deep roots in conservation. To this day, falconers are still working to protect the birds and the lands they use to hunt.

"I don't know how many times we've gone out into a filed where we are hunting and spend half the time were out there picking up garbage," said Buffat.

While falconry has been around for at least 4,000 years, modern day technology has spread its wings into the sport. Using drones with bait on a parachute is another way falconers train their birds to fly higher. Telemetry and GPS to track the birds helps falconers keep an eye on their birds, but even still some manage to fly off.

"It's trial and error and a lot of people lose birds," said Garets. "I've lost birds, unfortunately, it's part of the sport."

In order to become a falconer, you not only need to pass rigorous inspections and a written test administered by Idaho Fish and Game but also have to have a seasoned falconer watch over you for two years. Being a falconer is a 24/7/365 commitment.

"It's not a sport for someone who wants to dally in it you have to be all in," explained Garets. "It's not like golf or fishing where you put away your golf clubs or your fishing pole. As long as you have your bird you are involved with it every single day."

Falconers in Idaho can take two birds from the wild each year. Many studies have been done on this and the impact of falconry on wild populations. When a falconer takes a chick from a wild raptor's nest, research shows that the remaining chicks actually have a better survivability rate. Depending on the bird and the falconer, it can take as a little as a few weeks to get a bird of prey fully trained.

With Boise being home to the Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey, many falconers also volunteer at the center in their free time. The World Center for Birds of Prey is also home to the Archives of Falconry who strive to collect, preserve, and make accessible the physical evidence of falconers' achievements worldwide and document their role in raptor conservation. Tours of the Archives are offered daily.

Falconry requires an extensive investment of time and money. Falconers build their lives around the ability to keep their birds in perfect health and hunting condition. In the end, falconry is about hunting, and not "bird-keeping" an interesting pet. Before you start seeking out a sponsor, The Idaho Falconers Association wants to make sure your life is in the "right place" to take on the commitment. They recommend: Several hours of daylight each day to spend training, exercising, and hunting your hawk. If you work a full-time job with daily commitments afterward, or are a college, high school or junior high student then you may not be ready to start.

Access to areas where you can hunt regularly and there is game. If you do not have transportation on a daily basis or are too young to drive, then you may not be ready to start.

A basis of knowledge about what falconry is, its history and the natural science of raptors and their prey. If all you know about falconry is "My Side of the Mountain" then you may not be ready to start.

The ability to provide a high-quality diet to your hawk. If you cannot afford quail or other appropriate food sources then you may not be ready to start.

The ability to provide an area where your bird can live and fly (mews) as well as a safe area your bird can spend outdoors (weathering area). If you live with your parents, in an apartment or rental, or in a neighborhood with covenants then you may not be ready to start.

The ability to provide necessary (and at times expensive) equipment. If you are having a difficult time paying the bills or have no income, then you may not be ready to start.

Physical health that will allow you to be outdoors in the fall and winter for several hours of walking at a time.

The ability to build and maintain a mentoring relationship with your sponsor. If you already know everything or are too shy to ask for help then you may not be ready to start.

To learn more, visit the Idaho Falconer Association's website.