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Falconer practices ancient hunting ‘dance’

Kristofer B. WakefieldOmen, a peregrine-gyr hybrid falcon, stands over his catch while Jesse, an English pointer, watches out nearby for other predators.
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Death fell from the sky Monday in Penn Valley. Like a winged missile, a falcon came swooping down at about 150 miles an hour and used its talons to thwack a flying duck in the head – killing it instantly.

Then the falcon began plucking the feathers from the dead duck as an English pointer sat nearby. The dog, Jesse, was there to protect the falcon from any other predators – such as redtail hawks – which might come by.

The 5-year-old falcon, named Omen, belongs to Joe Roy, a Grass Valley man who has practiced falconry – the ancient art of hunting with birds of prey – for about 30 years now.



It all started when Joe Roy was about 10 years old, growing up in Ventura County, when a new neighbor moved in who hunted with falcons.

It was a life-changing experience for Roy.




“I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen or heard of,” said Roy, who learned from his neighbor and went on to make falconry his life’s work.

Roy earns money taking his falcons and hawks to school demonstrations. The birds require constant attention. Roy can’t take a vacation without taking along his hawks and falcons. Only about 2,000 falconers exist in the United States, he said.

“I don’t ever recommend that people go out and practice falconry,” Roy said of his demanding avocation. “If its something they’re driven to do, they’ll find a way to go out and do it.”

To catch the red head duck Monday, Roy got his falcon out of its perch in the back of his Toyota 4-Runner.

He took off the hood that covers the bird’s eyes and calms it. Then he released the falcon, which flew about 1,000 feet in the air. Roy and his dog then ran around the pond, scaring a handful of ducks into the air.

The ducks were reluctant to take to the air because they knew the falcon was overhead, Roy said.

“The ducks, they immediately recognize what a falcon is,” he said.

The falcon swooped down and hit the bird with deadly speed and accuracy. The whole hunting process took about five minutes.

As efficient as the falcon was, a hunter with a gun would probably get more ducks, Roy said.

“You don’t practice falconry because you want to fill your freezer. You do it because you want to see birds fly,” he said.

Roy allowed the falcon – which is a mix of peregrine and a gyr, or arctic falcon – to eat a little of the duck’s breast and then bagged the dead bird.

A little while later, in some open land along the Yuba River near Marysville, Roy used his 12-year-old Harris’ hawk – a bird native to the American southwest – to hunt for black-tailed hare. He calls the bird “Arizona.” A Harris’ hawk can live to more than 30 years old, he said. They’re much longer-lived than falcons, which usually only live 12 to 13 years.

Falcons are equipped with special hooked beaks that lets them bite the neck of their prey, severing the spinal cord, Roy said.

Hawks kill differently: they use their long, strong talons to pierce their prey’s internal organs.

The hare that Roy’s hawk caught actually let out a scream when the hawk swooped down upon it and seized it in its talons. Roy explained that the rabbit did that in a last-ditch effort to attract another predator – perhaps a coyote – which might scare the hawk away and possibly give the rabbit a chance to escape.

Some people may be squeamish about the killing done by the birds. But Roy sees the predator/prey relationship differently. Predators actually help keep prey species strong, by culling the weak, the old or prey with poor genetics.

“I consider it to be more of a dance … a relationship where they perfect one another,” Roy said.

¥ Interested in having Joe Roy put on birds of prey assembly at your school? Call his business, Aerial Predators and Ecology at 346-7225.


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