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'Sport of kings': An unexpected treat

Jack Hubley helps Desiree Robinson with Lightning, a hawk, at a falconry demonstration in Hershey. The Falconry Experience gives visitors a hands-on look at the sport.
Jack Hubley helps Desiree Robinson with Lightning, a hawk, at a falconry demonstration in Hershey. The Falconry Experience gives visitors a hands-on look at the sport. (Ellen Perlman)

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By Ellen Perlman
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 15, 2010

When you get to Hershey, Pa., go past the amusement park, the all-purpose stadium and the large building piled high with chocolate Kisses and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Then voyage back in time more than 2,000 years.

You have landed at the falconry field, where you can practice an anachronistic sport that men first engaged in either in Mesopotamia or the Far East, depending upon which source you believe, and which the Huns possibly introduced to Europe when they invaded around A.D. 400.

On a Saturday afternoon, 11 of us gathered for Hershey's Falconry Experience, a 90-minute class where we would learn about the sport and get to handle the birds ourselves. We sat in a wooded field and listened to falconer Jack Hubley explain the "sport of kings," which has changed little over the centuries. (The name "falconry" can be misleading, though: Harris's hawks, not falcons, are the raptors most commonly used for the sport these days.)

Falconry entails sending birds of prey after wild quarry and getting the bird to come back to you with its catch. It's hunting, with a bird as your weapon instead of a gun or a bow and arrow. Of the nearly 1 million licensed hunters in Pennsylvania, about 185 hunt with birds, Hubley says.

When a falconer goes out with his hawk, he holds the bird until he flushes out a rabbit or other prey. Then he releases the hawk, hoping that it will snare that rabbit.

Hubley demonstrated, sending a small, bird-shaped piece of leather around on an electric zip line, low to the grass, making it look like a rabbit or some other ground animal. Attached to it was a bit of raw meat. At Hershey, this is usually a piece of quail or, if you're either brave, gruesome or a 9-year-old, a mouse head.

Lightning, a Harris's hawk, dive-bombed the fake prey and found the meat. Victory! He had hunted down dinner. He spread his wings over the motionless prey in a move called "mantling," essentially telling the rest of us, "You can't have it."

To move him aside, Hubley, a falconer for 24 years, tossed another treat a few feet away. Lightning went after it and Hubley quickly covered the "bird" with a plastic bucket lid. The hawk seemed to forget all about it. Tiny brain, indeed.

Hubley won't demonstrate falconry with live prey. "We don't want to horrify people here," he says. "There would be blood-letting."

Lightning, he told us, "performs" because he's on a mission to find food. He's not doing his handler any favors out of friendship, in the way that a dog might bring back a stick. "We're perceived as nothing more than a meal ticket," said Hubley.

Nor will hawks hunt just any old time. The key to raptor performance is the bird's hunger level. Falconers weigh their birds every morning. When they're between 650 and 700 grams (less than 11/2 pounds), they're just about hungry enough to want to hunt, but not so ravenous that they're drained of energy.

We got to visit other birds caged in the field, including Comet, a peregrine falcon, and Bliss, a huge golden eagle, the only raptor there not named for a roller coaster - 11 of which were racing down tracks less than a minute away, as the crow flies.


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