By Ellen Perlman
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 15, 2010; T15
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.
Bliss perched on Hubley's arm, and he flicked his wrist to get the eagle to exhibit its impressive six-foot wing span.
Hershey's hawks are all males, the less aggressive sex in the raptor community. Still, Bliss would go after the other birds in a rapid heartbeat if allowed. "They'll catch and kill anything smaller," Hubley says. "It's all about size and power." Ah, nature, red in tooth and claw.
Near the end of the experience we got to the piece de resistance: being the falconer. Only in this case, all we did was call for the bird to come to us. Its treat was a bit of meat held between our thumbs and forefingers.
Darius Robinson, 8, from Allentown, Pa., went first, with some assistance from Hubley. Next was his sister, Desiree, 9, then their brother, then their mother, then . . . hurry, hurry, I kept thinking.
Finally it was my turn. Lightning seemed to have lost interest, or gotten full. Hubley changed birds and I "hunted" with Thunder instead. "Hey, Thunder," I said. In he soared, landing gently on my gloved hand, light as a feather. Surprisingly light. The bird's bones are hollow, Hubley had told us.
After we all had a turn, Hubley lined us up facing each other. He stood at one end of our two lines, away from the bird's downfield perch.
He called Thunder, who flew a beeline through us. With each flight, Hubley had us take step closer together, until the two lines were less then a foot apart. Still, Thunder came soaring through. During the final flight, I felt the tips of his wings gently brush my neck.
I was touched. Mother Nature at her best.
325 University Dr.
The Hershey resort rooms, which come with freebies for other Hershey attractions, start at $249.
Hilton Garden Inn Hershey
550 E. Main St., Hummelstown, Pa. 866-539-0036 www.hiltongardeninn.com Rooms from $146.EATING THERE
100 Hotel Rd.
Farm-to-table restaurant with fresh ingredients behind the Hotel Hershey. Entrees from $9 to $29.
Devon Seafood Grill 27 W. Chocolate Ave. 717-508-5460 www.devonseafood.com Sunday brunch choices include salmon Benedict and sweet potato pancakes. Brunch specialties range from $9.50 to $16, but fish dishes and salads are also available.PLAYING THERE
The Falconry Experience
Available to the public as well as Hershey Resorts guests. Through October, 60-to-90-minute sessions available Saturdays and Sundays at 11:30 a.m. From November through March by appointment; call 717-534-8860. From the Hershey Hotel, guests are taken to the field by shuttle bus. Falconry participants must be at least 8 years old. $85; ages 8-12 $70. Includes admission to ZooAmerica.INFORMATION