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A look inside the ancient sport of falconry practiced by hunters today


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

JOHN YANG: Finally, tonight, a story of a different kind of hunting sport, falconry, considered to be the oldest sport known demand falconers train their birds of prey to hunt game. But as Pamela Watts of Rhode Island PBS reports, it's also a chance to help preserve these noble creatures of the skies.

JIM GWIAZDZINSKI, Master Falconer: Working with these birds and hunting with them, you're truly one with nature. You're really interacting with them and it's hands on, you know, it's not something that you're observing. You're a part of it.

PAMELA WATTS: Jim Gwiazdzinski of Westerly Rhode Island has been hunting with birds of prey for 27 years. He is a master Falconer currently training this Raptor.

JIM GWIAZDZINSKI: I think that you know what the bond that you share with these birds is pretty magnificent. They're not pets, the sport itself, I mean, where it brings you are some beautiful places in beautiful habitat.

PAMELA WATTS: Falconry or Hawking is training Raptors to hunt game with you. Witnessing their majestic flight, you understand why it was crowned the sport of kings. Its origins date back centuries to the Middle East, eventually migrating to medieval Europe. It remained popular as a form of hunting until the introduction of guns. Today Falconry is a specialized sport similar to fly fishing.

JIM GWIAZDZINSKI: There is an art to it to falconry and there is a finesse to it.

PAMELA WATTS: Originally what was the object of falconry?

JIM GWIAZDZINSKI: It was point fact to put food on the table, especially prior to the invention of firearms.

PAMELA WATTS: What about today?

JIM GWIAZDZINSKI: The same. I, you know, I'll be the first to admit I've eaten rabbit, I've eaten squirrel.

PAMELA WATTS: So you can't be squeamish to participate in this sport?

JIM GWIAZDZINSKI: You can't. You can't. No, you can't. I mean it is a hunting sport.

PAMELA WATTS: It all starts with capturing the bird of prey. Gwiazdzinski says he either has to climb to a nest to get a hatchling or catch an immature bird in a special net. You understand that there are going to be people who find this objectionable that you're taking hatchlings from the nest or, you know, trapping a wild bird. How do you answer that?

JIM GWIAZDZINSKI: I say that is sure, you know, I can get that point of view. I think if they understood the amount of time and energy and enthusiasm but care that we have for these birds about 75 to 80 percent do not make it through their first year. So as falconers were allowed to trap these immature raptors, and we leave the actual mature birds alone.

PAMELA WATTS: So you see yourselves as conservationists?

JIM GWIAZDZINSKI: I do. It was truly Falconers that had a lot to do with the thrust and the push to get peregrine falcons off the endangered species list.

PAMELA WATTS: Saved from extinction they came off the endangered list in 1999. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave limited allocations to each region for hunting. In 2022, this creature became the first peregrine falcon permitted to be captured in Rhode Island. Her species is considered the most prized of hunting birds. Other raptors are also used for hunting such as this Kestrel, the smallest of Falcons also Merlin's goshawks Cooper's hawks, and especially red tail Hawks. Gwiazdzinski says training begins with food based reward and getting the predator to eat from your hand.

JIM GWIAZDZINSKI: You're trying to establish a trust with a bird. And then what you do is you put the bird on a perch, say a few feet away, and you start to incorporate the whistle and you whistle and get the bird to jump, you know, take a little bit of a flight out you. They land on the glove. You give them the tidbit, you put them back and then you walk further away. And essentially you're getting the bird to fly to you farther and farther away.

PAMELA WATTS: When the Raptors are released to nearby trees, falconers go into the woods, literally beating the bushes with sticks to get their quarry to move. And if an animal is spotted, say a rabbit. The hunter gives a distinct call, to alert the bird to their target.

JIM GWIAZDZINSKI: What they're starting to do is there they make the connection between, you know, something going, something rotting and the falconer.

PAMELA WATTS: After all this training, most of these birds of prey will be released back to the wild after just a few seasons. Gwiazdzinski says the sport is a commitment year round.

JIM GWIAZDZINSKI: It goes beyond a hobby, it's a passion. It really is a lifestyle. It's there's a lot that goes into it. You know, these birds are cared for every day. It's not passing fancy and it's certainly something that you just can't you know put on a shelf and forget about.

PAMELA WATTS: For these falconers spending a day with their sky hunters defies description.

JIM GWIAZDZINSKI: The world tends to, you know, melt away so it's truly a great escape. You know you're so focused on the bird, you're no longer focused on yourself or the trials and tribulations, you know, that can inundate us, you know from day to day

PAMELA WATTS: For PBS News Weekend, I'm Pamela watts in Jamestown, Rhode Island.

JOHN YANG: And a news update before we go, police in Georgia are looking for a man they believe fatally shot four people this morning in Hampton, Georgia, a small city south of Atlanta. The Henry County Sheriff's Office released a photo of the suspect whom they have identified as Andre Longmore. And that is PBS News Weekend for this Saturday. I'm John Yang. For all of my colleagues, thanks for joining us. See you tomorrow.

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