‘More Than a Hobby, It’s a Lifestyle’ - The Missourian: Features People

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‘More Than a Hobby, It’s a Lifestyle’

Washington Man Shares Details of His Work as a Master Falconer

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Posted: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 10:18 am

N

ot too long ago when Michael Guzy heard traffic on the Washington police scanner that a Cooper’s hawk had become trapped inside the local Lowe’s store, he picked up the phone to offer his services.

As a veteran falconer, Guzy knew the police officers responding to the store would need some expert assistance and since he has a permit for trapping, it was legal for him to do so.

He was able to capture the bird, which had a broken leg with an exposed bone. 

“The bird was very thin and was probably trying to catch the house sparrows that hang around,” recalled Guzy. “The break was clearly not a new one; with the exposed bone and the inevitable infection that follows, the bird had to be euthanized.”

It was a sad outcome, to be sure, especially for a falconer like Guzy, who currently has a red-tailed hawk and would like also to have a Cooper’s hawk.

“I like the birds, seeing them do what they do. All they’re doing is what they do naturally.”

Requires Extensive

Training, Knowledge

Guzy’s love for birds of prey goes back to his childhood. Growing up in Silex, Mo., about an hour north of Franklin County, he read books that featured falconers, including “My Side of the Mountain,” by Jean Craighead George, a fictional story about a boy who runs away from home to the Catskill Mountains to live in the woods.

He currently owns about 100 books about falconry.

Guzy was in his 20s when he formally began training to be a falconer. This is not a sport you stumble into, he explained. 

It requires extensive training and study.

The first requirement is to find a sponsor, which can be a challenge in itself.

“It took me a long time,” said Guzy, noting he was in college at Mizzou when he made a deal with a friend who was a student in the veterinary school.  

“I made a part for a boat motor for him, and as payment I told him to find a name (of a sponsor) for me,” Guzy recalled with a grin.

Learning the art or sport of falconry begins with finding a sponsor, said Guzy, someone who knows how to care for these birds of prey and keep them healthy.

“There are three stages of falconry,” said Guzy.

“The apprenticeship, which is a minimum of two years or two hunting seasons.”

During that time, the apprentice is only allowed to have one bird, either a red-tailed hawk or an American kestrel, which is a small falcon.

“Then there’s the general class falconer, which is a minimum of five years. And then there is a master falconer, who can have as many as five birds.”

Test, Inspections

There are few legal ways for people to keep a falconry bird. The first is by falconry permit.

“These birds are protected by federal laws, which are there to protect the birds, to keep them healthy and safe,” said Guzy.

“Falconry is enough work that if you’re not willing to go through the steps needed to get the permit, are you going to be willing to do what it takes to keep the bird healthy?”

Some people might believe that falconers like Guzy are interfering with the bird’s natural lifestyle, but he sees it differently.

“If anything, we’re helping because falconers trap birds in the fall and release them in the spring, so they take them through the hard part of the year,” Guzy commented.

And falconers have helped save many a bird. The peregrine falcon used to be on the endangered species list, but now, in large part due to falconers, they have recovered, said Guzy, through birds held in captivity and donated for breeding programs.

“This is far more than a hobby, it’s a lifestyle,” said Guzy.

Even before a falconer can apply for a permit to keep a bird, he or she has to pass a 50-question test and also have all of their equipment inspected — the mews, the perch, the scale to make sure it’s accurate, anklets, jesses (which are straps that allows the handler to keep control of a bird), the bath pan . . . , said Guzy.

And while the test may only ask 50 questions, there’s a wide range of information to know — health care of the bird, how to prevent and treat sickness and injury to the bird, how to train the bird, the natural history of the birds, even literature.

“Falconry started at least 3,000 years ago in the grasslands of Asia,” said Guzy, noting there are rock carvings that depict falconry in 1,500 B.C.

Once someone passes the test and inspection, then he or she can apply for a permit to keep a bird. 

Whether or not a falconer ever graduates from the apprenticeship phase is largely up to the sponsor, said Guzy, because the sponsor has to sign off on the reports.

Guzy admits he’s very particular about any apprentices he takes on because it’s hard to find people who are truly serious about falconry and willing to put in the necessary work and training to advance.

He noted there are only about 3,000 active falconers in the United States today.

Training

In trapping a bird in the wild, falconers look for younger birds, so they’re not affecting the breeding population, said Guzy, explaining you can tell from the plumage if a bird is less than a year old.

“If it’s less than 1 year, it’s not a red tail yet. It’s brown,” he said.

Once a falconer traps his bird, the training begins by sitting with it inside, putting on the anklets and jesses.

“This gets it used to being close to you. They look around and see what’s in the room, what else there is to be scared of,” said Guzy.

How long this process takes depends on the bird, he noted. 

“Once the bird gets comfortable enough, then you try to feed it, see if it will take food from you.”

There are incremental steps to this process, said Guzy — getting the bird to step to the falconer’s gloved hand from a perch, flying to the falconer from across the room on a leash and then taking the bird outside and starting all over.

“Once you have a feel for them, you unclip them and hope for the best,” said Guzy. “If it comes to you, it’s ready to hunt.”

The fastest Guzy has ever completed this training process is 10 days. That included sitting with the bird inside for three days.

“It all depends on the bird,” he remarked. “One took a month, but that was a late trapped bird . . . the younger a bird is, the easier it is.

“The main thing is learning to read the bird.”

The reality, said Guzy, is that every time he takes his bird out to hunt, there’s a chance she won’t come back to him.”

Guzy reads the bird’s behavior to figure out what’s going on in its head, to know if the bird is ready to hunt.

“It’s an attitude,” he said, “not anything I can describe. I just know her well enough now to know.

“Her head all fluffed up, that’s a sign of a happy and content hawk,” said Guzy, noting if the feathers under her chin were fluffed up, that would mean she was even more contented and happy.

The bird’s weight can be a clue to knowing if it’s ready to hunt, he said. The heavier she is, the less likely she’ll want to hunt.

“A lot of people will ask, ‘What weight does your bird fly at?’ She won’t come back to me, if she’s not hungry enough . . . That’s part of knowing the bird’s attitude.

“Feeling her chest is another way,” he said, noting that can be tricky. “Mostly they don’t like to be touched.

“It’s not a dog,” Guzy reminds people. “It’s not affectionate. It’s a wild animal.”

They can bite and also use the talons on their feet as weapons. Guzy has felt that pain, even through the thick leather of his gauntlet.

“It’s the squeeze that hurts,” he said, not necessarily the talons piercing through the leather to his skin.

Daily Routine

Guzy, who is a master falconer with just one bird in his care, said he can’t imagine anyone having five birds of prey, which is the max number a master can have. That would require so much work that it would be a full-time job, he said.

Guzy is an environmental sciences instructor at East Central College.

His daily routine in caring for his red-tailed hawk includes checking on her at least once a day. He keeps her in a mews, which is basically a giant birdcage, that he built on a relative’s property in Washington. 

Having a mews for the bird is one of the legal requirements, said Guzy, noting there also are details in what the mews has to offer — such as, at least one window. Guzy said he designed his to be all window.

“She’s still sheltered, but she can sit in the sun or not. She can get out of the wind.”

Guzy said caring for red-tailed hawks is fairly easy, since they don’t tend to get sick often.

Ideally he likes to hunt with her every other day, but that doesn’t usually happen.

“The weather has a big effect. If it’s cold, she’ll lose weight more quickly and need to hunt,” he said.

“Some species, like a Cooper’s hawk, need to hunt every day.”

Hunts can last anywhere from a single minute to several hours, said Guzy. It just depends on how quickly the bird spots prey and can capture it.

“It’s more likely that we go hunting once a week, but we go more often if I can,” said Guzy. “I see her on a daily basis and weigh her, feel her . . . ”

That’s all part of checking on the bird’s health, said Guzy, but it’s also about keeping her familiar enough with him that she stays tame.

“When I release her, within a couple of days of being on her own, she won’t come back,” said Guzy. 

“We’ll go out, let her hunt, get a big kill and I’ll cut her anklets off and walk away.”

Guzy, who trapped his current red-tailed hawk in late 2011, said she’s probably about 1 1/2 years old now. He’s thinking about releasing her this spring.

“If I turn her loose right now, she’d come back to me,” he said, noting her current weight of 2 pounds, 7 ounces, is a little heavy. “An ounce can make the difference between losing a bird or having it come back to you.”

The longest Guzy has ever kept a falconry bird is 2 1/2 years.

“A lot of the fun is training a new bird,” he commented. “I’ll turn her loose so I can get another.”

Man of Many

Talents, Trades

Guzy has been fascinated by falconry since his childhood, but birds weren’t something he saw as a “calling” until he was working as an undergraduate assistant.

By that point he had already earned an associate’s degree in machine tool technology from Linn Tech, and had been hired by 3M to work there full time while he completed his degree at Mizzou.

“Originally I wanted to be a vet, but my interests changed,” said Guzy. “I realized I really hated chemistry.

“But I was good at working with my hands. My grandfather was a master tool and die maker, and I had an uncle who was a machinist.”

So while Guzy originally began following in the family footsteps, along the way he found his own footing. At Mizzou, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife and was able to spend two months on the Galapagos Islands assisting graduate students in their study of the Galapagos hawk.

He also spent three weeks in Puerto Rico and 10 days in Mexico helping with bird banding projects, where coded aluminum bands are placed on the legs of birds to help track their movements and collect other detailed information.

After graduating from Mizzou, Guzy went to North Carolina State to complete a master’s degree in zoology. He also was at Clemson University in South Carolina for a while working with a professor on bird migration before enrolling at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he completed a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology. 

Today he shares all of the knowledge he’s learned with students enrolled in his classes at East Central College, but he also gladly gives presentations on birds of prey to area grade school students.

For information on his availability, people can contact him through email at mjguzy@charter.net.

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