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March 18, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Justin Robertson orders his dog, Blue, to climb into the back of the pickup truck. She whines as an 18-degree wind whips through her crate. A red-tailed hawk named Patricia perches in her wooden box and jingles a locator bell tied to her ankle. Along with the owner, the dog and bird embark on a hunt where strong talons and a sharp beak are the only weapons needed.
To own a bird of prey, a person must have permits, access to land, tracking equipment and an outdoor housing shed called a mews. Becoming a falconer requires discipline, and few are dedicated enough to try. Robertson’s fascination with raptors started when he was 11; by 14, he’d almost passed the license exam. Now 25, Robertson catches hawks, treats them for parasites, trains them and forms a bond that makes falconry unlike any other sport.
“She really knows what she’s doing now,” Robertson says as he holds Patricia on his arm. A hood covers her eyes to keep her calm until the flight. The starting point is an abandoned clearing surrounded by tall, snowy grass that hides scattered cinder blocks and wires. Robertson wears well-worn boots and gloves and carries an aluminum walking stick that will help him and Blue flush fur-tailed game out of the brush and into the clearing for Patricia.
The hood comes off, and the hawk takes flight. Her wings, covered with brown and white feathers, span more than three feet in length. A flapping sound fills the clearing as she ascends and perches on a bare branch several stories high. The frozen ground crunches under Robertson’s feet as he and the dog look for prey. Blue wanders into the trees, and Robertson shouts for her to come back. “You’re supposed to be making this easier, Blue,” he says upon her return. Eventually there is a rustling sound, and a cottontail rabbit darts into the clearing.
“Ho hawk! Ho! Ho! Ho!” Robertson shouts and points at the prey with the walking stick. Patricia remains on her perch, unmoving. The falconer shakes his head in disappointment. “She might be mad that I took a squirrel from her on the last hunt,” he muses. Several minutes pass when another rabbit scurries from its hiding place and then another. Patricia is circling but not striking. Robertson thinks the wind’s to blame.
Despite the cold, winter is the optimal time for falconry. Harmful parasites are less prevalent, and it’s less likely the hawk will kill off the squirrels’ or rabbits’ young. On this day, however, the weather is taking its toll, and the day ends without a kill.
Robertson prepares the lure, a leather pouch with squirrel meat attached. It’s tied to more than three feet of string and swung over the head in a helicopter motion to entice the hawk back to the ground. The falconer shouts “Ho, Pat!” And his bird glides through the air, her talons extended to grasp the moving target. In a flash, she pins the lure to the ground and begins to rip off pieces of meat. She mantles the food, using her wings to shield it from the gaze of other animals.
Because she hasn’t attempted a real attack, Robertson gives Patricia a smaller portion than usual. She finishes the meal and looks quizzically at him with her fierce, dark eyes. Eventually, she hops onto his arm. Blue is in her crate, eager to escape the cold, and a hooded Patricia climbs into her own box. Leftover squirrel waits at home, so the winged hunter can save energy for better flying weather.