Deer hunting season in Virginia has passed, but there’s another season underway – one that involves a powerful living weapon.
Kevin Markey stands near a cluster of trees in rural Crozet with an eye-catching creature perched on his hand. Puka is a 5-year-old Harris hawk – two pounds of brown, white and rust feathers, beak, bones, talons – and a persistent call that just won’t quit.
“Harris hawks are the only raptors in the world that hunt in gangs,” he explains. “They live collectively in family groups of 25 or 30, they’re very vocal, and they have to call to each other, and this could be like, ‘Come on guys, let’s gather around. Let’s get going.’”
Today, Puka will hunt with another hawk, Pippin, owned by family friend Andrew King. Both birds are tethered to their masters, with tiny bells attached to their legs, making it easier track them once they’re released.
They fly into a tree and begin watching the ground – preparing for the hunt. Kevin was eight the first time he watched a hawk at work, and he was instantly hooked. He read every book he could find on the falconry. Then, as an adult, he and his wife Donna met a falconer who was willing to teach the art of training and hunting with raptors. The couple bought Puka from a breeder in Louisiana.
“It took about six weeks to get her used to me and jumping to my fist and then flying to my first,” Markey recalls. “She was tethered at the time, and so she flew back and forth to my fist in the yard, and I took her out into the trees, and let her go, and the first day your heart pounds like crazy, and they come back, and you put them away, you give them a big reward for coming back that first time, but they are completely free flying after that.”
Puka is about to prove that point – swooping down to attack the fuzzy windscreen on my microphone, digging her talons in, and exploring it with her beak. Eventually, Kevin persuaded Puka to surrender her electronic catch, and Donna said hawks do sometimes get confused.
“Yesterday, in fact, we were hunting in an area where there were some bicycles trails, and a bicyclist rode by, and they went after the bicyclist. We also had a lady with a feathered hat one time, and they went after her hat.”
The cyclists and the lady with the hat were not injured, but if you’re going hunting with hawks, Donna says, leave furs, feathers and fuzzy microphone covers at home. Bring with you a pair of sturdy hiking boots and a good walking stick to help flush out a rabbit or some other small creature.
On this day, Puka takes out a squirrel, and Kevin moves quickly to dispatch it.
“I don’t want the squirrel or the rabbit to suffer,” he explains, “and I don’t want them to bite my birds. ”
Most of the kill is fed to the birds now or put into the freezer for meals during the off season from April through December. Kevin and Donna have an occasional rabbit dinner, but for them it’s not about the food.
Donna says she enjoys spending time outside and being with her husband, observing the circle of life.
Kevin describes hunting with hawks as “a front row seat, watching nature.”
He is a waterproofing contractor. She is an oncology nurse, but what really shapes their lives is the birds. This is no hobby, they say, it’s a lifestyle, and it’s not right for everyone. It takes at least two years, working with a mentor – to get certified, and owning a bird, which can cost thousands of dollars, is a big responsibility.
“I’ve had birds die in my arms. I’ve had birds fly away. I’ve had birds severely injured,” Kevin says. Ninety-nine percent of the time is so great that the few lows you bump into -- they’re low, and there have been plenty of times that I’ve wanted to quit, but you can’t.”
He and Donna feel a spiritual calling to this ancient form of hunting, which could date back to Mesopotamia 2000 years before Christ, and they’re not alone. Kevin estimates there are about 4,000 falconers nationwide – with about 40 here in Virginia.