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Story: “It’s all for the bird:” Father and son pursue falconry together (10/5/22)


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Zeus flaps his wings, trying to take flight but prevented by his leash. Todd and Colby Rushing released Zeus back into the wild on Easter this year.

Photo by Aaron Eisenhauer

Falconry initially piqued the interest of father and son Todd and Colby Rushing because they thought it was “cool.” They quickly realized falconry is much more than an interesting hobby; it is an incredibly time-consuming commitment, lifestyle and vital conservation effort.


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Technically speaking, Colby describes falconry as the sport of training a bird of prey, such as a hawk or falcon, to hunt alongside its human. Hawks and falcons are different bird of prey species, with falcons tending to be smaller in stature than hawks. More experienced falconists might have the option to hunt with owls or golden eagles.

Todd says a common misconception with falconry is that it’s harmful to take the bird out of the wild. Falconists only trap adolescent birds of prey, which increases the chances of the birds’ survival, since the birds’ life expectancy is lowest during the first year of their lives. Todd says it is estimated about 80% of red-tailed hawks die in the wild during their first year.

Specifically, Todd says if a red-tailed hawk makes it through its first one to two years of life, it can live up to 15 years in the wild. Birds of prey are important to the ecosystem, as they maintain the health of their environment, keeping prey species populations under control and removing weaker animals.

“We do it, so we can get that bird through the first year of its life and hopefully increase its odds of surviving on its own out there,” Colby says. “At the end of the day, it’s all for the bird.”

Todd Rushing stands with his son, Colby Rushing, who holds their red-tail hawk, Zeus. Todd says it is estimated 80% of red-tail hawks die in the wild during their first year.

Photo by Aaron Eisenhauer

The first step to becoming a falconer is research. Colby says after researching, he found a general class falconer, someone who has done falconing for three years, to sponsor him. According to Federal Falconry Regulations, anyone interested in falconry must be sponsored by a general or master class falconer. Some sponsors will require those interested to pass the falconry test first, which Colby describes as “the hardest part of the whole thing.”

For the test, Colby says there is no definite study guide. The questions range from anatomy and identification of different birds to diagnosing illnesses and even identifying the types of swivels used in falconry gear. Colby says test takers are not told which questions they missed, and if they receive a grade lower than 80%, they must wait two months before retaking it.

Colby says he took the test six times before he passed it. While Colby was in the cycle of retaking the test, Todd eventually joined him, and the two began studying together. Todd passed the test one cycle before Colby passed.

Although Todd initially pursued falconry to help Colby, he ended up loving it as much as his son does. He says falconry has connected them more as father and son and provides a common goal.

“For me, it’s a family thing. We go hunting every weekend together, where as if we didn’t do that, we probably wouldn’t be doing things every weekend; we’d have other things that get in the way. SW, [with taking care of the bird]it becomes a priority,” Todd says.

Colby Rushing looks to his red-tail hawk, Zeus. Colby and his father Todd Rushing have gone through the arduous process of becoming licensed falconers and now trap, train and eventually release several birds of prey each year.

Photo by Aaron Eisenhauer

Before trapping their first bird, Colby and Todd had to build a mews, which is a birdhouse designed to house one or more birds of prey. They built it together, and Todd says Colby designed it, using his own money to help purchase gear. The mews must align with state regulations and go through inspection.

“He’s not a pet, and it’s not about us; if we’re not helping [the bird] get through this process, then we didn’t do falconry the way it’s designed. It’s about the bird,” Todd says. “When we signed up to do this, we said we’re going to take the best interest of Zeus, [our current red-tail hawk].”

To trap their bird, Colby says they typically use a bal-chatri trap, designed for catching birds of prey. On the inside of the trap, there is space to house a small moving creature. On the outside of the trap, a copious amount of fishing line slipknots poke out. The trap is placed under an adolescent hawk or falcon, and the motion from the live creature inside the trap attracts the bird.

Colby says hawks’ instincts are to “go after motion” — even a human’s foot, as Colby experienced once when he moved his foot and a hawk went “after it.”

When the bird arrives at the bal-chatri trap, its talons get stuck on the fishing line loops, and Colby and Todd say they must quickly get to the bird, so it doesn’t hurt itself. Colby says hawks become docile in the dark, so they will place a hood over his head to block his vision and keep it calm as they transport it to the house.

Then, the two remove the hood and spend a full 24 hours with the bird. Todd and Colby take turns during this time, helping the bird get used to being on their arms and eating off a stick. This is also the time when they notice a specific bird’s quirks and features, such as the way its eyelids move or the way hawks tuck their heads in while asleep, making them appear headless.

Zeus, a red-tail hawk, sits on the gloved hand of falconer Colby Rushing. Falconry helps hawks make it through the first year of their life before being released back into the wild.

Photo by Aaron Eisenhauer

This 24-hour stretch is the beginning of the manning process, or “bonding process,” which Colby says usually takes about a month. The bond created is not an emotional connection like with a dog or cat; it is a strictly food-based connection. Todd says there is an emotional connection on their side, it’s just not reciprocated.

“Every bird has a different personality, so some of them learn quicker, some of them learn slower,” Colby says.

After the manning process, Colby and Todd take their hawk or falcon hunting. They will usually bring multiple people with them, as this increases the success of a hunt. During the hunt, each person runs around and beats on bushes to scare out rabbits. Todd describes it as “hard work,” and Colby describes it as “a lot of running.” The bird watches from the highest point of a tree, until they sense motion and attack.

Even the hunt is “all for the bird,” as it’s meant to help the hawk or falcon get experience hunting, and Todd says whatever the bird catches, they feed it with.

The birds of prey only hunt if they are hungry, so before taking a trip, Colby and Todd drop the bird’s weight a bit. If a bird isn’t hungry or the wind is too strong, they pack up and go home early.

“If we’re out hunting and something doesn’t look right, even if we got 10 people out there watching what we’re doing, we’re gonna call him down and come home,” Todd said.

Zeus, a red-tailed tercel — the technical name for a male red-tailed hawk — is Todd and Colby’s fourth bird. Zeus is the most talkative and tamest hawk they’ve had. He is also the least successful hunter they’ve had so far, catching his first rabbit in mid-March, near the end of his time with Todd and Colby. They released Zeus on Easter Sunday afternoon.

Zeus, a red-tail hawk, looks into the distance with falconer Colby Rushing in the background. Colby pursues falconry with his father, Todd Rushing.

Photo by Aaron Eisenhauer

Both the hardest and most rewarding part of falconry for Todd and Colby is releasing the bird back into the wild after approximately a year of working with it. First, they will feed the hawk or falcon a big meal to get them through at least two to three weeks. Then, they cut off the tracking band from the conservation center above its foot, and they take the bird somewhere far away from major roads.

“That’s when you’ve done the whole thing, taking a bird from the wild, trained it, taken care of it, nurtured it, released it, and now it’s got a chance, ’cause eight out of 10 of them wouldn’t have made it, so the odds are that hawk would not have survived. … That is the most rewarding part other than I like watching [my son] do it,” Todd says.

And so, they release the bird. It flies to the highest point of a tree, just as it does when Todd and Colby take it hunting. Then, the bird waits patiently for Todd and Colby to call it down. They leave, and the bird stays, still waiting. The bird will eventually fly off alone, now with a better chance at survival; Todd and Colby will catch their next bird. The cycle continues.

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