Winter doesn’t seem the best time of the year to connect with the nature — unless you’re one of the fewer than 50 or so New Jersey master falconers permitted and licensed to hunt through March.
“It is winter time, so we use small game hunting rules,” says Hugh Pribell on his farm in Columbus, New Jersey.
Generally known as Rocky, Pribell is a master falconer who says his interest in the ancient practice goes back to two experiences.
“My family was difficult,” he says about growing up in Moorestown, New Jersey. “I remember reading a book in grade school, ‘My Side of the Mountain.’ It was published in 1959, the year I was born. The story had a kid who ran away from home, like I did.”
Pribell says he connected with the character’s emotional plight and was then captivated by the boy’s success of trapping a falcon to help get food.
“I knew at some point I would be a falconer,” he says, adding that the possibility seemed more real after he saw advertisements for buying hawks in a Boy’s Life Magazine — before current state laws and regulations limited that practice.
“The idea stuck with me, but life got in the way,” he says.
In the 1990s the married UPS worker with three sons struck up a friendship with a few falconers who invited him to go on a hunt — one where the handlers release birds to hunt prey.
There was one problem. “I had hurt my foot and was in a cast, but I said I was going. I was on crutches in a foot-and-a half of snow to hang out with falconers and watch them fly their birds.”
He says his earnestness impressed one of his friends so much that he offered to help Pribell become a falconer and started him on the lengthy and involved state-regulated process.
As Pribell explains it, “You work with an apprentice two years to be trained with a proper ethic and to understand that this is a wild bird you are responsible for. The process is two years to weed out people who are looking for a pet. These birds don’t make good pets. They don’t like you back.”
What you get instead is “gaining the trust of a wild raptor and letting you be allowed to partner with it. You get to see their world up close and personal and see their beautiful, free flights when they fly to get a rabbit.”
He then focuses on the reality that the list of raptors included in the state regulations “eat meat. They’re not vegetarian. We’re flushing rabbit and game out of a field and producing an opportunity or a ‘slip’ for the bird to take the game and eat.”
While it involves small game and seems akin to hunting, Pribell makes a distinction. “Most falconers agree with me that it is not a sport. The biggest difference between falconry with hunters and fishers is they’re concerned how many points on the rack or how many pounds on the bass. But we’re concerned with the beauty of the bird and getting out in nature. It is natural history.”
It is also part of world history, as the New Jersey Falconry Club notes, “Falconry is the ancient art of hunting with birds of prey. Historically, it was restricted to the noble class and considered a status symbol.”
An historic timeline elsewhere on the site says a circa 722-705 BC Assyrian bas-relief of hunters with birds is the earliest indication of falconry. The timeline follows with 610 B.C. Chinese records describing the practice.
Now an everyday sport for everyday people, NJFC adds that “falconers train birds of prey to hunt with them, responding to whistles and specific calls. Common game includes rabbits, squirrels, and ducks, amongst other small animals, depending on the bird. In New Jersey, falconers can fly a variety of falcons and hawks, however, apprentices are restricted to red tailed hawks.”
To become a permit-holding falconer, here are some of the steps found on both the NJFC and New Jersey Fish and Game Division websites: One, learn the biology of the bird and falconry practices through books and online resources and by studying state regulations. Two, contact the state for a falconry permit application. Three, find a licensed falconer to be a sponsor and mentor for the two-year apprenticeship. Four, review legal requirements and obtain the required gloves and related equipment and prepare a hawkhouse — aka a mews — to state specifications. Five, take the state exam and receive 80 percent or better to pass; and six, obtain a state hunting license.
Mentored through the above process by Princeton-based falconer Chris Brown, Pribell says the next step is to get a falcon or hawk. And since New Jersey state regulations forbid the buying and selling of falcons and other raptors, the birds need to be trapped.
“You cannot take it from their nests,” says Pribell who says that if they are taken too young they will depend on — or “imprint” — a human being as their parents and source of food.
“You’re looking for an immature bird that has reached a partial age when it knows it is a falcon. At the end of the hunting season, the birds can be returned back into the wild.”
However, finding an immature bird is not always easy to discern. Yet with time, Pribell says a falconer’s eyes become trained to tell the differences through eye colors, feature textures, and behavior. “Adults fly off, the immature don’t fear people,” he says.
To catch a bird, he says, he uses a federally approved BC, or, according to the American Falconry Club glossary, “a Bal-chatri: a cage like trap with live bait and monofilament nooses that catch the raptor by the feet.”
Pribell, who makes his own traps by hand, says in order to trap a falcon or hawk he first places a mouse or sparrow inside the cage to attract attention. Then, with its focus solely on its prey, the bird swoops down without considering the cover and gets its talons caught.
The next step is to put the bird in the mews and work with it to build trust. That happens through a process of tethering and providing food.
“They don’t understand negative relationships. It only learns through positive reinforcement, and that is through food. You have to develop a relationship with a wild animal that will always be wild,” Pribell says.
Once the positive connection to a person as a benign food source becomes established, the falconer and bird are ready for the bird to be released for its first hunt — where the falcon or hawk watches the falconer walk through a field where “game sources come out in front of you — magically.”
There is also the moment of truth to see if a connection with the bird has been established and it returns to the falconer’s upraised gloved hand.
“After putting that time, it is disappointing if a bird up and flies off. The beauty of falconry is that if you lose one, it’s only on you. The bird knows how to hunt and survive.”
As for the returning bird, Pribell says the reason may be that they come back because “we aren’t pushing them” and “I think the bird enjoys it.”
He says that the relationship is also healthy for the raptor, with captives seeing “their life span doubled or tripled.”
That claim is also argued by the New Jersey Falconry Club in an online statement: “With respect to falconers taking their birds from the wild, studies show that an estimated 75 to 80 percent of immature raptors die each year. Every time a falconer traps a passage raptor (one less than a year old), there are at least two probable results. The first is that the particular bird trapped will be helped to transition into its second year of life, which is an accomplishment that it only has a 20 to 25 percent chance of doing on its own in the wild.
“Second, one less bird has been temporarily removed from the competition for food and habitat. Since the vast majority of falconry birds are released back to the wild, usually after one or two hunting seasons falconry actually benefits wild raptor populations. In reality, however, there are too few falconers in the United States to truly impact wild raptor populations one way or the other. The true enemy of raptor populations is destruction of habitat for both themselves and their prey.”
It is also beneficial to humans. “It’ a passion. I enjoy the freedom, and I think being one with your bird lowers my blood pressure,” says Pribell, who was born in Brooklyn to two parents involved in the liquor wholesale industry who eventually moved to Moorestown.
Except for a brief time as a college geology student in Pennsylvania, Pribell lived mainly in Moorestown until he met his Columbus dairy-farm raised wife and moved into a Victorian-era building down the road from her family’s farm.
A lover of history — he has an intensive collection of oil lamps — and nature, Pribell operates Birds and Bees Farm.
The first part of the name is obvious and relates to his mews currently housing a red tail hawk and a great horned owl — the state has limits on how many raptors can be kept.
The second refers to his honey business began 15 years ago after retiring from UPS.
“I love full-time beekeeping. It is the best job I have had, and I have the best boss I have ever had,” he says.
Referring back to his falconry, Pribell says he currently enjoys working with red tail hawks because they focus their attention on a smaller area and are more easily observed as they swoop.
What he doesn’t enjoy is the misunderstanding the public can have regarding falconry. They confuse it with hunting, which he feels is less restrictive and less ethical.
Although he doesn’t wear orange or carry a gun, he says, he sometimes gets mistaken for a hunter and has to account for himself, like the time someone suspected him of hunting eagles and reported him to the police.
“There is a saying. There are a thousand and one things that could happen with falconry, and only two are good. One is catching the bird and the other is it returning.”
But there are more. As Pribell says, “It’s the lifestyle you committed to. It is all about the bird. You put your heart and soul into its care so you can share into its life for a short time.
“At some point you have to trust your relationship and unclip the bird. It then has a choice. And when it chooses to come back to your glove, it is wonderfully satisfying.”
Hugh Pribell, Birds and Bees Farm, 24219 West Main Street, Columbus. www.birdsandbeesfarm.com.