Falconry. Just the very name of it calls up images of medieval royals traipsing through their private lands or desert Bedouins, hunting in the middle of a great and barren land. At least that’s what I think of, or did until I had the chance to try my own hand at the so-called sport of kings not in an English castle or a desert camp, but at a luxury resort in Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains.
The is one of the hotel world’s grande dames; a classic property in every sense of the word. They’ve come a long way since 1766 when they started business and today guests can entertain themselves with a wide range of activities, from golf and skeet shooting to yes, falconry. The falconry experience has been offered to guests for more than 20 years and still remains one of the most popular things to do at the resort. I couldn’t help but be a little nervous though as we approached the falconry center and spied through the pens somewhat intimidating birds of prey.
What Is Falconry?
One of the features I loved most about our stay at the Omni Homestead were the experts on hand; people who love what they do and are true professionals. Such was the case at the falconry center and our instructor started immediately with a quick lesson on falconry and what to expect. The most curious thing is that falconry doesn’t have to necessarily involve falcons. I know, weird. Instead the term refers to the practice of hunting using birds of prey. These birds can be falcons, but they can also be eagles or hawks. The practice itself dates back thousands of years and for centuries was considered to be a status symbol; only the rich and powerful had the time, space and money to train the birds and use them for hunting. If you think about it, not too much has changed. This style of hunting still conjures up images of the well heeled; a mysterious spirit that using these elusive birds creates.
They didn’t look so dangerous though as we peered through the doors into their pens. The falconry center at the Omni Homestead has several different kinds of birds of prey on hand, owls, hawks and yes, falcons. For our experience that cool morning, the reliable Harris hawk was on hand (pun intended) to teach us all about the art and practice of falconry.
Walk In The Woods
I’m not sure what I expected the intro class to be like. Maybe a course or targets or a box full of mice. Whatever it was I expected, I certainly never thought the class would essentially be a walk through the beautiful woods that surround the Omni Homestead. Falconry is complicated and largely depends on consistency of training and trust; neither of which can be attained through a simple 90-minute class. Knowing this, the Homestead does a great job of educating first time falconers about the history of the sport and what it typically includes.
Using a bird of prey to hunt is still hunting and as such, falconers need to have the proper licensing if they’re going to chase game. That wasn’t our goal though as newbies, instead the instructor took us along the wooded path and showed some of the amazing qualities that Harris hawks possess. Free and left to his own devices, the hawk hopped from tree to tree, following us and never losing sight of the falconer. Clearly she knew what to do and the hawk fully expected a meal at some point on our excursion. Performing amazing feats of aviation, the instructor had the hawk fly in-between us and just over our heads to demonstrate the bird’s agility and ability to squeeze past tight spots quickly and with ease.
Standing there with an intimidating Harris hawk coming straight towards me was a hair-raising experience, but an exhilarating one. Through it all I gained a lot of respect not just for these beautiful birds, but for the people who handle them. It’s not an easy occupation or pastime and the time and effort required is truly amazing.
In the end that beautiful hawk did get his meal and quickly returned to his roost for a nap. We, the newbie falconers all walked away with something too; wide grins and a wonderful appreciation for this beautiful and artful sport.
Would you try falconry if you had the chance?