A Boy and His Hawk Take Up Sport of Kings

Sam Kramer, a senior at the Ross School, began training his red-tailed hawk two weeks ago as a senior project that sprang from a longtime interest in falconry. Greg Drossel

    Sam Kramer admitted to having had falcon fantasies as a kid; suiting up in the light armor of his imagination before mounting a war horse and ordering his squire to hand up his hooded falcon.
    “I never really thought about having one, but it was in the back of my mind. I kept looking into it. I always had a passion for birds and bird watching,” the Ross School senior said last week between classes.
    He grew up in New York City, and his fantasy was built upon by the book “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead George, about a boy who leaves his family’s cramped apartment in New York City to survive in the Catskill Mountains using Indian skills, with air support provided by Frightful, a peregrine falcon.
    “I felt connected to the story,” Mr. Kramer said, but it wasn’t until a friend of his father’s, Dennis Roy, chief of the Southampton Fire Department and a falconer, invited him to meet his female goshawk that he decided to use the Ross School’s senior project program to turn fantasy into a soaring reality. “I never thought I would have the time for it. It was my opportunity.”
    The first step was to find a bird — a juvenile red-tailed hawk was his raptor of choice. Falconry is strictly regulated by the State Department of Environmental Conservation, and an apprentice falconer can only have a red-tail or a kestrel to train with. Would-be falconers are required to work for five years under a master falconer in order to obtain a license. Other types of raptor can be used after two years of the apprenticeship.
    “We drove around the North Fork looking for a first-year bird, but couldn’t find one. I was getting worried. It was late in the year.”
    Through the New York State Falconry Association, Mr. Kramer learned of a man named Brian Bunt in Monroe, N.Y. A trip was made and on Nov. 3, two young male red-tailed hawks were trapped. “I took the bigger of the two,” a bird the novice falconer has named Atlas.
    Trapping the hawk “was a sport in itself,” he said. A pigeon is used as bait, one wearing a harness tethered to a pole by a long string. “The birds come in, hit and stun the pigeon. The falconer pulls the pigeon under a net. The hawk follows it.”
    Since capturing Atlas, Sam Kramer has been training his future hunting partner, a long process. First, suitable indoor housing for the hawk must be provided. Mr. Kramer renovated a 12-by-12-foot shed for the purpose. The facility has to pass D.E.C. inspection. Mr. Roy has shown him out to attach “jesses,” long leather straps for the hawk’s ankles with a metal swivel to prevent the anklets from twisting.
    “I hold on to the tether. Training is based on food. For the first few days, the hawk spends time on your fist [inside a thick leather glove] while you try to get him to eat. If he doesn’t eat there, he doesn’t eat. This guy was stubborn. It took nine days for him to eat. Now he eats like crazy.”
    Mr. Kramer said that once Atlas was eating, he worked at getting the hawk to jump onto his fist to get food. “He comes to believe you’re his source of food. You use a lure, a padded leather thing. He learns it means food. He gets food when he retrieves it from longer and longer distances.”
    And, speaking of food, it is most important to manage a bird’s weight carefully, Mr. Kramer said. “Always keep the bird hungry enough to want to hunt and respond to a signal.”
    The falconer said it would be a few more weeks for Atlas to be ready to go into the field. “I’ve read that for the first 10 kills, you allow the bird to gorge on his prey. Then, if I want the whole pelt, or the meat, I will put food, a piece of chicken, on my glove, and while he’s eating, slide the rabbit or quail out of sight.”
    “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten rabbit, but I’ll try it.”