An Honored Tradition, Falconry Still Flies

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UNESCO has added falconry to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The traditional way of hunting dates back more than 4,000 years to the Middle East. Wyoming Public Radio's Molly Messick went out with falconers in central Wyoming to get a better understanding of the sport's allure.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Falconry, the sport of training falcons to hunt game, is considered such an important part of human history that it's now included on the U.N.'s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The ancient sport is still practiced today.

Wyoming Public Radio's Molly Messick spent a day with two lifelong falconers and sent us this audio postcard.

MOLLY MESSICK: Rick Sharp and Tom Maechtle are standing in a wide-open spot of state land. They're preparing for a hunt with the largest falcon of all: the Gyrfalcon.

(Soundbite of beeps)

MESSICK: Maechtle is tuning in the radio transmitter and receiver system that helps him keep track of his bird. Today the transmitter is attached to the leg of a gray male called Rex.

(Soundbite of a bird)

Mr. TOM MAECHTLE (Falconer): So he's wired up.

MESSICK: Maechtle has already let out his dog to start looking for game. In this area, that means Hungarian Partridge or Sage Grouse. Before long the dog scents a bird, and we stay as still as possible while Maechtle lets his falcon fly free.

(Soundbite of flapping wings)

Mr. RICK SHARP (Falconer): Once that bird gets in the air, the game realizes that there is a threat there.

MESSICK: Sharp watches as the falcon climbs up and up. All at once, the grouse flies and Maechtle shouts to his bird.

(Soundbite of flapping wings)

Mr. SHARP: The bird dove right oh, it just hit the grouse. Okay, the bird is back up again.

MESSICK: This flight is what falconers work for. The falcon plunges from high above, targeting its prey.

Mr. SHARP: And by the look of it, the grouse got grounded.

MESSICK: We're shielding our eyes and squinting out to see the falcon and the grouse, silhouetted against the sky.

(Soundbite of falcon's cry)

MESSICK: The falcon chased the sage grouse into a small rocky canyon.

Mr. MAECHTLE: Oh, you look very full.

MESSICK: It's a half an hour later, and the two-pound falcon is perched on top of the dead grouse, three times his size.

Mr. MAECHTLE: He's not worried about eating anymore and he's not so worried about coming home with me. So this is a little dicey right now.

(Soundbite of falcon's cry)

MESSICK: Maechtle is stretched out on his stomach in the dirt, trying to lure back his bird. Instead, the falcon flaps its wings and flies off.

(Soundbite of flapping wings)

Mr. MAECHTLE: Eaten a lot of food.

MESSICK: This scene is breathtaking and a little funny, but Maechtle is stressed about recovering his bird. Now it's perched on a rock 50 feet away.

He looks sort of proud.

Mr. MAECHTLE: Oh, he's very proud.

(Soundbite of falcon chirping)

MESSICK: We do get the falcon back but it takes a little while. After all, it's a nearly wild bird.

Falconry isn't always practiced exactly this way, but for 4,000 years these basic elements have held true. Part of its appeal lies in witnessing something primal - the response of the prey to the falcon and the falcon to the prey.

For NPR News, I'm Molly Messick.

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