Master falconer bonds with his wild raptor on the Kansas prairie Monte Markley read My Side of the Mountain as a kid and was captivated by the story of a boy and his falcon. He's now a master falconer, training his latest bird on the grasslands of Kansas.

On the Kansas prairie, a master falconer develops a unique bond with birds of prey

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Imagine trying to bond with a wild falcon - living together, even hunting together. NPR's Brian Mann spent a winter morning on the Kansas prairie with a master falconer trying to do just that.


BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Just after dawn, Monte Markley is gearing up on his farm near Augusta in southern Kansas.

MONTE MARKLEY: This is a bull-riding glove.

MANN: Markley tugs on the bright-yellow glove, which he uses as a falconing gauntlet. He says he fell in love with raptors when he was a kid.

MARKLEY: Local farmer came by one day - I was probably 12 - and he had a hawk in a box. And my mother drove me into the Augusta Public Library, and I got the one falconry book that they had and figured out how to keep this bird alive.

MANN: Markley hunted with that first bird for three years and was hooked. He's now rated a master falconer.

MARKLEY: Come on. Wake up. Come here. Come on. There you go.

MANN: He rouses Storm, his new prairie falcon, from her perch. She wears a leather hood over her head and eyes to keep her calm.


MANN: Storm is his only bird right now. Markley trapped her wild on the plains near his farm just a few months ago. Sitting on his fist, she's beautiful in a dangerous way - wings the color of dry grass and tree bark, her delicate chest feathers, cream white. But she's a hunter - her curved beak and talons like polished blades.

MARKLEY: When she initially strikes prey, they punch them with their feet or even hit them with their breastbone.

MANN: Markley is actually my cousin, though we haven't seen each other since we were little boys. When he heard I was visiting Kansas, he invited me to join him and Storm for a training hunt. Because his bond with Storm is new, they're still building trust. When she flies today, he says, it's not sure she'll come back.

MARKLEY: Yeah. There's birds I've had, I thought I had it all dialed in, and they take off. You never see them again. It's over - just that fast.


MANN: We set off walking across a stubbled wheat field. There is a frozen pond in the distance. The wind is fierce, and clouds scud across a vast pearl-blue sky. It's a tense moment as Markley slips off Storm's hood.

MARKLEY: Hey, girl.

MANN: He pauses, then gestures gently, sending her up into the wind.


MARKLEY: She's probably 4- or 500 feet right now.

MANN: Markley lets her prowl for a bit, wings beating the wind. Then he releases a pheasant for her to hunt.

MARKLEY: Ho. Yo, yo, yo.

MANN: This is the test. Will Storm hunt with Markley, or will she fly away? He runs forward as Storm folds her wings and darts down out of the sky.

MARKLEY: Hip, hip. Hip, hip.

MANN: A quick strike, a violent tussle on the ground and the pheasant is dead. And after a little coaxing by Markley, Storm follows her training. She settles and waits for us, perched patiently on her prey in the silver-brown grass.

MARKLEY: You know, there's really no tether other than that trust.

MANN: The cool thing, Markley says, is a wild falcon that escapes just goes back to being wild. But still, he's clearly pleased, relieved she stayed. He sits next to her in the grass, grinning.


MARKLEY: Kind of a fussbucket this moment.

MANN: It's remarkable sitting so close to a creature still so wild. Markley rewards Storm with bits of pheasant meat.


MANN: And she makes contented noises as she eats.


MANN: Markley says if their bonding continues to deepen, he and Storm could be together for a long time - hunting the Kansas plains for a decade or more.

Brian Mann, NPR News, in Augusta, Kan.

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