Any falconer will tell you that beginning falconry is a long and time intensive process, but it can be very rewarding for those who stick with it. It takes about a year to get permitted, get a bird, and start hunting.
There are three stages of falconry:
- Apprentice - Beginner
- General - Two years experience
- Master - Seven years experience
To become an apprentice, you need several things:
- Permit - Issued by your states Fish and Wildlife Service. (Note - Falconry is illegal in DC & Hawaii)
- Sponsor - Someone who is a General or Master level falconer, willing to oversee your apprenticeship
- Mews - Proper housing for your bird. Guidelines vary by state.
- Equipment - You will need a glove, scale, jesses, leash and swivel, perches, etc.
Getting permitted can take a long time and is why you should start a year before your first expected hunting season.
You must be 14 to start the apprenticeship program in Florida. Getting permitted begins with a test, administered by your local branch of Fish and Wildlife service. In Florida, you can contact myfwc.com to find your local office, where you can schedule the test. There are study guides available, including the Apprentice Study Guide by the California Hawking Cluband the New York State Falconry Examination Manual.
The test covers all aspects of falconry, bird care, housing, raptor species, and natural history. The test is not only a test of your knowledge, but how much time you are willing to put into your apprenticeship. If you can't find the time to study and learn enough for the test, you will not have enough time to keep a hawk.
Although you are not required to find a sponsor until you have passed your test, it is helpful to have one beforehand, since they've already taken the test, and can help you study! Historically, the test changes very little over the decades, and old test prep books are just as helpful as new ones.
Your sponsor should be at least a general level falconer who lives in your area. It's very important that they are local to you, since problems you run into with your bird may require immediate assistance, and someone two hours away may arrive too late to help.
The best way to find a falconer in your area who takes apprentices is by contacting your states Falconry Club.
After you have passed your test and found a sponsor, you are still required to build a mews, or hawk house, before you can be permitted. Your mews will be inspected by a state Fish and Wildlife officer, to ensure that your bird has safe housing from weather and wild animals. Your sponsor can help you with plans for your mews, but most states require at least a 10'x10' square structure, with a window and proper perching for your bird type.
At the time of inspection, you must also have your equipment ready for your bird. This includes a leather glove, scale and perch for daily weighing, a source for food (rats, chicks, beefheart), anklets and straps, perching, a bath pan, a leash and swivel. This is by no means an exhaustive list - there is a lot of falconry gear out there .
Once your mews has been inspected and approved, the Fish and Wildlife officer will send off your inspection, along with your test results and sponsor information, to the permitting office.
It can be weeks to months before you hear back from anyone with your permit information, and it's not a bad idea to call if weeks have passed with no notice, to make sure that your permit is progressing smoothly.
Once you have a sponsor, a mews, and a permit, you can trap a bird and get hunting!
In Florida, you are required to wild-trap your bird as an apprentice, and you can keep your bird for both apprentice years, or trap a different bird each year. You may only trap a juvenile of either the Red-tail or Red-shouldered Hawk species. Roughly 70% of young raptors do not make it to adulthood, so by taking a first year bird, you are not impacting the breeding population. Also, Red-tails and Red-shouldered Hawks are well established in Florida, so you are not impacting a threatened or endangered species.
Trapping a new bird each year allows you to learn the different temperments birds can have, and gain more experience. Some people do enjoy keeping their bird over both years, as it requires less training the second year, and lets you hunt with a more experienced bird. Either way, it is a very rewarding experience, and nothing is quite comparable.
If falconry is something you're passionate about (and you're over 14) you can always come out to ARC and volunteer!
Here are some more helpful links about falconry for apprentices:
The Apprentice Falconry Forums - A great resource for apprentices all over the US, wonderful, helpful members will answer almost any question you have in the middle of the night, when your poor sponsor is sleeping.
American Falconry - A great page with tons of general information on the sport, as well as for beginners.
The Modern Apprentice - Lots of falconry information, helpful when looking for plans for your Mews, or even a guide to making your jesses.