Some men spend their free time playing tennis, collecting stamps or flying remote-control helicopters and planes.
Keith Messmer’s bird needs no remote control – she flies on instinct.
The Grovetown man trapped a 7-month-old Red-tailed hawk he named Candace that he plans to train and hunt with as part of his two-year apprentice falconer’s license.
“I hunted with guns for a long time,” Messmer said. “Now I bow hunt. I only use a bow. It’s a challenge being out there in the woods and stuff like that. As my wife has gotten more into permaculture and urban agriculture, I wanted to get back to small-game hunting. This just seemed like a natural thing to go with this.
“We spend so much time outside because of different stuff we’re into, it just made sense.”
Falconry, one of the world’s oldest hunting sports, is heavily regulated in Georgia. There was nearly an explosion in the sport of trapping wild birds and keeping them as pets after the white owl became well known in the popular Harry Potter books and movies.
Messmer, who is a member of the Georgia Falconry Association, was required to get a sponsor, pass an in-depth test and have his hawk enclosure, called a mew, inspected by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources before he could get his apprentice falconry license through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department.
He passed the test in May, just after getting a zoning variance from Grovetown officials in April to allow the hawk to be flown in Messmer’s back yard on a long tether.
By trapping the hawk and caring for it during his two-year apprenticeship, Messmer said he’s actually extending her lifespan.
“Transformers – electrocution is one of the biggest killers of them,” Messmer said. “They have a 20-year lifespan, but most hawks never make it to that point.”
Messmer said he plans to keep the hawk a few years. She gets regular veterinary care, and is fed and kept pest-free. Messmer said his hawk will be ready to breed when releaseed.
“One of the ones that would have died along the way winds up going back (to breed),” Messmer said.
Messmer trapped the hawk using a Bal-Chatri trap, which uses rodent bait and snares the hawk’s feet when it investigates the bait. Along with his sponsor, Messmer trapped the hawk on Sept. 1 in Commerce, Ga. She got a quick medical exam on the spot, and was socked – wrapped in panty hose with taped feet – for her and Messmer’s protection. He attached the anklets and jesses, thin straps used to attach her to tethers, and tried to get the hawk to stand on his glove, which “she didn’t really want to do.” She was brought home in a dark box, which is calming to the highly-visual birds.
Falconry is not hobby to be taken up on a whim. Messmer spends at least an hour every weekday evening working with his hawk. He now hunts with her on the weekends. The key to training a hawk is food.
“This one’s a little on the stubborn side,” he said.
The hawk was almost 2.5 pounds, when Messmer trapped her. Her ideal hunting weight is just under 2 pounds. Since training depends on food, Messmer said he had to first drop her weight until she was hungry enough to jump to his glove to eat.
“She knows if she comes to me, I’m always going to give her something to eat,” he said, adding he feeds her chicken gizzards and parts of small game she’d usually eat that the family catches in the yard. “I drop her weight to the point that she’s hungry, that she’s not starving, but she’s not so full that she’s feeling independent.
“What we want is for her to be kind of like she needs a snack.”
Training the hawk is all about baby steps. And it’s all about trust between the two. “The hardest distance for her to do is the first 5 feet,” Messmer said. “Once you get her to come to your hand, that’s it.
“When you’re sitting there looking at them fly, when they’re coming at you, it’s a whole different view.”
Within the first month, Messmer has the hawk flying to land on his glove on command for food. Food is the key. And hunting is the hawk’s natural instinct that Messmer relies on when he takes her hunting.
The pair work as a team. Messmer and his son, Jared, 13, make noise and rustle small game like squirrels from the trees and brush. The hawk, off her tether, will zero in on the game and attack.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Jared said of his father’s new passion.
Messmer said he must get to the hawk quickly once she’s attacked and taken her prey to the ground before the prey can hurt her. He also takes away her prey and feeds her so she doesn’t eat the meal, get full and refuse to respond to Messmer.
“It’s more fair-chase,” Messmer said of hunting with a hawk. “The squirrel is not always going to get away and the hawk is not always going to catch the squirrel. You can keep things relatively balanced.”
Even in the wild, as long as the hawk isn’t over-fed, she’ll return to Messmer either when he calls her or uses the lure, which always has food attached to it.
Messmer said his goal for his hawk and his two-year apprenticeship is to successfully hunt her and get her through the spring molt, when she’s expected to get the tell-tale red tail, without any issues.
Messmer said his family, including all four children, like the hawk. He’s careful and has taken measures to ensure the hawk doesn’t hurt them. In fact, she’s only bitten Messmer once, and it was by accident when he dropped and reached for a piece of food.
“I think it’s rather interesting,” Messmer’s daughter Natasha, 17, said. “And it helps fuel my ideas for novels and stuff like that.”
After two years as an apprentice, Messmer’s sponsor will decide if he can be become a general falconer based on his confidence in Messmer’s abilities and the condition of the bird.
Once he gets his general falconer license, Messmer said he plans to release the hawk and try out a Kestrel, which hunts rodents, snakes and other small game, or a Cooper’s hawk, which preys also on birds. Both would be helpful in the family garden.
But as he progresses to a general falconer, the birds he will use are usually more aggressive or more difficult to care for.
“Once I get my general falconer license,” Messmer said, “then that opens up the possibility of working with more birds.”