A Game of Trust 4

A Look into the Sport and Art of Falconry with Jim Chaffin

Picture it: A young boy, 2 or 3 years old, in the tall grass alongside a creek, fishing. He sees a duck take off and then hears a loud swack overhead. A prairie falcon has hit the duck and taken it to the ground, leaving the petite figure below peppered with blood and feathers. He’s no taller than the weeds beside him, a fortunate addition to the Montana landscape that fateful day.

It’s a memory that still burns for local falconer, Jim Chaffin. He began flying hawks just a few years after this moment as a young boy. Today, he has three falcons—two prairie and one arctic—perched in his backyard. Atop his porch you can hear the sounds of flapping wings and cooing pigeons. His dogs, two English Setters, have their eyes on him even through their playfulness. The falcons watch him, too, with their black stares. Together, they are a portrait of this sport.

Jim’s passion for falconry stems from the meaning of the sport itself. He compares it to football, basketball, or baseball in the way that there’s an offense and a defense and, presumably, both sides are aware of what the other is doing.

“If I go out with a 300 Winchester Magnum and I pop an elk at 300 yards, that elk hasn’t the slightest idea what’s going on…, but when you go out with a falcon, the falcon knows what’s happening and the prey species knows what’s happening,” said Jim.

Rather than strictly hunting to harvest, falconry embraces the instinctual habits of these birds, and dogs. It’s a way of exercising their talents and inborn ability. Jim is often a bystander, hoping that when the hunt is through his bird comes back to him.

The day will begin in the morning when they take off to one of their hunting locations. The dogs will run loose, weaving in and out of the grass, searching, sniffing, and tracking. They’ll find a pheasant and point it, focused and still. The falcon has been circling overhead, keying in on the dogs, and waiting until it’s time. The dogs will flush the bird up into the air and the falcon will strike, resulting in a midair collision.

What’s more astounding than bearing witness to this orchestrated hunt is the trust and training that happens behind the main scene. Like Jim, most falconers trap their own birds from the wild. They’ll take the bird back to a mew, or hawk house, and play off what made the bird come to the trap: food.

“You cannot use corporal punishment of any kind. It’s strictly reward or no reward. You can get them to trust you, and you never take food away from them ever. They will never forgive you,” he said.

The relationship between falconer and falcon develops slowly, in baby steps, and over the course of several weeks. According to Jim, he will begin by holding out his arm as if he were asking a woman to dance, fist closed and away from his side, a gesture and invitation for the falcon to trust him. At first, the bird will walk to his wrist, then jump to his wrist, and finally fly to his wrist.

A falconer can spend 10 years with his birds, training them and flying them, and even then nothing—not even their return after a hunt—is promised.