falcon flying

Come Fly With Them

At a northern California school, an ancient sport lives on thanks to passionate trainers who teach beginners how to bond with a bird.

At the trainer’s nod, I hold out my gloved fist, as if raising a cup of coffee. “Don Diego!”

I call to the elegant mahogany-colored Harris’ hawk, my bare hand beckoning him. I’m standing in a wide ring of students, including my 8- and 12-year-old daughters, taking a basic lesson at West Coast Falconry outside of Marysville, California, an hour north of Sacramento.

As soon as I call, Don Diego takes off from the glove of the student standing across the circle, some 30 feet away, just as he did moments earlier, when he was perched on the wrist of my wide-eyed 8-year-old. As he approaches me, he flies low, crossing the circle with just a few strong flaps of his 3-foot-long wingspan. With a swish of air, he swoops in to land and scrapes up his reward, a fragment of raw quail smeared on the base of my thick glove. He’s surprisingly light for such a powerful predator, with a talon grip that’s strong but not painful.

I turn my body to face the circle, pulling my arm in so the hawk is next to my chest. He may be at rest, but even through the glove, I can sense he’s on high alert. Just for a moment, before he flaps away to the next awed student, I get an inkling of the ancient allure of taming these birds of prey. I’m the furthest thing from a medieval nobleman riding out on the hunt, but holding this taut, disciplined creature conjures an almost mystic enchantment. 

Trainer Jana Barkley with Webster, a hybrid of two falcon types native to the Eastern hemisphere

At this secluded facility, a team of experts led by a fiercely independent owner reveals a rarefied skill that dates back millennia but is more thrilling than any video game: falconry, once known as the sport of kings. And the connection I felt with the bird—beholding its majesty and harnessing its power—is what draws visitors, fulfills the instructors, and spans the ages.

The basic lesson West Coast Falconry offers is a one-hour class in which everyday people get exposed to training and hunting with birds of prey. Students learn some terminology and history, see impressive flying demonstrations and training techniques, and, finally, learn to call a hawk themselves. This is one of a handful of places in the United States where people without a falconry license can hold birds; West Coast Falconry has a special educational permit from the federal government that allows the public to handle raptors.

The center is the brainchild of co-founder and owner Kate Marden, who has been a falconer for 20 years and leads an all-female team who care for about 20 different birds of prey, including falcons, owls, a lone vulture, and many hawks.

Most of the other U.S. centers offering a similar experience are on the East Coast, though West Coast Falconry has a sister school, Sky Falconry, in southern California. According to Marden, many are attached to resorts; she likens them to the many castle-based, high-end centers in the United Kingdom, where falconry has a much longer track record of popularity.

By contrast, West Coast Falconry feels scrappy and grassroots. Marden, 60, and her staff have built a unique program that includes summer camps for kids and, for adults who’ve seriously caught the bug, multiday apprenticeship seminars. Becoming a licensed falconer is an intensive process that entails a demanding two-year apprenticeship, which typically requires participants to trap a wild bird (in California, a red-tailed hawk or a kestrel). It takes a minimum of five years to attain the level of general falconer, and at least seven to become a master falconer. “It’s the most highly regulated field sport in North America, and the most expensive,” Marden says.

It can cost about $100 for a license in California, plus hundreds more in other fees, and that doesn’t include the cost of building your mews (the enclosure the bird lives in), feeding, care, or equipment. Falconry can be an all-consuming hobby. But despite the barriers to entry, the potential heartbreak of losing a bird, and the expense, the sport’s appeal endures.

“It’s the bond with the bird, the relationship,” says Amber Kelley, a general falconer who grew up next door to West Coast Falconry and has worked there for five years. She adds that the feeling is only heightened in the wild. “When you finally get that bird to work with you and hunt, it’s addicting.”

Marden became hooked when she was 9. She grew up north of San Francisco in rural Marin County, and her first exposure to raptors came at school.

“A guy came to our school, and he had his first falconry bird, which was a great horned owl,” she says. He also brought a red-tailed hawk and an eagle that John F. Kennedy had given him. “That’s like God giving you a bald eagle, in my generation.”

Marden attributes her instant fascination to their size and piercing eyes. “There’s something about predator eyes that draws humans,” she says. “We’re predators too, and there’s a kind of kindred spirit. You know what they say: ‘Eyes on the front, you hunt; eyes on the side, you hide.’” The eagle she saw there impressed her in other ways. “That eagle was not afraid of anything,” she recalls. “She exuded this feeling of just being a badass.”

Despite her interest, it never occurred to Marden to ask the visitor how she could become a falconer. As a girl growing up in the late ’60s, she’d been raised “to be seen and not heard,” she says. Over the years, Marden longed for a bird of prey, but she “made do” with pet birds—cockatiels, lorikeets, macaws. “I love all birds, but something about the inaccessibility is attractive,” she says. “You can go to the store and buy a parrot, but you have to work hard to have a bird of prey.”

Kate Marden and Cailleach, a Eurasian eagle-owl

In the ’90s, she got her chance. The Northern California Renaissance Faire, where she volunteered, added a falconry show. Marden was eager to help and adapted her costume with a single glove. One day, she was hanging out at a booth, talking to a man. “He handed me his card and he said, ‘I’m a master falconer. If you ever want to become a real falconer, let me know and I’ll help you.’”

She found the birds to be “magic,” she says, and working with them to be well worth the long apprenticeship and hassle of finding a required sponsor—a falconer with at least two years’ experience who’s willing to help you train. “The day that you finally take that line off and fly your bird free is just amazing,” she says, referring to the cord used during training to attach bird to trainer. That sensation is what kept Marden coming back to the sport despite obstacles, some of which she attributes to her gender.

“When I started, it was really hard,” she says. “When I was trying to find a sponsor, I had a lot of people just refuse me. One guy came to talk to me about my mews, and I told my boyfriend at the time, ‘I need you to stay in the house.’” Her boyfriend, a fellow falconer, asked why. “I said, ‘Because as soon as you show up, he’s going to talk to you and he won’t talk to me.’ Of course, my boyfriend couldn’t stand it, and after about 20 minutes, he came out. As soon as he came out, my potential sponsor started talking to him. Like, ‘You need to have her do this and you need to have her do that.’”

That boyfriend, Jim Tigan, became her husband, and they started West Coast Falconry together in 2005 in Marin County. The following year, they moved the center northeast to Yuba County, outside Marysville. They subsequently divorced; Tigan now lives in Nevada.

Marden moved West Coast Falconry partly because Marin County had become too populous for her taste, and partly because she faced opposition to hunting from neighbors.

Marden’s initial attraction to falconry wasn’t hunting per se, but the allure of the birds. “My father was a marksman, so we all learned how to shoot tin cans and things, but this was my first experience in hunting,” she says. “It’s a lot more visceral than using a gun.”

Falcons and hawks are typically outweighed by their prey. A 2-pound hawk can take down a 6- to 9-pound jackrabbit—but, as Marden says, the hunter needs to help. “You actually have to participate in taking the life of the prey unless it’s something tiny like a mouse,” she says. “If you’re hunting a rabbit or a duck or something large, you don’t want that prey to suffer and you don’t want your bird injured.”

Hunting with falcons, not surprisingly, predates hunting with guns. It’s mentioned in the ancient Assyrian Epic of Gilgamesh, the 2000 B.C. poem that contains the first written record of falcons. One of West Coast Falconry’s birds, Enkidu, is named for a character in the epic.

In Europe, medieval kings and nobles frequently hunted with trained raptors. The sport has a rich vocabulary, which left its mark on modern English in many words and phrases: “fed up” (referring to a hawk fed to satiety), “under your thumb” (for a hawk tightly tied to the glove), “hoodwink” (referring to a falconer placing a hood over the bird’s ultra-sensitive eyes to calm the bird), and even “booze” (“bowse” is a term for birds drinking).

Unlike Europe and the Middle East, where falconry has a long legacy and continues to carry extraordinary prestige, the Americas didn’t have much falconry until after World War II, when, Marden explains, soldiers fighting in North Africa and Europe saw the sport practiced and brought it back.

Marden attributes the male dominance of U.S. falconry to this history. She didn’t set out to make West Coast Falconry’s permanent staff all female (although a teen boy who lives nearby comes to help out as a junior staff member), but it just happened that way. “You don’t have to be stronger to be a good falconer,” she says. Indeed, she’s noticed that female falconers tend to have more of the necessary patience for training birds.

American falconry got a boost in the ’60s, when practitioners of the sport realized the ability of Harris’ hawks—now tremendously popular worldwide. Those hawks, native to the Southwest, hunt in packs and have a sociable nature, making them unique among raptors.

West Coast Falconry manager Jana Barkley calls trained Harris’ hawks “the black lab of raptors,” which means they’ll fly to anyone who calls. Other hawks, as well as falcons, which bond to their trainer, are another story. When tied to a stranger’s glove with jesses (leather strings), they’ll perch quietly, but once launched, they’ll fly back only to the trainer.

For Marden, the link to the sport’s history is part of the lure. “We do some of the same things that [falconers] did thousands of years ago,” she says. “I want to be part of that heritage.” She’s not alone: According to the North American Falconers Association, there are 4,500 licensed falconers in the U.S. Marden has observed a growing interest, especially among women—possibly thanks in part to opportunities like West Coast Falconry’s classes.

When not in use, the birds’ leather hoods hang on a wall at West Coast Falconry

One chilly March morning, a few months after that first experience handling a hawk, I’m back at West Coast Falconry for the three-hour falconry experience class. The rolling country where Marden and her associates fly their birds lies where the upthrust of the Sierra Nevada begins to tilt away from the flat Central Valley. Trees, mainly live oak and black oak, have sprouted leaves in delicate, lacy chartreuse, and a brilliant emerald spring coat of grass blankets the ridge, along with rocky outcroppings and flashes of red dirt.

Much of the land immediately adjacent to West Coast Falconry’s 6-acre property—they have permission to fly on 1,100 nearby acres—is semi-wild, thanks to a neighbor and dedicated hunter, who took land once used to grow rice and restored it as wetlands.

Today’s class includes flying demonstrations with Cubbie, a peregrine falcon, and a “hawk walk” with Avalon, a Harris’ hawk. As my classmates and I check out the birds in the center’s mews, Marden, Barkley, Kelley, and their associate Kathie Miller fit our left hands with gloves and tell us about the birds. Peregrine falcons, for instance, are the fastest creatures on earth. In a dive, they’ve been clocked at 242 miles per hour, and the amount of G-force they can withstand is unknown, since meters break before the falcon does.

Indeed, peregrines are so fast that the adaptations in their anatomy inspired jet-plane design: Look in the falcons’ nostrils, and you’ll spot a bony protrusion in the middle of the yellow ring. This nose cone disrupts airflow, enabling the birds to breathe at high speed without the pressure damaging their lungs. Designers of inlet cones in jet engines borrowed this adaptation, solving a problem in which jets choked out when speeds got too high.

The women of West Coast Falconry point this out to us with so much enthusiasm they finish one another’s sentences, moving on to mention the silvery flicker of nictitating membranes that shield the birds’ sensitive eyes, preventing them from freezing in a fast dive; the tendons that make a hawk’s death grip extraordinarily tenacious (they act “like a zip tie,” Barkley says); and the stripes on falcons’ faces that function as an anti-glare device, similar to football players’ eye black.

Eyesight is everything to falcons: Up to 85 percent of their brain function is devoted to vision. Their sight is so powerful that they can spot a rabbit from a mile away.

The trainers have so much to impart about the wonders of these birds that you get the sense they could talk forever, but soon we’re trudging up and over a small ridge to a wide-open, boggy field. Before the birds can fly, the six of us in the class get a crucial reminder.

“If it looks like the falcon is flying right at you, whatever you do, don’t duck or move out of the way,” says Marden, adding that the falcon has plotted its path and may crash right into anyone who tries to evade it. “It’ll hurt you and it might kill the bird.”

After what we’ve heard about the birds’ speed, it seems almost impossible to resist the impulse to get out of the way, but once Cubbie is airborne, his control in flight is apparent. Cubbie was born wild, but humans illegally picked him up when he was young and he became too domesticated. He was rescued by a birds of prey program and placed with West Coast Falconry.

Over the ridge to the west, a bald eagle pair rises. Vultures circle frequently. We spot—or rather the staff spots—a wild American kestrel, the smallest of the raptors, flying high across the field, and wait for the wild birds to clear.

These birds, including Cubbie, are signs of the recovery of once-endangered populations. Peregrines can live in captivity for more than 20 years, hawks even longer. All but three of the center’s birds were bred in captivity.

After the wild birds are gone, Marden encourages a class member, who’s holding Cubbie on her glove, to launch him. It takes a bit of coaxing, but soon Cubbie circles up and out in what poet W.B. Yeats famously called a “widening gyre.”

“Go on, get that pitch,” Marden urges, exhorting the bird to climb higher, producing ever more dramatic stoops (vertical drops). None of the six of us duck, even as Cubbie veers down and flies just above the field, while Marden jerks the heavy lure out of his way.

Trainers Kathie Miller (second from left) and Barkley (center) teach a class

After several passes, Marden lets him land and rewards him with raw quail meat, over which he spreads his wings, a motion called “mantling”—the source of the name for a fireplace’s outer wall.

Raw quail is also the reward for the other falcons Marden flies for the class: Shadow, a white gyrfalcon (an Arctic variety and the largest falcon), whom Marden calls a “diva,” and Webster, a hybrid of two falcon types native to the Eastern hemisphere.

Webster is one of the center’s stars. He’s appeared on TV and is reliable enough to deliver rings at weddings and falconry-lesson proposals. After he flies, Marden slips his jade-green leather hood back on, though it takes several tries because the falcon bobs to evade it. Marden ties him tighter to her glove, and he squawks in protest.

“He’s hormonal,” says Marden, who had fretted during his flight that he might land in a nearby tree. (The birds have radio devices affixed during the flight demonstration so they can be tracked.) By early spring, the winter hunting season has ended and mating season has begun. Summer marks molting season, and here at the edge of the Central Valley, where temperatures often climb to 110 degrees, it would exhaust the birds to fly them too intensively.

The hood Webster is now wearing has a topknot of slender leather ribbons. (In olden days, the topknots were trophies of the feathers taken on the bird’s kills, hence the phrase “a feather in one’s cap.”) Marden ties his jesses to my glove, and he clings comfortably to my wrist for the walk up and over a small ridge back toward the center.

Marden started West Coast Falconry with just five birds—including Don Diego, the Harris’ hawk that landed on my glove—and added more quickly. “I love raising baby birds,” she says.

Don Diego’s sibling Mariposa, born in 2003, is the bird Marden hunts with the most. “She’s missing a toe and she broke her leg and she’s still hunting jackrabbit,” Marden says. “She still has it. She doesn’t want to stop hunting yet. If you don’t take them out hunting, then they start to get aggressive, especially Mari, because she’s an alpha bird. You’ll see it in her eyes.”

It’s clear Marden feels nearly the same hunger to hunt. She lives at the center and owns a non-raptor menagerie that includes dogs, cats, pet birds, and a hefty black calf. She hopes someday to expand the center. “My inspiration is the falconry centers I’ve seen in Great Britain, like the International Centre for Birds of Prey,” says Marden, adding that it has a far larger number of birds. “I’d love to be set up like a raptor zoo, where people pay a fee [and] check out the animals, and we do a couple flight shows a day. Then, if somebody wants to do a private class, that’s a separate thing.”

Marden’s staff members stand ready to help, something they’ve done over the past two years as she underwent grueling cancer treatment. Office manager Hilary Kaseman, who lives over an hour away, frequently stayed with Marden as her caregiver; other staff members kept classes and the center running. “If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t still have my birds,” says Marden, who is now cancer free. “Now I’m much more mobile and able to fly my birds again.”

She’s also able to look ahead with dreams for the center’s future. Long term, she’d like to be a nonprofit or set up a trust to keep the center running in perpetuity, but that presents funding issues, as does expansion. “I want Oprah to fall in love with us and build us,” she says, laughing. Meanwhile, classes—which range from $70 for a basic lesson to $585 for private excursions—support the center.

Maybe all Marden needs is to entice a benefactor out for a taste of what it’s like to get a hawk on the glove. After my first course, my daughters and I couldn’t stop talking about the birds.

“One of the things I like about teaching the class is you get to see that gobsmacked look on your guest’s face,” Marden says.

Oprah, if you’re reading this, Don Diego is waiting.

Kate Washington is a Sacramento-based travel writer. Email her at washington.kate@gmail.com.

Photography by Andy Anderson

Originally Published September 2018