July 14, 2016 Katie Schuler

Natural Leaders: A Hike with Master Falconer, Mike Dupuy

In our travels, we meet some amazing people doing groundbreaking work. We’ve decided to honor these people through the “Natural Leaders Series”. Find out how they got started and what strategies they use to encourage environmental stewardship. This fall, we landed an opportunity to experience the world of falconry with bird of prey expert and conservationist, Mike Dupuy. Mike uses the art of falconry to educate and inspire people to discover their own connection with the natural world. It might be described as the ultimate form of bird watching, but we soon learned that it’s hard work.

Mike uses the art of falconry to educate and inspire people to discover their own connection with the natural world.

fall leaves mountains tree

En route to Mike’s home, we were lucky to catch the fall foliage in central Pennsylvania. Seemed like the perfect day for flying birds. We asked Mike how he got started in Falconry. He told us he “first began to identify as a falconer at the age of nine” with the hopes “to take on more than falconry and the raptors involved, but to dig deeper by exploring these birds, where they live [and] learning about their natural history.”

falconry helmets

Mike was busy feeding some of his seventeen raptors when we arrived. He gave us a tour around his property and we had an opportunity to meet some of the many birds of prey Mike has in his care. Pictured here are just a few of the handmade leather hoods that Mike uses to keep the birds calm. Birds are so visually oriented that with a hood on, they are not fearful of what they cannot see.

Mike’s entire life is planned around the care, maintenance and hunting of his birds. In case you’re wondering about the ethics behind Falconry or Hawking, it has no effect on wild populations of birds. On the contrary, the life expectancy of these birds is only a few years in the wild, while under Mike’s care, it can exceed two decades. That said, Mike’s gone through an exhausting process obtaining the licensing and permits for his birds. This prevents falconers from having the wrong species or number of birds. The best part is, when his birds aren’t hunting, they act as environmental ambassadors during Mike’s presentations to the public.

Education becomes as a lens through which students can survey opportunities and information that align with their passions.

gashawks tree sunset

All of the birds we met were breathtaking, but today we would be flying a pair of Harris’s Hawks Mike has been training. Before we set out, Mike walked us through the history of falconry, which goes back more than 4,000 years. His twenty-five years of experience handling the birds and lecturing at events makes Mike an excellent storyteller (and his wife Christine makes a mean apple pie). Looking back on his many interactions with the public, Mike says, “Most children before their teen years are open vessels looking to understand. Education becomes as a lens through which students can survey opportunities and information that align with their passions. I want them to see my story as an example of how one can take an idea, a desire, a dream into their gut and mind and live it.”

falconry mike dupuy

We drove to a nearby field where Mike planned to continue the hawk’s training. Mike, a stickler for safety, took stock of the area before bringing out his birds. There are few things more dangerous to a falconer than other wild hawks looking to protect their territory. Wild hawks such as a Red-tail hawk are the most common species of Buteo in North America. They fly best in the open and are generally much larger than the Harris’s Hawk. Wild hawks have been known to kill falconer’s birds while the falconer is hunting in the field. Once the coast was clear, Mike put on his falconers glove and had one of the Harris’ Hawk climb onto it.

falconry mike dupuy hike

As we started hiking, Mike released the hawk’s tether on it’s ankle, called a jess, and it took flight. It’s amazing to see a bird of prey flying so close overhead. We had to resist the urge to duck and cover when the talons came near. As we hiked deeper into the brush, the hawks took turns flying to and from Mike’s glove as they settled on nearby branches to survey the field for prey.

“We had to resist the urge to duck and cover when the talons came near.”

falconry mike dupuy raptor dog

Mike’s hawking dog Nilla, is trained and bread to flush out potential prey. Nilla and Mike made a great team, and flushed out a pheasant, exposing itself to Mike’s Hawks. The hunting party took off in the pheasant’s direction, eager to see if Mike’s still-training hawks might succeed in catching it. But it seemed like it was the pheasant’s lucky day, as it managed to disappear into the brush before either of the Harris’s Hawks zeroed in.

country sunset brush hike

As the training continued late into the day, the sun began to cast a lovely glow on the field. We were setting up for a high speed flying video when we heard the call of a wild Red-tail Hawk. This was good and bad. Bad because it might attack and kill Mike’s hawks. Good because Mike has a permit to trap Red-tail Hawks – and this one was the biggest Mike had ever seen. Red-tail’s make great hawks for beginner falconers and are extremely common so there is no threat to their population.

sunset pond

Luckily, Mike was able to hood the Harris’s Hawks and return them safely to their carriers before any potential run-in with the local Red-tail. After an unsuccessful trapping attempt with the wild hawk, we gave up and sat quietly admiring the bird as it settled in for the night on its perch. As we watched Mike watching the bird, it became clear why he’s made a career out of falconry. Even after 25 years, Mike is still energized by a chance encounter with a local hawk. (If you look at this image closely, you can spot its tiny silhouette perched on a branch.)

hawk hike

“Helping the Ridgway’s Hawk, which is a species that needs trees to nest and survive, may help reverse the deforestation of Haiti.”

Mike travels the country with his birds, teaching young and old alike about the critical role that birds of prey play in their ecosystem. He’s also involved with raptor conservation efforts at home and abroad. Every spring he helps researchers asses the status of his favorite bird of prey, the Northern Goshawk. Known as the “Ghost of the Forest”, Mike drives several thousand miles per year visiting historical nest sites to survey this illusive bird. Mike says that, “Flying a Goshawk requires a lot more expertise, training and precision but, [he] loves flying the Gos because you can hunt them from the fist giving the falconer an up-close look on the act of predation.”

Mike is also working with the Peregrine Fund (P-Fund) to save the Ridgway’s Hawk in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Even though the Ridgway’s Hawk is not a falconry bird, Mike feels compelled to help. He says, “Getting a sustainable population of Ridgway’s Hawks on the Island of Hispaniola is a long-term challenge. The species faces human predation and imported parasites. Haiti suffered all of the devastation that comes with deforestation during the last century, so helping the Ridgway’s Hawk, which is a species that needs trees to nest and survive, may help reverse the deforestation of Haiti.” This year he plans to identify any enduring Ridgway’s Hawks in Haiti and to locate places that might support making the restoration of the Hispaniolan Hawk island-wide. Voicing the project as a whole, Mike says, “Perhaps I can help bridge the gap and bring these two nations together in a small way, for a bird on the brink of extinction.”

To support their efforts and learn more, go to: www.mikedupuyhawkfood.com/ridgways-hawk. Big thanks to Mike Dupuy and his wife, Christine for sharing their home and their birds with us! To get in touch with Mike and set up a presentation or falconry lesson go to MikeDupuyFalconry.com.

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