Area falconer describes the satisfaction, rigors of his activity
The Derrick, By BRIAN FERRY

A special thank you goes out to The Derrick for allowing this story to be posted
 
 
Photo by Jerry Sowden - Dick Krear of Nickleville holds his partner in falconry - an adult female red-tail hawk.

Some might say Dick Krear's lifestyle is for the birds.

He's one of those people.

Much of his time and attention go into making sure everything is just right for his bird.

Krear is a falconer.

He is certified by the state and federal governments to catch, train and hunt with birds of prey.

He has a red-tail hawk in a specially built structure on his Nickleville property.

Although he is a master-class falconer and enjoys hunting with his hawks and spending time with other falconers, Krear does not recommend it as a pastime. He cares too much for the animals to do that.

"I don't want to encourage this," Krear said. "Most people don't take good care of their dogs, let alone these. This is not an animal that you take out every couple weekends."

"It's not a sport for everybody," he said. "It's a lifestyle. You spend a lot of time with them and these guys can drive you nuts."

Some people spend a lot of time with a pet and know the frustrations that can accompany any animal, but falconry is not like having a pet.

"They don't obey you," he said. "I respect that in hawks."

He talks to his birds, chides them when they misbehave, and praises them when they do what he wants. But they don't like him, or any humans, very much.

"They show no affection whatsoever," he said. "If you start to think they like you, that's when you lose them."

The birds don't hang around because they are fond of their human companions. They generally do what the falconer wants because of food. Krear said he controls how much the hawk eats. He carefully weighs the birds on a regular basis and feeds them according to their weight.

Part of training a bird to fly to the falconer is feeding it by hand. Krear puts the hawk on a ladder or other elevated perch and walks away. He puts some food in his gloved hand and calls to the bird. It flies to him and takes the food, eating it while perched on his arm.

He feeds the bird other ways, too. At night he tosses food into the hawk's house - the mew - so the bird will have breakfast and won't always associate food with Krear's presence. The third time the bird gets to eat is when Krear takes it hunting.

The most common prey lends its name to the aspect of falconry Krear and his birds participate in - squirrel-hawking.

After releasing the bird to hunt, Krear has to find the bird as it tears apart and eats whatever it has caught.

Since the hawk is busy eating and is familiar with Krear, it will let the man walk up to it. "It can't really take the squirrel or the rabbit and fly away with it," he said. If it could, it would.

He said the hawks' favorite prey is mice. "If they get two mice in them, watch out," he said. A hawk can easily fly away with a mouse.

Krear is usually successful with getting the birds back. But getting to that point takes time.

"I can usually have a bird flying free in five to six weeks," he said. "It depends on the bird. They have different personalities."

It takes even more time to train the human.

BECOMING A FALCONER

Krear has been an outdoors person all his life.

He was born 50 years ago in Emlenton and grew up with an appreciation for the environment in general and the Allegheny River in particular.

"Venango County had a junior conservation camp when I was a kid," he said. He found out about falconry through that program at age 15. Almost 30 years later he began the final road to become a falconer himself.

Krear has been a licensed falconer for eight years. He, like all falconers, had to go through a lengthy process at the beginning.

"To be a falconer, you have to find a sponsor," he said. That can be any master- or general-class falconer. Certified falconers attain general class after two years and master after five.

Krear is called a master-class falconer, but he says that anyone who claims to be an expert is wrong. There's too much to know and each bird is different, he said.

There aren't very many falconers around - maybe 15 in northwest Pennsylvania - so finding one willing to be a sponsor isn't easy.

After finding a falconer willing to teach, the prospective student must score at least 80 percent on a written test given by the Game Commission and based on the federal test used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Krear said.

If all goes well, a two-year apprenticeship follows. "They can drop you at any time," Krear said.

He made it through the process and has brought another falconer through. But he doubts there will be many more apprentices in his future.

"Not unless they have what it takes," he said. "I wouldn't take anybody on unless they're already knowledgeable."

One of his former students had the knowledge, but Krear turned him down anyway.

Three years ago, when Dave Lowe approached Krear about an apprenticeship, he had about as much information as anyone could about birds of prey.

Lowe was, and still is, the raptors coordinator at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. "I was able to get a lot of handling and experience here," Lowe said from the Aviary. "Initially he said no."

He said Krear didn't think he could put in the necessary time as an apprentice with an hour-and-a-half drive between them.

"You have to gain their trust and confidence," Lowe said.

He did. Krear reconsidered and took him on.

One hard part was over. Several more followed.

Before catching a bird, a falconer has to have a home for it and have the necessary equipment.

"You need to have an inspection from your wildlife conservation officer," Lowe said. "They come and inspect the housing and equipment."

And the inspection process continues. "The Game Commission comes by every year and inspects your bird," Krear said.

FINDING A BIRD

Once a falconer has the state's approval, catching a bird is the next step.

Krear knew what kind of bird he wanted from the beginning.

Some who participate in the 4,000-year-old sport of falconry hunt with falcons, their smaller relatives kestrels, or other birds. Krear has always had red-tail hawks for the eight years he has been a falconer.

At weights between two and three pounds, they're not the fastest or most agile of the birds of prey, but they're large enough to take animals that are common to this area.

"They're the pickup truck of hawks," Krear said. "Here the prey is rabbits and squirrels. And they never pass up a mouse."

Plenty of those around. If he hunted with smaller birds, Krear would have to go to places with different prey.

According to federal and state requirements, a falconer may only capture an immature bird and must catch it from the wild.

Krear caught his hawk in the central part of the state - near Bald Eagle School District, appropriately enough.

He had to identify a juvenile bird and set the trap. Using mice for bait and a special cage, Krear lured and caught his bird. He could tell it was a young bird because its tail had not taken on the characteristic red coloring.

Trapping a wild animal and keeping it in an enclosed area might seem cruel to some. But Lowe said he thinks of it as "borrowing from nature."

"You're taking a bird before its first winter (when it is most likely to die)," he said.

"One of eight (red-tails) gets to one year in the wild," Krear said.

"We're giving them ample opportunity to eat if they miss," Lowe said.

Effective hunters that they are, they do miss. In fact, they miss a lot more than they catch.

"This bird might catch 10 percent of what it chases," Krear said.

That bird will be released soon. Krear plans to set the hawk free sometime in the next two weeks. "I just don't feel right about keeping them long-term," he said.

Not all birds used for hunting can be set free. "That's what's neat about red-tails," Krear said. "They're releasable."

The hawk, when it flies free, will have two winters behind it, plenty of practice hunting, be well fed and will have had a final treatment for any parasites or other problems.

"They're treated with the utmost care and respect," Lowe said. "You can't train a bird that doesn't trust you."

"If you don't have the respect for these creatures, you shouldn't have them," Krear said.