Soaring with New England Falconry

BRATTLEBORO — Jessica Snyder's life revolves around birds of prey. Snyder works as a falconer at New England Falconry in Woodstock, and also has two birds of her own.

"Falconry is not a hobby; it has become a lifestyle," she said in a recent interview. "Falconry fully encompasses every day of my life and nearly every decision. The birds in both my personal care and my professional care require daily attention. It's not a hobby I can put in the closet and take back out when I feel like it."

At New England Falconry, Snyder cares for five Harris's Hawks, a Lanner Falcon, and two owls — a Barn Owl and a Eurasian Eagle Owl, also known as a European Eagle Owl.

Snyder, who has been working at New England Falconry since it opened in 2015, begins working with the birds when they are young.

"Every bird here came as a youngster and does their falconry education with me," she said. "We learn it together.

"The true definition of falconry is hunting with a trained bird of prey after wild quarry," she went on. "I always say that we don't train the birds to hunt — it's a natural instinct. When a small furry animal is running away from the bird, its natural instinct is to catch, eat, and repeat. All we're doing is teaching the birds to hunt with us — teaching them that I'm a benefit. I'm at the mercy of the bird's willingness; I can't make the bird do anything it doesn't want to do.

"In the falconry relationship, I'm the dog, and the bird's the hunter," she said. "My job is to scare quarry. I might take a stick and hit a brush pile and a rabbit or chipmunk or squirrel might pop out of it."

New England Falconry is a private enterprise partnering with the Woodstock Inn and Resort, which owns the land and barn where New England Falconry is located.

"They were looking for an out-of-the-ordinary experience to offer to resort guests and the public in addition to biking, tennis, golf and other sports," Snyder said.

She explained that the experiences are hands-on: while guests don't actually hunt with the birds, participants — usually no more than six in a group — "free-fly" the Harris's hawks.

"We fly the birds to the guests' gloves," Snyder explained. "We let them go and they're free to go and come back. We've never lost a bird. In the future we're hoping to offer hunting programs."

Snyder emphasized that falconry is one of the most strictly regulated hunting activities in North America.

"The possession and exhibition of our birds here at the Center are by permission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," she said. "We have a falconry-education license, regulated by both the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Service. All our birds have to be captive-bred. Individuals have propagation permits from state and local authorities."

Snyder herself owns an American Kestrel, which came from New York state, and a Red-Tailed Hawk, born in the wild.

"Each state regulates what species can be taken," she noted. "In Vermont, only two species of birds can be taken without written permission of the state — Red-Tailed Hawks and Northern Goshawks."

She emphasized that the privilege of taking a bird from the wild only comes after a long and arduous process, which includes a written exam that tests knowledge of wildlife, birds, and falconry norms and regulations. After the exam, candidates must apprentice with an experienced falconer for two years.

Training a young bird takes two to four weeks of daily work: the bird is allowed to fly, attached to a training line, for longer and longer distances from the falconer.

"We use operant conditioning," she said, "rewarding behaviors we want them to repeat, ignoring behaviors we want them to stop doing. Food is the reward. Our program birds are habituated to people — a relationship built on trust and food rewards."

At the end of the training period, the falconer releases the bird from the training line.

"After that, your heart's in your throat. It's time to set the bird free and hope it comes back," she said. "They're wild creatures; they're not in the least bit domesticated."

While she plans to keep her kestrel, which is imprinted on humans, she intends to release the Red-Tailed Hawk into the wild in the spring, although she would be allowed to keep it. She considers her work with the bird part of a natural circle.

"I'm borrowing the bird," she commented. "She got October to March to learn skills." Snyder has a small dog — half Jagdterrier, a German breed of hunting terrier, and half Jack Russell — that hunts with her personal falcons. The dog, which can easily go into brush-piles and briars where a human can't reach, flushes out small game for the birds of prey. Snyder said the triangular relationship among dog, bird, and human "must be based on trust — the dog trusting that the bird won't attack it, the bird trusting the dog, and me trusting both."

She said she expects to continue as a falconer for the rest of her life.

"Taking a bird out and having a wild creature that you let go and ask to come back to you — and they do — you never get tired of that experience," she said. "While hunting a bird, whether you're successful in catching a game animal or not, watching a bird do what it would do in the wild, and having a minor role — I'm watching nature unfold in front of me."

Maggie Cassidy, a frequent contributor to the Reformer, can be reached at Gallery: Video:


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