By Annette Hinkle
This is the time of year when Ross School seniors are finishing up their Senior Projects — year long explorations on a single topic of their choosing.
Students typically hone in on subjects related to art and architecture, science or history in their projects. But for East Hampton’s Sam Kramer, the sky’s the limit — literally. That’s because Kramer’s senior project explores the ancient art of falconry.
Once the realm of sultans and noblemen, falconry traces its roots back thousands of years to Asia and the Middle East. A form of hunting in which a raptor is trained to track down prey and then return to a human handler, it’s a sport which is still practiced today — though certainly not widely.
“Since the bird eats some of what it catches,” says Kramer, “once hunting techniques and the agrarian way of life started to become pretty well developed, it became apparent falconry was not a very efficient means of hunting.”
It did, however, become a pastime for the gentry in medieval Europe who often hunted with merlins and goshawks.
Kramer, a long-time birding enthusiast, recalls he was first inspired by falconry as a child after reading Jean Craighead George’s book “My Side of the Mountain” — the story of a young boy (also named Sam) who runs away from his New York City home and lives off the land in the Catskills where he raises a peregrine falcon to hunt.
The book may have been fictional, but the idea of trapping a bird in the wild and training it over to time to hunt for a human handler is not — even today. That is the essence of the goal Kramer set out to accomplish as his Ross senior project.
Falconry is legal in New York State and becoming an apprentice falconer (as Kramer did) is a fairly rigorous process. He’s been at it since spring — taking the New York State permitting test (offered only twice a year), finding a licensed sponsor (Kramer found Dennis Roy of Southampton who agreed to work with him), building a legal habitat (or “mews”) for the bird — and, perhaps most daunting of all, capturing a juvenile bird from the wild (which apprentices are required to do).
While experienced falconers keep peregrine falcons, goshawks and (on very rare occasions) even golden eagles, apprentices like Kramer are permitted to keep only two species — the kestrel and the red-tailed hawk (Kramer’s bird of choice).
“The kestrel is tiny — it’s not an effective game hunter — but it’s easy to manage,” he explains. “Working with a kestrel can help you hone your skills. After four days, they’re almost totally trained.”
“Red-tails are brave and hardy,” he adds. “They’re the meat and potatoes of falconry.”
For Kramer, while the choice of bird came easily, capturing one did not.
“I spent close to 30 hours looking for a bird on the East End — it has to be immature, born last spring,” he says. “Most red-tails have brown tails as juveniles. We just couldn’t find any out here.”
“I started getting worried. I joined a New York State falconry website and posted a plea for help,” says Kramer. “A guy responded that he had been trapping in Monroe, N.Y., and pretty much was successful every time.”
So in early November, Kramer traveled upstate with his sponsor and his father where the man helped them trap an immature red-tailed hawk within a few hours using a bow net and a live pigeon as a lure (the pigeon, by the way, survived).
“I was definitely amazed to see a bird up-close that had just been wild,” recalls Kramer of his first impression of his hawk. “A huge part of me was relieved. Part of it was shock and awe — and amazement.”
Kramer named his juvenile hawk, a male, Atlas, and in recent weeks, the pair have been getting to know one another — but it hasn’t come easy.
“It took him nine days before he ate — that’s relatively long,” says Kramer. “He’s pretty stubborn. I was not the first to get him to eat. My sponsor tried his hand and it worked.”
“At first, it disheartened me that I wouldn’t be able to get him to eat,” adds Kramer. “But falconry is so subtle an art, I gradually realized why you need a sponsor in the sport.”
Kramer describes that first meal like an on/off switch, and things quickly improved once Atlas began eating.
“A couple days after he first ate, I decided I would see if I could get him to jump to my fist,” says Kramer. “One day it didn’t work, and the next day, he was still not ready to do it. Then I moved the food and he jumped to my fist.”
“Now he’ll jump right on.”
They’ve been working at it ever since and Kramer has slowly increased the distance the tethered bird must cover in order to reach his gloved hand with the meat.
“A large part is getting him comfortable with me,” explains Kramer. “He’s on my glove 45 minutes two times a day.”
Atlas lives in a “mews,” a shed that has been converted in Kramer’s backyard for the purpose. The mews is designed to keep the bird safe from predators and inclement weather, and is stocked with required equipment — most important of which, notes Kramer, is a scale for weighing the bird.
“The training process is based on teaching the bird that I’m his source of food and for him to rely on me,” explains Kramer. “That is done by managing his weight.”
“Once he’s fully trained he’ll be taught to associate a lure or whistle with me and to come,” he adds. “I’ll keep him at a sharp flying weight. When I need him to, he’ll respond to these signals. But he has to be hungry enough to come back.”
When the time comes to hunt, Kramer will find a fallow field, release Atlas and attempt to flush a rabbit or squirrel from the brush. Instinct will tell the bird what to do at that point.
“Red-tails find a perch when hunting — either a tree top or a telephone pole,” explains Kramer. “He probably won’t fly out of my sight.”
But Kramer’s not sure what will happen as he and Atlas aren’t to the point of free flying quite yet.
“That won’t be for a couple weeks,” adds Kramer who hopes Atlas will be ready to fly solo by mid-December.
Though bird and man do have a relationship of sorts, Kramer notes it’s based entirely on food — not affection (well, at least not on the bird’s part). The good news, explains Kramer, is the bird can easily be released back into the wild one day if he chooses.
“There’s no bonding going on,” he says. “I’m trying to trick him into thinking I’m his only source of food.”
Come January, Kramer will give a 30 minute presentation to Ross students and teachers on his falconry experience — which includes a blog, videos and, ideally, the bird if Kramer feels Atlas is up to the challenge.
With college on the horizon for next year, Kramer is hopeful he can find a school with a mews nearby where he can keep Atlas. But if that’s not possible, he will return the bird to the wild. Since Atlas is just relying on Kramer for his next meal, if he releases the bird on a full stomach, there’s a good chance he won’t return.
“That’s where the term ‘fed up’ comes from,” explains Kramer.
“You’re allowed to release the,” adds. Kramer. “You just have to report it to the state. It has no effect on the birds.”
The same can not be said of Kramer, however.
“When the time comes to release him, I’m not going to want to,” admits Kramer. “I can get his weight up, cut the leather straps off … and he’ll leave.”
And Kramer, like so many parents of college age students, will get his first taste of empty nest syndrome.
To keep up on Sam Kramer (and Atlas’) progress, visit his blog at http://ehfalconry.wordpress.com.