Oscar Pack of Mustang is an enthusiastic hunter. Yet, he rarely hunts with firearms or archery.
Instead, he trains his eyes to the sky to watch his golden eagle " a 9-and-a-half-pound bird of prey with a 7-foot wingspan " eye rats, rabbits, mice and other birds to bring down in a hunt.
"It's amazing to watch them fly," said Pack, president of the Oklahoma Falconers Association. "I've always had a natural fascination with birds of prey, and it's the ultimate form of bird-watching."
Raptors " including hawks, owls and eagles " are death on wings. Once considered the "sport of kings," falconry is rising in popularity in Oklahoma. Nearly 100 registered falconers hunt in the state, but those interested in the sport should be warned: Falconry isn't just a hobby, experts say. It's a lifestyle.
wingMENPack's first contact with falconry was when he and a friend rescued a baby hawk, raised it and let it go. He later became fascinated with the birds until, at age 23, he finally began researching the art. The Oklahoma Falconers Association brings together enthusiasts for support, group hunts and advice in the art.
"Watching these birds fly free is a form of highly evolved bird-watching," Pack said. "To let the bird hunt in the wild is something that has fascinated people for a very long time."
Hunting with birds of prey has a long flight of history. According to the International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey, the art of falconry dates back more than 10,000 years.
Once falconry was brought to Europe around the 5th century, it became popular among the upper echelon of society. Young men were expected to learn the sport, a mark of social status.
Robert Aanonsen, owner of Coweta's Royal Gauntlet Birds of Prey, a rescue and education center, often uses his trained hawks and falcons at Renaissance fairs, schools, wildlife shows and other events to educate the public about the birds.
"We do hunt with them," he said. "They catch rabbit, rats, quail, pigeon and even snakes. If you don't plan to hunt your bird, you shouldn't have one."
Raptors are voracious hunters in the wild, and Aanonsen said most of the public have no idea how important they are to the world's ecology. Today, those wishing to pick up the sport must learn care, feeding, biology and responsible ownership before being licensed.
"You have to go through apprenticeship and take tests in order to be licensed," he said. "We get questions about how to do it a thousand times a day at ren faires, but there are a ton of resources out there for those who are serious about it."
Getting startedMost newcomers are expected to learn the basics of the sport, care and handling of a falcon and the laws and regulations before even obtaining one. In addition, newcomers go through a period of apprenticeship, much like in the days of kings.
It's also the law. According to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife and Conservation, falconers must have an Oklahoma Falconry License and an Oklahoma Hunting License. All those wishing to obtain a license must pass a written test, which features questions ranging from basic biology, care of raptors, disease, laws and other topics.
It's not a simple test, however, and newcomers must score at least an 80 percent to be considered. Less than 80 percent, and it will be six months before hopefuls get a second shot.
"Then, you apprentice under a general or master falconer," Pack said, "and after your first year, you are allowed to trap and train a hawk."
Again, enthusiasts warn that owning a bird of prey takes more responsibility than most household pets.
"Falconry gets in your blood," Pack said. "'Hobby' isn't a good term for it. It's more of a way of life. Your whole world revolves around that hawk." "Heide Brandes
photo Robert Aanonsen stands with one of his birds of prey.