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Falconry: An Ancient Sport Takes Flight in New Hampshire
NH School of Falconry at the Timberdoodle Club in Temple, NH.    
by Spencer Baselice
Nancy Cowen demonstrating the art of falconry.  Click here for more stories...
It takes mere seconds for Jazz to soar across the tree-lined bluff.

It’s an unseasonably warm fall day in late September, as Jazz, the four-year old
Harris Hawk, lifts from her perch thirty-feet in the air with a few strokes of her
broad wings.  

In seconds she is locked in a tail chase with a plump pheasant, skimming a tree
line that is just starting to show the first hints of fall's colors.  

To the spectators, it’s quite a show, and for one master falconer, who is guiding
Jazz through the hunt, it’s an exceptional event.  

It’s the first flight of New Hampshire’s only falconry school, the New
Hampshire School of Falconry at the Timberdoodle Club in Temple, N.H.    

Sportster, the German Pointer who flushed the pheasant from her hiding spot,
gets a little too excited about her success. She bounds through the grass, barking
ferociously, her tail wagging back and forth.  Stopping on a dime, her square
nose lowers like a magnet towards a small, unnoticeable bump in the short
grass. Paw raised,  she lunges. There is another explosion of feathers, and the
rapid heart-like pulse of beating wings. This time it is a male bird she has
flushed from the grass, noticeable by its red underbelly, as it heads for the
forest.  

Jazz, as birds of prey always will, opts for the bigger and better opportunity, and
arcs in mid flight after the bird.   

This inaugural flight of the first and only licensed falconry school in the state
ends in disappointment. Jazz lost the larger bird in the confusion of the trees.

However, it is still a raving success for Master Falconer Nancy Cowan, the
master falconer who is trying to bring an ancient sport back down to eye level.

Falconry is more than 10,000 years old, and is still passed down in the same way
it has been for hundreds of generations, through many sessions between master
and apprentice.

First and Only School of Falconry in New Hampshire

Few everyday individuals ever get a chance to fly a bird, or experience the thrill
of a live tail chase.  

That is why Nancy Cowan, decided to open up the New Hampshire School of
Falconry, in September of 2005.  It is the first and only school of its kind in New
Hampshire, and one of only a handful along the entire eastern seaboard.  

The spectators on this day include a few avid sportsmen, one politician, and
several members of the NH Fish and Game, who are glimpsing the sport for the
first time.  

Nancy Cowan notes their pleased expressions as a signal that her dream—one
years in the making, is off to a good start.  

Her school will feature guided hunts, classes for adults on the art of falconry,
and a very unique class called falconry 101, for younger students, kids aged 13-
17.  It is the very first class ever, of its kind.

Most folks don’t get a chance to practice this exhilarating sport because birds of
prey, which are closely regulated by the government, can cost thousands of
dollars.  Secondly, becoming a master falconer requires a great deal of
dedication.  Falconers spend two years to complete their apprenticeship, which
earns them only a general falconry license.  Falconers spend another three years
earning a Master Falconer’s license.  It can take decades to perfect the techniques
used to make the birds perform interesting aeronautic displays, thousands of
feet above the ground.  

Once you own a bird it requires everyday care, and young birds require a great
amount of time to train and raise properly.  Nancy Cowan said she spends six
hours a day, alone with her young birds teaching them how to hunt properly.  
During this time, she said she can not even take phone calls.  

Falconry: A Sport of Patience, Dedication

Nancy Cowan is a patient, dedicated person, however, and patience and
dedication is a virtue all falconers must have.   

Cowan is also a certified bird of prey rehabilitator, helping return injured birds
rescued by the NH Fish and Game, back into the wild at her home in Deering,
NH, with her husband Peter Cowan, also a master falconer and bird
rehabilitator.  

Cowan admits that with a wild animal, you just never know what is going to
happen, and that is what makes watching them so exciting.   

Falcons have been clocked at 217 miles per hour in the air, using radar from the
tops of cliffs, and some think it is safe to assume the birds can fly much faster,
possibly in the vicinity of 300 mph. That’s faster than a drag racing car.  

It’s hard to capture a bird in its most extreme environment, however, and that’s
one more reason to bring the school to New Hampshire, Nancy Cowan said.

“You never know what you can expect,” Cowan said.   “That’s what makes these
hunts so exciting … Sometimes the tail chases can last for up to a quarter mile or
more.  The birds dip and dive … it is really exhilarating. You just never know
what the birds are going to do.”  

She has plenty of experience handling birds of prey around people, having
demonstrated in classrooms, at fairs and events all over New England, including
the Greenfield Highland Games. So, it is safe to be around the birds when she is
handling them.

The birds themselves can actually be quite calm, as well, since they are so well
cared for by their master.  

What to Expect When You Attend a Falconry Class

So, what can you expect if you attend one of the NH School of Falconry’s classes?
Expect to learn a lot about the birds of prey themselves, and some techniques
about falconry. For instance, you’ll learn falconers simply use the birds’ instincts
to train them, relying on simple things, like the bird’s instinct to perch on a
higher branch, in order to teach the bird to land on their glove.  

The falconer will also assure the bird always gets a meal, whether they catch it
themselves, or not. That helps to assure that the falcon will keep coming back to
the falconer each time they release them to hunt.  You will also learn that leather
hood which fits over the bird’s head actually calms the bird down because it
blocks out everything around them, and it reminds them that it is going to go on
a hunt soon.  

If you decide to go on a live guided hunt, you’ll see some spectacular aerial
displays. Once in the wild, the graceful birds are quite entertaining.  They arc
majestically through the sky, carving great bowl shapes in the air, sometimes
dive bombing their prey from hundreds of feet in the air.  

Cowan knows few will ever get to see these aeronautical displays.  It’s just not
something you see on TV… and there aren't any reality shows in the works
either, at least as of today, but you never know.

“This way,  if anyone is interested in the sport, and doesn’t have the time too
devote to it, they can at least see and feel what it is like on a real live hunt,” she
said.

The school will also feature several unique birds, including the newest addition,
a young peregrine falcon, which is actually native species to this area.  Banshee,
was the first purchase for the NH School of Falconry, and she has a spotted gray
plume, yellow eyes, and is already as large as a full grown seagull.  

Cowan has been training Banshee at her home, and it will be months before the
bird is ready to hunt at the school, but she will be available during
demonstrations and several of the classes.             

For more information you can contact Nancy Cowan at 603-464-6213 or visit the
Timberdoodle Club’s website at:
Timberdoodle.  

About the author Spencer Baselice has written outdoor articles for many publications.  
He lives and works in New Hampshire and enjoys kayaking and hiking.  He is a graduate
of the University of New Hampshire.
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