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Freebird: Falconer finds peace through wild hobby


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By Jake Wright




Alan Pope drops his falcon lure to the ground. He gives himself slack on the rope and begins to swing the brown, horseshoe-shaped tool counterclockwise over his head. Suddenly, off from a distant tree limb glides Ghost, Pope’s 3-year-old Finnish goshawk.

Built to take down prey with speed, she’s a blur of brown and grey until her moment comes and she strikes. In midair she grabs the lure with her talons and forces it to
the ground.

It’s a typical Saturday and Pope is out hunting with some of his falconer friends.

A falconer is someone certified by the federal government as being able to own and hunt with a bird of prey. Today hasn’t been a great day for hunting, though.

Even with five falconers walking through brush trying to stir up game for each other’s birds, the rabbits are just not coming out. Chuck Morgan from Corydon, Ind., was the only one lucky enough to land a kill with his red-tailed hawk, Addie.

“It’s amazing,” Pope said, referring to the bird’s hunt. “It never gets old.”

***

Pope’s love for birds of prey began in Plano, Texas. In the basement of Plano Senior High School, Pope said, was the Living Materials Center that housed and rehabilitated injured wildlife. He was instantly drawn to the ferocious beauty of a red-tailed hawk beingrehabilitated in the center.

“When I saw it for the first time, I was smitten,” he said. “You look into their eyes and they are the epitome of the wild.”

Pope said the center’s curator, noticing he was frequently visiting the bird, introduced him to a senior at PSHS who happened to be a licensed falconer. A couple years later, Pope found himself studying engineering at Texas A&M University and learning falconry from his former high school mentor.

There are three levels of falconry: apprentice, general and master. To begin your apprenticeship you must pass a 120-question test with at least an 80 percent. Passing the test will get you the license, but then you must find an experienced falconer to be your sponsor and guide you through the two-year
apprenticeship.

After securing a sponsor, you must then build the bird’s facilities, which will be inspected to ensure they’re up to code. Once all of your preparations are done you can then go out and catch your first bird from the wild.

Pope didn’t make it past his first apprenticeship, though. It was extremely difficult to devote time to flying, training and hunting with a bird while still in school, he said. After graduating college, Pope got married and started a family, but he still couldn’t find the time he needed to dedicate to falconry.

“He still considered himself a falconer even when he didn’t have a bird,” Julie, Pope’s wife, said. “He would still go out with guys who owned birds.”
It took until 2002, Pope said, before he felt comfortable enough taking on his first bird in many years.

But according to Indiana regulation, a falconer who hasn’t flown a bird in more than five years has to be retrained. So, Pope was once again an apprentice.
It didn’t bother him really, he said, because he was still getting to work with a species he liked — the red-tailed hawk. Along with having a set number of years one must be in each class, there are also regulations detailing how many birds and what species a falconer can own.

An apprentice can only own one bird, and it must be a red-tailed hawk or a kestrel falcon — a very small, very fast species of falcon. General falconers, a five-year process, can have up to three birds and are allowed more species, and master falconers can own as many as five birds and have very open options for raptor species. Some masters are able to fly eagles with the right permit, Pope said.

Pope’s wife said she was expecting him to get back into falconry at some point in his life. And because he is always trying something new, it wasn’t that big of a change for her, she said.

“It was his next adventure,” Julie said. “And there will always be an adventure
with Alan.”

Pope was relearning how to handle, command and hunt with a wild raptor. Although the birds don’t show affection to their trainers, a bond forms over time and they learn to trust you, Pope said. They learn that you are the means to food, and that’s what they care about, he said.

After seven years, Pope finally achieved the level of master falconer, something he had never done before.

“In essence, at least for me, it’s about being able to work with the bird, train it so it will allow you to participate and partner with it in the field, so you can be on the front row of the nature show,” Pope said.

***

Falconry is a lifestyle, Pope said, not a hobby. And Pope’s life is a testament to that.
Besides having a mew (a falcon’s night house) and other mandated equipment, Pope’s living room is adorned in centuries-old decorations relevant to falconry.

Tapestries detailing falconry hunts are scattered across the walls. A portrait from Japan of just a falcon’s face hangs to the right of the couch. To the left is a shrine to falconry filled with memorabilia, such as a falcon hood made of stingray leather.

Although falconry has become a lifestyle for Pope, Julie said that, overall, she has little contact with the actual bird. She might thaw out a small critter if asked, but she said she sees her role as that of the supportive spouse.

“I’m happy to see him do it, and you can see it gives him so much joy,” Julie said.

But Pope has to balance his time with more than just his wife and his bird. Pope said his two high school sons, 18-year-old Robert Alan III, who goes by Trey, and 16-year-old Sage, named after his dad’s favorite brand of fly-fishing rod, keep him constantly on the go. Pope also works as president of Finelight, a marketing company specializing in the healthcare industry.

If Pope has had a hard day at work and is down, Julie said, if he can just have some time with Ghost, he’s a totally different person.

And although Ghost has become a staple in Pope’s life, he said, this is only the first season he has had her.

Ghost spent her first year being trained and her second hatching and raising two chicks, Pope said. He was lucky enough to be friends with the breeder and was able to secure her.

“She’s a beautiful bird,” he said. “And she’s very, very fast.”

***

Pope was dressed head to toe in his falconing gear, ready to take Ghost out of her carrier. Parked behind the Third Street K-Mart in Bloomington, he opened the silver box and was met with two piercing, yellow eyes.

He transferred Ghost to his gauntlet and started to walk through overgrown brush. A rabbit darted from a nearby bush and bounced like a pinball across the field. Pope didn’t hesitate; he pointed out his arm, and Ghost was off. She shot through the sky, her beating wings flashing patterns of brown, black and white.

As she closed in on her target, she was free. Not tethered to Pope, Ghost could take off at any moment. But Pope isn’t worried about his bird. He watches her as she makes her final descent toward the rabbit.

Mesmerized by Ghost’s wild aerial acrobatics he is also free.

“It’s almost like it is me up there,” he said. “Like she’s an extension of me.”

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Ghost, a Finnish goshawk, perches on owner Alan Pope's arm. Bruce Carver Buy Photos
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Ghost, a Finnish goshawk, takes of from her owner Alan Pope's glove to hunt. Bruce Carver Buy Photos

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