Gary Fuller, of Antes Fort, has a special relationship with a mighty predator. He and his red-tailed hawk, Broken Feathers, hunt small game together.
Falconry, an age-old sport often called an art, has been practiced throughout the world.
In Pennsylvania, participants must meet requirements and pass exams. About 178 residents are qualified to practice it, according to the state Game Commission.
Small game, mighty hunter
"I like being out there, watching the hawk hunt like it does in the wild," Fuller said.
Broken Feathers, an immature red-tailed hawk, is Fuller's current huntress.
He hunts small game with her. This particular bird hones in on squirrels but also will hunt rabbits.
This winter has been kind to falconers in Pennsylvania. Getting out into the wilds has been simple because there hasn't been deep snow to trek through.
On a mild January day, Fuller hunted with Broken Feathers at a farm in Piatt Township. Accompanying them were Fuller's grandson, Hunter, and his daughter, Cathy Jo Pfirman, Hunter's mother.
Broken Feathers is transported inside a large box with a perch. Once at the scene, Fuller lets her perch on his leather glove-clad hand. Before five minutes pass, she flies to a nearby oak tree.
Soon she spots a squirrel and the hunt is on. Broken Feathers swiftly swoops into a tree, talons wide, and sinks them into her prey.
Meanwhile, Hunter and Cathy Jo follow Fuller through the thick fencerow, trying to avoid briars and slick frozen mud to get to the bird.
Broken Feathers spotted and took the squirrel within 10 minutes of leaving Fuller.
On the ground, straddling the gray squirrel, the hawk pulls hanks of fur from its body.
Fuller lets her eat some of the squirrel. "Not too much, though, because she won't want to go out."
He picks up the squirrel and places in his game bag.
Fuller, a general falconer, became interested in falconry as a child. He watched TV programs and read about it, but never really had the time to do it.
In 2000, though, he saw Michael Kuriga, another local master falconer, on the front page of the Sun-Gazette. He wanted to know more about the man and the sport.
"I called the Game Commission to find out who that guy was with the hawk," Fuller said.
He contact Kuriga, who offered to teach him about falconry.
Actually, experienced falconers are required by law to aid anyone interested in the sport.
The state Game Commission regulates and inspects falconers in Pennsylvania. Among the agency's host of rules is a written exam. Prospective falconers must pass the state falconry exam with a score of at least 80 percent.
Chad R. Eyler, chief of the commission's Special Permits Enforcement Division and Division of the Bureau of Wildlife Protection, said the commission works closely with the Pennsylvania Falcon and Hawk Trust.
Raptors used in falconry almost always are trapped from the wild. In most instances, a falconer begins with a new bird every year.
"I trapped (Broken Feathers) in Port Matilda on a falconer's friend's property," Fuller said.
The bird got her name because she was captured with the help of a bow net, Fuller said, which caused some broken feathers on her back. Fuller mended them.
Red-tail hawks are the most common hawk species used in Pennsylvania for falconry.
"They are easily trapped and trainable and most of the species they prey upon are small game in the state," Eyler said.
Another reason that the species is the most common is due to the rank that a falconer holds. Lower-ranked falconers only can possess and hunt with certain birds.
It's best for a falconer to capture an immature bird rather than one that is fully grown. Younger ones are more impressionable, Fuller said, and therefore easier to train. He said a mature bird probably would starve to death before it would start eating off of a person's hand.
Training a falcon - or hawk - is an exercise to gaining the bird's trust, he said. Eventually, the bird realizes that the falconer is its food source and it works for that person, even though the bird always is truly wild.
Falconers must train their birds to become accustomed to its perch, eating from it, then "jumping" from the perch to a gloved hand and from the hand to flying.
"It takes between two and three weeks, or about 21 days at the most, to have the bird out hunting," Fuller said.
Broken Feathers is one of the best birds Fuller has had over the years. She is well adjusted and clearly very driven when she hunts.
"This bird ate from day one," he said. "They (the birds) are really smart and catch on."
A bird's weight is very important to falconry. A very heavy bird will have less energy, will perch on low branches and may not have the drive to hunt.
Fuller feeds Broken Feathers a healthy diet and keeps her at just the right weight to hunt. He weighs her before every hunt.
When he needs her to return to him, Fuller uses a lure that has a piece of squirrel attached to leather. He swings the lure in the air as his mimics the hawk's cries.
Broken Feathers, sitting in a tall oak tree, spots the lure. She bobs and weaves her head, keying on Fuller's position, then swoops in and lands on his arm.
The young "hawk hatched out in April," he said, and was captured in October. "You see she doesn't have a red tail yet. She will moult this summer and lose all the primary feathers and get the red tail."
Broken Feathers never will be considered be a tame animal.
"They are never really trained, to be honest," Eyler said. "They will react, after a period of time, to the food the handler actually has."
Eyler said the bird just does what it normally would do in the wild. The only difference is that a human is added into the mix.
Fuller will hunt Broken Feathers until the weather starts to warm up in the spring, which usually is around March.
Then, "she will go out on her own," he said.
He will train her so she doesn't pay any attention to him anymore. At that time, she will be ready to go out to the wild and hunt on her own again.
"Falconers have very little impact on wild birds," Eyler said. Eighty percent release birds back to the wild. Falconers are a very good group of permittees because they care about the tradition, the sport and what they are doing."
Falconry isn't for everyone. Fuller is lucky to have the time to devote to the sport. He works construction for a local company and is laid off during the winter. That enables his to spend every day out with the hawk, and that is just what he does.
He hopes to pass his knowledge of falconry onto his grandson.
Hunter said he is very interested in trying the sport and is proud that he is able to go out with his grandfather.
Fuller also wants to tell enough people about it that the sport will have newfound interest and stay alive in the state.
"(I'd like to) try to get younger people into it, like Hunter, because I think it's a great sport," Fuller said.
He said it's a good way to show how wildlife and people can work together.
Fuller enjoys his family's company on hunts.
"It's really enjoyable to be together, hunting," he said.
His daughter and grandson help Fuller beat the brush to flush out rabbits and keep a watchful eye on Broken Feathers' whereabouts.
"I really enjoy the time together," Pfirman said. "He teaches me so many things, to us both. I do hope Hunter gets into it."
"There isn't a lot of people who do this sport," Hunter said. "It's just awesome to do."
"It's family time," his mother said.
"And lots of exercise," Hunter added.
At the end of the day, Fuller said the sport makes him feel like he has achieved something.
After the hunt that day, Broken Feathers fed on the squirrel she caught earlier. Fuller stroked her breast feathers.
"I feel it's a privilege to be part of this sport," he said. "To me, it's challenging and a good time to enjoy the outdoors."