Nature Notes: Dell City Falconer: Pursuing an Ancient Sport in West Texas

Dell City falconer Randy Rakes, with a red-headed falcon named BK.

Hawks, golden eagles, peregrine falcons – birds of prey have intensity and focus. What would it be like to hunt with one of these West Texas raptors?

The practice of falconry – hunting with birds of prey – is 4,000 years old.

In the West Texas town of Dell City, the sport has a modern-day practitioner.

Randy Rakes had a 25-year career in the U.S. Army. But he’s always been passionate about wildlife. He worked with elephants and big cats at the El Paso Zoo. When he retired to Dell City in 1999, he tried his hand at falconry.

It wasn’t something to take lightly. Falconry is highly regulated. Beginners take a written exam and undergo a two-year apprenticeship with a licensed falconer. Plus, there are unannounced inspections from game wardens.

There are only a few hundred falconers in Texas, and only a few thousand in the nation. Rakes said he was lucky to apprentice with an El Paso falconer.

“No one is required to sponsor anyone else,” Rakes said. “Once they agree to it, you have to agree to do things the way they want you to for two years, or they can end it, immediately. With a simple letter to fish and game, you would have to start all over. So it’s very stringent.”

The apprentice must trap and train a wild bird.

Falconers trap “brown birds” – juveniles that don’t have the breeding plumage of an adult. That way, they won’t break up a breeding pair.

Next, it’s the slow process of acclimating the raptor to the human presence. Gradually, the falconer conditions the bird to accept food – and then finally to step onto the falconer’s gloved hand. The process is called “manning.” Rakes says it typically takes him about 21 days to man a bird.

And a single error or act of mistreatment – what falconers call a “wreck” – can undo all the effort.

“If you ever mistreat a bird of prey, it’s not going to forget it,” Rakes said, “because they don’t need you. And if you don’t learn to become their partner, it won’t work. So if you have a wreck, it’s over. You’ve got to figure out a way to get them to want to be with you.”

The falconer begins by flying the bird on a nylon line. Then, the bird takes its first “free flight.”

“You fly them 30, 40 feet to you, until they’re coming – they’re leaning, when you walk away, they’re ready, and they come, right now,” Rakes said. And then – it’s really hard to do the first time – you take that line off, and they’re free flying. You know that they could leave, and you’d never see them again.”

Since raptors prey on one another, the falconer can risk losing a bird to another bird. Rakes’ first red-tailed hawk was killed by a golden eagle.

“You always have to be so conscious, you have to watch your bird, because they can see so much better than you can,” Rakes said. “And if they’re all of a sudden looking up, even if you can’t see it, you can bet there’s probably a raptor up there somewhere.”

Dealing with wild raptors is dangerous. There’s a risk of being “footed.” What’s that? Well, the sharp rear talon of a red-tailed hawk, called a hallux, can cut right through a person’s hand.

“Usually people who fly red tails – 95 percent of them have nasty scars where they’ve been footed on their free hand,” Rakes said. “I’m fortunate that never happened to me.”

Rakes has hunted with five native red-tailed hawks. He says the hunt – watching the bird fly from his arm to strike a jackrabbit – is the reward for the risks, and rigors, of falconry.

“Andto see it fly – to me it’s just incredible to see a red tail leave your fist, go up in the air, roll over and come crashing down through the sagebrush to catch a rabbit,” he said. “It’s what they do naturally, and that’s cool.”

Falconry has given Rakes unique skills – he’s helped rehabilitate sick and wounded birds brought to him by Dell City farmers and linemen.

And for this West Texas falconer, the sport has opened a window into the wildness and power of the natural world.

Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.