MIAMI -- Adam Grayson strode through an open field, kicking at tufts of Mexican clover. One kick flushed a dove, which flew about 10 yards before Grayson's falcon, a guided missile with wings, intercepted it in an explosion of feathers.
The falcon, named Obi, then flew a short distance away to enjoy the fruits of his hunt.
After a few minutes, Grayson whistled and waved a lure--a piece of leather attached to a line--and Obi returned to his master's shoulder. Grayson rewarded him with dessert, consisting of chunks of raw, defrosted quail.
Grayson, a 35-year-old Sunrise, Fla., biologist, is one of about 370 licensed falconers in Florida. It is an "all-consuming" passion, said Neal Ottoway, president of the 45-member Florida Hawking Fraternity.
Falconry--training raptors and other birds of prey to hunt--has been around for thousands of years, peaking in Europe in the Middle Ages, when it was considered the sport of kings. But in modern times, its popularity has declined as hunting with firearms took over.
Today, falconry enjoys a small, devoted following among nature lovers, hunters and outdoors enthusiasts who say it's beneficial to the falcons and to the environment. With hunting season under way throughout Florida, falconers are taking to forests and fields to watch their lethal raptors do what they do best: hunt birds and small mammals.
Grayson has been captivated by birds of prey since he was 10 and saw a demonstration of their skills. He's been a licensed falconer for eight years and bought Obi, an aplomado falcon, from a breeder three years ago. Falconers are allowed to hunt with a variety of raptors, protected species excluded. Among the most popular in Florida are the Cooper's hawk; red-tailed hawk; red-shouldered hawk; kestrel; Merlin; Harris hawk; goshawk; and peregrine falcon, which was taken off the federal endangered species list in 1999.
Caring for a falcon is almost like managing a prizefighter. Ottoway says the falconer must weigh the bird daily, keep track of its diet and excretory habits, and generally treat it like an Olympic athlete in training.
Becoming a licensed falconer requires jumping through several regulatory and certification hoops. Even becoming an apprentice involves passing a 100-question written exam administered by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The falconer-in-training must then find a licensee to sponsor and train him or her for two years.
Under the sponsor's guidance, the apprentice learns how to trap a red-shouldered or red-tailed hawk from the wild and train it to hunt. The bird's eight-by-eight-foot living quarters must pass inspection by a state wildlife officer.
The sport can cost anywhere from just a few hundred dollars to several thousand.
Costs include $100 for a falconer's permit, which is on top off the cost of a regular hunting license. With more experience, falconers may obtain general and--ultimately--master's permits, which allow them to hunt with a greater variety of birds.
Birds of prey usually hunt in fall and winter for pigeon, dove, quail, gray squirrel, rabbit and duck. Some raptors are taken to farms and ranches, where they are helpful in controlling undesirable birds that raid crops, including starlings and exotic invaders like the purple swamphen. During the summer, raptors rest while they molt, or grow new feathers.
Some falconers equip their birds with tracking devices in the event they fly too far away. Grayson said Obi doesn't wander too far because "he trusts me."
Unlike gun hunters, most falconers don't eat what is caught, according to Eric Edwards of Lake Hamilton, president of the Florida Falconers Association.
"Guys are not doing this to procure food. The vast majority of falconers use the game to feed the birds," Edwards said. "It's an enjoyment of getting out there in nature and watching what these birds do."
Grayson says he and fellow enthusiasts treat their birds like members of the family.
"It's totally a partnership," he said.