UNITY (AP) – When Andrew Fleming packed for college, he needed two cars: One for his clothes, computer and mini refrigerator, and the other for his red-tailed hawk, Belle, and all her gear.

Hawks don’t always travel light. In Belle’s case, she needed her perch, food freezer and water tub, among other things.

Fleming is not only a student at Unity College, but he’s also a student of falconry, the hunting of wild quarry using birds of prey. So when the freshman showed up at the central Maine campus, Belle was in tow.

Fleming has been almost inseparable from the russet-colored raptor with a white speckled belly and striped tail feathers since last October, when he took her into captivity. The 18-year-old has been fascinated by birds of prey since his early teens.

“I always liked animals, then it went to birds and went into raptors from there,” said Fleming, who wears wire-rimmed glasses and sports a reddish goatee and green T-shirt showing an owl.

His hobby continues a tradition that goes back centuries.

Hunters have been using trained hawks to catch their quarry for 4,000 years, and falconry has been a sport in Europe since medieval times.

In recent years, some falconers have made their hobby into a business. In London, birds of prey scare disease-carrying pigeons from dozens of historical sites, avoiding the need for alternatives such as shooting or poisoning the pests.

Fleming, who plans to major in wildlife biology and dreams of becoming an ornithologist, became hooked on falconry when he attended a sporting exposition. He was entranced by the owls, falcons, hawks and eagles on display.

“I got to play with raptors all day,” Fleming said Tuesday as his 1-year-old bird perched on his leather-glove-covered hand. “What could be better?”

Fleming contacted the Virginia Falconry Association, read up on the sport and decided to get his own hunting bird. Under the guidance of two licensed master falconers, he went to a ridge in Virginia where migratory hawks gather. Using a live pigeon for bait and a net that folds over on its target when tripped, Belle was trapped.

To get acquainted, Fleming and Belle spent a few hours over a couple of days in a dark, quiet room, and he held off on feeding her for a day. Belle, now about at her adult weight of 2 pounds, can subsist on a couple of ounces of food a day.

Fleming buys frozen quail to tide Belle over between natural hunts, in which she uses her excellent vision to swoop down on mice, voles, rabbits, snakes or other birds.

Fleming lets her hunt on her own three or four times a week. Sometimes she’s successful and sometimes not. But she keeps coming back to her keeper with the promise of easy food.

“The bird learns to work with you, and you learn to work with the bird,” said Fleming. “The bird teaches me as much as I teach her.”

Fleming knew by the time he left home that Belle had a placid enough disposition that he didn’t have to put a hood over her head to keep her calm during the 700-mile car trip. During the ride, she was kept in a 2-by-3 foot ventilated wooden box.

Rather than keeping Belle on the campus of the private, environmental college of about 500 students, Fleming decided to keep her several miles off campus where a specially built compound could be set up.

Three weeks before school started this week, Fleming and his dad Michael came up to Maine to build what is no ordinary bird cage.

A 12-by-16-foot “weathering” area that’s open to the elements but enclosed by chicken wire is attached to an 8 by 8-foot shed – called a mews – where Belle can get out of the weather.

In the open area, the bird is tethered to a pole. The chicken wire is more to protect the hawk from other animals.

and birds that may be drawn by food scraps than to keep Belle in.

Falconers must have federal as well as state licenses. Maine has 20 licensed falconers, said Mark Stadley of the state Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department. Maine also requires a hunting license is the bird hunts, Stadley said.

Novice falconers, who must be at least 16 in Maine, must pass an exam, have a mentor and maintain their apprentice’s status for two years. The next stage, general falconer, covers a minimum of five years. After seven years, a falconer can become a master.

States regulate what kinds of raptors may be used, according to the Falconry Information Steering House.


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