Chris Paparo once made a deal with a gerbil. And if the little critter delivered, so would he.
“I said I’d give him a big tank, big wheels, gourmet food,” he said. “If he helped me catch a hawk, I would give him the top life for a gerbil.”
Affectionately named Bait, the brave gerbil squatted inside a custom-made cage in Mattituck, attempting to lure in “passage birds,” or red-tailed hawks flying solo younger than 1 year old — the only capture Paparo could legally make as a licensed falconer, one of approximately 200 in New York State, and just two dozen on Long Island.
Several failed attempts later, the right raptor finally came along and Bait was rewarded handsomely, living out his remaining two years in luxury. And as for the young hawk named Emmy, it was the start of a beautiful partnership, Paparo said.
“I was impressed. Getting to be that close to a wild hawk was pretty awesome. It was an exciting moment,” he said of the catch in 2009. “It went pretty well. I brought her back to my house and the next day, I was able to get her to sit on my fist. She was a little bit standoffish, but she sat on my hand and didn’t go crazy. She was definitely cautious of me and nervous, but it wasn’t long before that time I first got her to the time we were hunting.”
Practiced for almost 4,000 years — and once known as “the sport of kings” — falconry is far from a hobby, Paparo said. It involves using a wild hawk, eagle or falcon to hunt, return prey back to its master, and then accept a return to captivity. Many consider it an art form, one that requires dedication, finesse, intricacy and skill, not to mention long hours.
“It’s a lifestyle. It’s flying her at least three times a week, in the snow, in the nasty weather, in the cold,” he said. “It’s not a pet. The whole point of falconry is to have a bird of prey that you hunt with. So just to have a hawk so you can take pictures and selfies, it’s not really fair to the bird. It’s a huge commitment. It takes up a lot of your time. If I had kids, there’s no way I could even do this. It’s not something that everybody has the time to be able to do.”
With Emmy in hand, Paparo will be sure to make that point during his upcoming talk, “Falconry: An Ancient, but Not Forgotten Sport,” on Saturday at the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton. Their visit will be strictly educational, he said, as they only hunt on the North Fork — at least for now.
Every hunt in the field starts as a walk, he said. She flies up to a tree and keeps an eye on Paparo, following his movements as he flushes out game. But oftentimes she will spot an animal up ahead and take off after it, he said, sometimes returning dejected, but more often successful.
“Whatever she catches, she eats some of it. I trade her meat to take the rest back, and we split it,” Paparo said. “For example, the rabbits she caught yesterday, I buttermilk fried for dinner last night, which was delicious. I spilt it with her and I’ll also keep the other parts she hasn’t eaten — this way, I have food to feed her throughout the year. The season ends March 31, so in the off-season, I still have to feed her and I don’t want to go out to buy food. So if she’s a successful hunter, I can fill a freezer with food and feed her over the summer.”
When she’s off the clock, Emmy lives in a 200-square-foot, 10-foot-high enclosure in his backyard in Calverton, built specifically for her. With a wingspan of 3 feet, visitors are often surprised to learn, and feel, that she weighs less than 3 pounds and is lacking in the personality department — though Paparo supposes it’s relative, considering she is the only red-tailed hawk he has ever trained.
“She knows me more than she knows other people,” he said. “She knows I’m the one who’s hunting with her, feeding her. If I’m in the field and I bring somebody with me, she pays more attention to me than she does the other person. She definitely knows me from other people.
“But the one thing with hawks is they’re not social animals, like dogs and cats, where they like to be petted and caressed, sit on your lap,” he continued. “She’ll let me pet her, but she tolerates it. I don’t think it’s something she enjoys because that’s not how they are in the wild. Hawks don’t sit next to each other and rub each other and preen each other. That’s just not in their behavior.”
This year, the season began on October 1 and, to date, she has made about a dozen catches. That is about on pace, Paparo said, noting that in her best year, she had 57. Her prey primarily consists of rabbits and squirrels, the occasional pheasant or duck, and a few miscellaneous creatures — moles, mice and even a snake.
“This season in October, when it was still warm out, she jumped on the back of a box turtle,” he recalled with a laugh. “Scared the box turtle. He didn’t know what was happening because she was standing on his shell and he just closed up. He was fine, he wasn’t hurt at all, but she saw motion and she landed on it. She’s just sitting on his shell like, ‘What’s this thing? It was moving, now it’s not.’ I think she got a little confused. She flew away and then the turtle went on his way. It was a funny thing.”
Every time they hunt, Paparo lives with the possibility that Emmy will have a change of heart and fly away. That is the reality for any falconer, he said, which is why preparation is key.
“Any time you let the bird go, there’s always that chance,” he said. “That’s where, hopefully, your training comes in — and the bonding with the bird that you built the relationship with — so that, hopefully, that doesn’t happen.”