By Elijah Hatcher-Kay | Photography by Joni Strickfaden
Rupert let out a low hoot as he shifted his position on Master Falconer Craig Perdue’s wrist. “That hoot means he’s getting agitated. He doesn’t like everyone making a fuss about his prize.” Craig was referring to the lure in the bird’s talons. As if on cue, Rupert the Great-Horned Owl clutched it more tightly, letting out a high-pitched screech. Craig said, “I better take him back out to the car.”
This all happened in my living room. I first met Craig a few years ago on Drummond Island, which lies just off the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula in Lake Huron. We were at the Great Lakes Traditional Arts Gathering there, an annual event at which people can learn everything from building a moose-skin canoe to weaving birch bark baskets to falconry. I have always loved raptors, so when I saw Craig’s falconry classes listed among the workshop possibilities, I knew I wanted to sign up right away. Craig and I formed a close bond, and he and his Harris hawk Glory came to my eighth birthday later that year. Glory has since moved to Missouri to join a falconer who has several of her kind, because Harris hawks live and hunt best in packs. I’m still interested in birds of prey, and when I had the opportunity to write this article, I invited Craig and Rupert to come over for dinner so I could ask them some questions.
Craig is the founder of Shadow Speak, LLC, through which he shares with others the incredible experiences he’s had working with birds. He has a master’s degree in natural resources management and a Ph.D. in philosophy, with a focus on how human actions affect the natural world. Craig offers classes for kids and adults in bird behavior and physical science. He also works with people individually on addressing problems specific to their birds. “People who come to me have different goals,” Craig says. “Some want their birds to fly to them, so they come to me and I help teach the bird to fly to them. Some people want their birds to hunt, but they just won’t hunt, so I help them.”
One of the things Craig is trying to share through Shadow Speak is the idea that, by studying birds, people can understand many scientific principles. “If someone were to understand a homing pigeon, I mean really understand it, like everything about it, they could understand the entire universe,” Craig explained. “Because that knowledge would lead to more questions, and more questions, and more questions, until that person knows a whole lot of stuff.” Pursuing in-depth knowledge of one animal can teach so much about the natural world. For example, in one of Craig’s classes, students learn about bioluminescence and the physics of light through studying the iridescent colors of some birds.
Craig has lived all his life in Michigan and has always loved birds. In 2001 he decided to become a falconer. “You have to live with birds to really understand them,” Craig told me. “Sometimes scientists don’t really understand them because they don’t live with them.” Craig’s menagerie currently includes a homing pigeon, a beautiful green-wing macaw, a starling, Rupert the Great-Horned Owl, and he will soon be getting a Lanner falcon, a close relative of the more well-known peregrine.
Craig’s first bird was Coca, a male red-tailed hawk. Under Michigan law, new falconers are required to trap their first bird, which must be in its first year of life. “Since they are the easiest birds, a lot of Michigan falconers end up with a red-tail,” Craig said. He noted that the ability to identify a juvenile hawk properly is important, because before their first year, red-tail hawks don’t yet have red tails. He also mentioned that it’s easier to go back and fix previous mistakes with red-tails: “They’re more forgiving than other raptors.”
Craig flies and hunts with all his raptors but is especially focused on Rupert the Owl right now. When asked, “If you had a magic wand, what sorts of innovations would you make happen in falconry, even if they wouldn’t be easily accomplished right now?” Craig replied that he would “figure out great horned owls… If I figured out how to really work with them and connect with them, I would be doing something no one has ever done before.”
Craig is the author of Paleofalconry: Falconry Under Primitive Conditions, a book with lots of information about everything from jesses (long straps that go around a bird’s ankles, which the falconer can hold) to leather hoods that cover birds’ eyes, which calms them by tricking them into thinking it’s night. “Falconry is a science and an art, and the art part is a bit more difficult,” Craig said. “It’s just as much an art as painting or music-playing, just different. In falconry, you’re dealing with living creatures so things are constantly changing. Each generation of falconers adds new aspects to the art as there are new innovations and inventions all the time.”
Falconers in Michigan must be at least fourteen years old. At that age, after lots of study, they can test for a license as an Apprentice Falconer. As an apprentice, one must be sponsored by a higher-level falconer. The apprentice must build a holding facility for one or more raptors. Once the state inspects and approves the facility, it issues the required permit for the apprentice to capture a first bird. The apprentice continues to train with his or her mentor, and upon the mentor’s recommendation, the apprentice can test up to the next level, General Falconer. After several more years, one can earn Craig’s rank, Master Falconer.
In my living room, Craig knew what Rupert was “saying” with his different hoots and body language. I was impressed to see how close their relationship was, this curious man and his beautiful, watchful owl.
Craig Perdue’s website is shadowspeak.org, and he can be reached at email@example.com.
Elijah Hatcher-Kay is an 11-year-old homeschooler in fifth grade who loves reading, writing, acting, guitar, judo, and all things Star Wars. You can contact him through his dad at firstname.lastname@example.org