On his family’s farm in Randolph County, West Virginia, 20-year-old Collin Waybright has a hobby that’s very different from streaming TV shows or playing video games. Waybright is one of the state’s youngest falconers. To be a falconer, you have to love birds and Waybright fits the bill.
“They all have different flight styles. And it’s amazing,” Waybright said. “They’re just so effortless. They can just soar on thermals. And whenever it gets a little windy, they just kind of tuck their wings back a little bit and go into it.”
Since he was a teenager, Waybright said he’s been impressed by the way birds’ bodies are built, and he feels it’s proof that a higher power has a hand in creating animals.
“Birds can teach us many things,” said Waybright.
Falconry, the sport of hunting with falcons or other birds of prey, dates back to 5,000 B.C in Mongolia. Some historians say people may have been bonding and partnering with birds of prey even longer than that.
Like most falconers, Waybright loves watching the birds hunt. But even more than that, he just loves watching them fly. At times, it’s like he vicariously gets to fly himself.
“I definitely have wished quite a few times that I could fly. I wish I could be up there. Just flying around. Be really cool.”
Learning To Be A Falconer
Waybright is one of 31 people in the state who have falconry licenses. Some surrounding states like Pennsylvania have more falconers, according to Rich Bailey, an ornithologist with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.
Each state has its own licensing program, which includes an extensive test, and several years apprenticing with a master falconer. “It’s a very hard test,” said master falconer Mick Brown, who’s been practicing falconry for 18 years in Ohio, and all over the U.S. “I have an insurance license, investment license and a real estate license. The hardest test I ever took [was] the falconry test, to be honest with you.”
The test includes how to take care of a raptor, including disease and medicines, to ensure that people and wild animals are both protected. Only licensed falconers can care for birds of prey.
“If I go out of town, I can’t have you feed my bird,” said Brown. “I have to have a licensed falconer feed my bird. There’s not that many. So, I have to either take it to a falconer’s house and have him feed him or have him come to my house and feed him. So it’s very difficult.”
Brown said becoming a falconer requires a good deal of money. “It’s very expensive to get into.” Brown said he estimates it takes about $10,000 to get started. The cost of food is also expensive.
Waybright’s First Hawk
Waybright had a little help with his initial expenses, since he was just 14 years old when he started as a falconry apprentice. Another falconer loaned him the pens he needed, as well as the goshawk trap he used to trap his very first bird of prey.
The first thing a falconer does once they receive a license to become a falconry apprentice is trap their own young bird in the wild.
“The typical way that falconry works is you trap a young bird in juvenile plumage and train it,” Waybright said.
So in the middle of January six years ago, Waybright trekked out in the snow to try to catch a young red-tailed hawk. He said there were subzero temperatures the night he left a rabbit as bait in a Swedish Goshawk trap.
He went to check the trap early the next morning. “It was dark and the trap was shut. You never know what you’re going to catch. You could catch an owl, a hawk, something like that. This was the first bird I had caught, and it was a juvenile red-tailed hawk. Out of all the birds that I could have caught for the first time in that trap, it was what I was after. And that is just amazing to me to this day.”
He named that red-tailed hawk Ace. He loved that bird, and for about two months, he spent all his spare time training Ace, hunting with Ace. His mom, Marsha Waybright, said her son and the hawk were nearly inseparable. Falconry requires that a falconer forms a strong bond with a bird of prey.
Hawks aren’t motivated to hunt on command; they hunt for the same reasons a hawk does in the wild—because they’re hungry. That means a falconer has to keep close tabs on their bird’s weight, making sure they don’t get overfed- but also stay healthy. Waybright taught Ace calls so they could communicate in the woods. Waybright hunts small animals with his hawks, like rabbits or squirrels. Waybright walks through fields and forest and the bird follows, flying from tree top to tree top, scanning for prey. They hunt together like this, but the birds really do most of the work. Waybright usually lets his hawks eat the prey, after they kill it.
Waybright got very attached to his first bird, Ace. They hunted together, for several years, just the two of them.
In the wild, half of the hawks die in their first year. If they survive past that, hawks typically live another nine or so years. But if a falconer is feeding them, they can live for up to three decades. Collin’s hawk Ace wasn’t so lucky.
“Ace ended up passing away in the second season I trained him,” Waybright recalled. “He was fine one day. Then the next day, he was acting a little bit slow. Next day, there was clearly something wrong. [So I] called the Raptor Center.”
The West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Fairmont advised Waybright, trying to determine what was wrong with Ace.
“And then the next day he had passed away. So that’s one of the hardest things, ever.” Waybright said the veterinarians told him Ace probably died from a genetic disease.
Since then, he’s trained eight birds of prey. He’s released some of these birds back into the wild.
Even today, six years after first discovering his love of hawks, he recalls the first time he saw a bird of prey, at a public event at Stonewall Resort.
“I saw this raptor display, and I thought it was just amazing.”
Now, doing presentations with the public is one of Waybright’s favorite parts of being a falconer. Especially teaching children about birds.
“I ask them questions as I’m talking to them, and their reactions to the questions are just priceless. I’ll look at them and ask, ‘how much do you guys think this bird weighs?’ And I’ll get guesses from 20 to 100 pounds. It’s just funny whenever you say, ‘well, no, this guy only weighs about two to three pounds.’ And then the jaws drop, you know?”
Most of these public talks have been put on hold during the pandemic. But Waybright said he does offer informal demonstrations at his family’s farm, where his mother also manages a bed and breakfast. And one day, he said if someone approaches him with the right passion for learning falconry, he’d consider taking them on as an apprentice.
His advice to anyone who is interested is that they “go hunting with a falconer. Go experience that. Go make sure if it’s something you want to do.” Waybright said if someone approached him and asked if he would teach them, he would have to evaluate if the person is serious about becoming a falconer. “It’s not for everyone. You don’t want to get into it blindly. Make sure it’s something you really want to do before you become a falconer.”