ERIE - Falconry is a game of cat and mouse, only with falcons and hawks, and seasoned falconers who need to be cagey like a fox.
As an engineer and natural history enthusiast, Jeff Kisak was drawn to the intellectual component of hunting prey with these highly trained predators as he began to learn about this 4,000-year-old sport while on a flight to Canada for a business trip in 1997.
A passion that began as he read wildlife biologist Daniel O'Brien's book Equinox: Life, Love and Birds of Prey evolved into a way of life a decade ago, when he left engineering in favor of property management to spend more time with his family and the birds.
"It is a lifestyle," said Kisak, 49, of Erie, who hunts with his six Finnish, Russian, and Siberian goshawks. "It's not like going out and playing golf. It's something you have to do every day. There's a lot to it, because every bird is different. Every situation is different."
Falconry, which Kisak describes as "the art of taking wild game with a trained bird of prey," attracts a small but dedicated group of hunters who relish the extensive time and financial commitment needed to train, care for, and hunt with their birds.
Pennsylvania has 182 licensed falconers, said Chad Eyler, chief of the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Special Permits Division in Harrisburg, which annually oversees about 90,000 permits in nearly 50 categories involving wild birds and mammals.
North American Falconers Association president Scott McNeff said there are about 6,000 licensed falconers in the United States, with about 4,000 still active in this heavily regulated sport.
"It's a very demanding sport that is rewarding if you put the time in," said Ken Felix, 69, of McKean, Pa., who has been involved in falconry for 40-plus years, and in 1978 earned master falconer status - the highest of three designations, with the others being apprentice and general. "But if you don't put the time in, it's both bad for the bird and for the falconer because you don't have any success."
Kisak wishes he could take several trips a year to enjoy the thrill of the hunt set against a picturesque backdrop.
He spent nearly three weeks this fall hunting jackrabbits in Kansas. It was a test of intelligence, instinct, and focus as Kisak and his birds battled prey and Mother Nature. For example, he takes temperature into account because his birds have heartier appetites in cold weather. Wind speeds above 15 mph makes hunting a challenge, especially when prey run into the wind.
"You're like a conductor of an orchestra," said Kisak, a general falconer, "because you're working with multiple species. You're working with the prey. You're working with the birds. You're working with the dogs," which flush out prey.
Everyday life makes it challenging to devote the time needed to be a successful falconer.
"The ones that stay in it their whole lives are like me. You're just intrigued with hawks. They're your life," said Rod Gehrlein, 71, of Summit Township, a falconer for six decades who co-owns a sailplane repair business and a radio-controlled hobby shop. "Others look at it and think it's neat, and they get into it. When they find out how much work it is, and all the legalities of it, they back out of it."
Kisak said falconers take from three days to 21/2 weeks to train a bird. He uses operant conditioning, a process well known in dog training that uses signals such as clickers and whistles and food as rewards.
The bird's "hunger overcomes the fear of you," Kisak said. "You get to a point where you blow the whistle, and that bird will come from 40 yards [away] without a hesitation to get that reward."
Birds are fed a specific diet each day to maintain top physical condition during the hunting season, which runs from September through March. They aren't overfed, Kisak said, because "if they're not hungry, they have no incentive to come back to you."
They are fed in the offseason to be in a "fat condition," Kisak said, to allow them to molt and regrow healthy feathers. Falconers also need to maintain the facilities where their birds live. They face annual inspections from wildlife conservation officers.
"The vast majority of falconers are excellent because this is what they do," the Game Commission's Eyler said.
Falconry has its practical benefits, such as the 60 pounds of jackrabbit meat from Kisak's trip that will feed his goshawks this winter.
Successful hunts minimize the cost of food. Kisak also constructed the portable facilities behind his home, which include indoor and outdoor enclosures with necessary features like perches, and he serves as a licensed breeder.
Pittsburgh-area master falconer Jeff Finch, 46, a past president of the Pennsylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust, the state's falconry association, said start-up costs range from $2,000 to $5,000.
There also are annual expenses, which can include veterinary costs.
Falconers save money by trapping birds like red-tailed hawks. Kisak said birds can cost as little as $200 or as much as $70,000, depending on the species.
Gehrlein and his wife of 52 years, Ellen, enjoy flying their five hawks together, most recently on a two-month trip to Kansas to hunt jackrabbits. Finch sponsors his son Sam, 17, a first-year apprentice. Kisak simply appreciates watching nature take it course.
"I don't know if there's much relaxing. It's focused. That's how intense it is," Kisak said. "You get out what you put into it. If you work really hard to be good at something, when the plan comes together, it's a success story."