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Following the ancient sport of falconry

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO Chris Paparo with his red-tailed hawk, Emmy, on a farm in Baiting Hollow. Mr. Paparo, a licensed falconer, has trained the bird to catch prey and come to him on demand, an activity that dates back thousands of years. Emmy has caught more than two dozen animals so far this falconing season.

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO
Chris Paparo with his red-tailed hawk, Emmy. Mr. Paparo, a licensed falconer, has trained the bird to catch prey and come to him on demand, an activity that dates back thousands of years.

High over the wooded hills just north of Lewin Farm in Baiting Hollow, Emmy the red-tailed hawk sits in her tree, watching me intently. Somehow, I sense her disapproval as the thick underbrush snags on my jeans and jacket. I fumble my way out of the thorns.

Up ahead, Chris Paparo, Emmy’s handler and partner of sorts, walks ahead through the fallen branches and briars that catch on our clothes. He simply expects me to keep up. In my defense, I’ve been doing fairly well for a first-time falconer and someone who’s more of an indoorsman than an outdoorsman.

Paparo takes the long walking stick he’s been carrying and smacks it against the underbrush.

As I step over a branch, there’s a sudden gust of wind. Emmy leaves her perch behind us and soars overhead, the bells attached to her legs jingling loudly. A blur of brown and red, the red-tailed hawk flits past us, dodges between branches and crashes into brush about 50 feet away.

There’s a commotion as Emmy flaps her way airborne again and the rabbit hiding in the twigs jumps away to safety.

“She missed it!” Paparo cries out.

He stomps over the thorn bushes toward where Emmy made her attack, hitting the brush to flush the rabbit back out into the open. The rabbit would ultimately get away, one of many lucky critters to have dodged Emmy’s wicked talons that morning.

Out on the trail, Paparo and his hawk form a kind of partnership. Paparo said it’s not unlike those who use hunting dogs — except their roles are reversed.

“I’m like the dog, and she’s the shotgun,” he said.

The Calverton resident is a licensed falconer, a type of hunter who uses falcons or hawks to catch animals like squirrels, rabbits, muskrat or other prey. Falconry is an ancient sport dating as far back as 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.

Shelter Island Animal Control Officer Beau Payne said he was unaware of any licensed falconers on the Island.

For the past five years, Paparo and his hawk have stalked through the woods in Baiting Hollow. Paparo has permission from the Lewins to hunt there; he says the land is free of fences, dog-walkers and high-power lines that could pose a threat to Emmy.

A longtime outdoorsman, Paparo was turned on to the hobby by someone he met at his former job who was himself a falconer. In order to get a license, Paparo began a two-year apprenticeship. He ultimately earned a license to capture a hawk of his own after getting the approval of his mentor, he explained last week before taking me out “hawking.”

Shelter Island Animal Control Officer Beau Payne said he was unaware of any licensed falconers on the Island.

Most red-tailed hawks don’t make it past their first winter, Paparo said. “Passage” birds — red-tailed hawks that are on their own but younger than a year old — are the only red-tailed hawks falconers are allowed to capture, since they don’t affect the breeding population.

Emmy, Paparo’s first and thus far only hawk, was captured in Mattituck. Paparo used a gerbil named “Bait” to lure hawks into a custom-made trap.

“I told Bait that if he catches me a hawk, he can live the rest of his life in a giant fish tank with two [exercise] wheels,” Paparo joked. “If I’m putting him out in this cage in the middle of a field I figure I have to reward him.”

Paparo caught several adults (younger hawks have different coloring and appear bigger than adults) before eventually catching Emmy. He then immediately began training her, teaching her to land on his covered arm using wads of meat as a reward.

Within about six weeks, Paparo had the hawk coming to him on command.

And even “Bait” had a happy ending: The gerbil was rewarded for its courage and lived for another two years in the tank, as promised.

When she’s not hunting, Emmy lives in a specially built enclosed shed in Paparo’s backyard that features an outdoor perch for her to rest on. The perch is also enclosed to protect her from foxes and other predators while Paparo and his wife Candyce, who trains dogs for agility, are at work. The couple’s own dog, a standard Poodle named Bullet, competes in agility events and sometimes goes out hunting with Mr. Paparo and Emmy.

“They tolerate each other,” he joked.

The relationship between Paparo and his hawk was on full display last Wednesday as Emmy watched patiently overhead while he and I stomped through the brush. Paparo joked that friends have nicknamed the hawk “Wifey” since he spends almost as much time with her as he does his own wife.

And his time with Emmy has given Paparo more time to pursue another passion of his: photography.

Last September, the New York State Outdoor Writers Association awarded him his first major recognition with more than a half-dozen trophies for his photography — which he takes under the company name Fish Guy Photos. Paparo says his time with Emmy is what helps him get such candid shots.

“I like to share my adventures,” he said. “I spend a lot of time outdoors, fishing, hunting, camping, hiking. I find most people don’t do that. They don’t get out of their bubble.”

The hours we spend in the woods near Lewin Farm fly by. Emmy dives at another rabbit and gets into a duel with a squirrel high atop a tree, hopping from branch to branch to try and catch it. The squirrel eventually flees into a hole in the tree.

Another time, Paparo and I are walking near a mess of branches when he begins running for a tree on the far side of the woods.

“Two squirrels!” he yells as Emmy lunges toward a tree. “Two squirrels!”

The critters manage to evade her talons again. Hawks are good hunters when diving from above, but should they miss, their prey are more agile on the ground.

By the end of our trip, Paparo senses that Emmy may be getting annoyed; she’s had five close calls and not a single successful strike.

When I ask if the hawk really is upset, Paparo admits that he may be anthropomorphizing a bit.

But she is surely acting different, sitting in her perch and refusing to follow Paparo as we trek back through the woods. He blows a whistle and Emmy joins us.

She’s likely frustrated, he says.

“Wouldn’t you be?”

Still, Paparo notes, Emmy is a capable predator who was able to handle herself in the wild; she’s caught more than two dozen animals since the hunting season began in October.

She could fly away at any time while they’re out hunting, Paparo said, but she has formed a bond with him and chooses to stick around, preferring to hunt with him and be rewarded than rough it on her own.

“Even here at my house … my wife will be in the backyard playing with the dog or doing something with the dog and Emmy will be out there just relaxing, sitting,” Paparo says. “I come home from work, I open the back door and I go outside. She sees me and she starts screaming and calling because she knows I’m the one that takes her hunting.”

Sure enough, when they were done hunting last Wednesday, Emmy dutifully flew to Paparo’s outstretched arm. Before he could even open the door to her travel box all the way she eagerly hopped inside, ready for the trip home.

Falcon facts
Falconers use a variety of birds when hunting and each has its own specific hunting style and dietary needs. Hawks are generally larger than falcons but falcons are faster. These are among the most popular birds in falconry.

Red-tailed hawk
Average weight: 2.4 pounds
Average wingspan:  4 feet
Prey: rabbits, squirrels, pheasant
Falconry style: Red-tailed hawks hunt by waiting in a tall tree, then swooping down on prey that are flushed out by the falconer.

Northern goshawk
Average weight: 2.2 pounds
Average wingspan: 3.6 feet
Prey: rabbits, pheasant
Falconry style: Goshawks are fast enough to be flown from the falconer’s gauntlet. They sit on the falconer’s arm until they leave their perch to chase down prey.

Peregrine falcon
Average weight: 2.3 pounds
Average wingspan: 3.6 feet
Prey: ducks, pigeons, crows
Falconry style: When diving, Peregrine falcons are the fastest animals on earth and are capable of speeds up to 238 mph. Falcons “stoop” by flying high above their prey and diving to attack. They kill by knocking their prey out of the air.

Sources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Chris Paparo

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