Falconry: The Masters of the Sky

An interview with Sandra Jung, Germany’s youngest self-employed falconer

How did you get involved in falconry?I actually got into falconry by chance. Back when I was 16, a friend took me to a show featuring birds of prey. I was hooked by these fascinating creatures from the moment I got there. For many years, I helped out at the same falconry in my free time.

What does falconry mean to you?These days, falconry has become a cornerstone of my life. It might sound corny, but I live for falconry. My work and my free time are devoted to birds of prey, and I’m completely okay with this. I couldn’t imagine a life without these animals, and I really hope that things continue this way.

Why did you decide to write a book? The publisher approached me. I myself would never have dreamed that there would be so much interest in my life’s story. When writing, it was important to me to provide a positive and comprehensive image of falconry without getting too bogged down in the details so that the book would appeal to those starting out as falconers as well as people completely unfamiliar with this field. I think my book encourages the reader to follow their dreams and believe in themselves.

What’s the book about? The book follows my journey, starting with my first contact with these wonderful animals and continuing all the way to the falconry I run today. I describe the highs and lows – life almost never leads you down a straight path – and emphasize first and foremost that you should stay true to yourself and always follow your heart.

Is it possible to see you and your birds in person?Of course. The falconry at the magnificent Greifenstein Castle near Saalfeld in eastern Germany is open to the public from April through October.

What connection do you see between hunting and falconry?I hunt with my gun as well as with birds. Hunting is a welcome change to all the hard work during the high season. So in winter, it’s all about relaxing with the golden eagle at the falconry. Then there’s just me and the bird – with no one watching and no expectations. Still, I know how to enjoy the tranquility when stalking game throughout the year, giving me a chance to relax and take a deep breath. Out in the forest or the field, time passes more slowly. These breaks are certainly welcome.

What do you hope to do in the future?Of course, I hope to keep doing this job for many years to come. I also really want all the animals to stay happy and healthy and would like spectators to continue to come visit us at Greifenstein Castle.

Crow Hawking

Sandra Jung and Harris Hawk Dexter on the Hunt

The crow hunting season begins in August. I am an avid fan of this type of hunting, which I carry out with Dexter, my tercel Harris’ hawk. Falconers refer to male hawks as tercels because they are a third (Latin: tertium) smaller than their female counterparts on average.In the context of wild bird hunting, tercels are able to help us falconers because of their lower body weight, which makes them more agile.

Crows are very clever and skilful in the air, and they fly quickly. In order to give my buzzard Dexter at least a decent chance against these black birds, I give him some speed from the car.

Sandra Jung

It is important not to confuse the flight of a Harris’ hawk with that of a hawk. Hawks are much better suited to crow hunting because they have a different wing shape. They are naturally faster and more agile than buzzards.

However, a key advantage of the Harris’ hawk is its origin and background: as a native of Central America, it is not ‘known’ to our native crows. When Dexter takes off from the car and heads for a group of crows, they often fail to understand immediately the danger that is flying towards them. That is a great advantage for Dexter.

The situation is quite different for hawks, as they are one of the main enemies of crows in Germany. For this reason, corvids notice a hawk instantly – they call out a warning and initiate an escape.

You need a large, sprawling area to hunt crows with a bird from a moving car. Crows are incredibly intelligent animals: they often recognise vehicles and drivers from a distance after just one aerial hunt. For that reason, it can be highly advantageous to choose different grounds from time to time and to use another vehicle.

Once Dexter takes off from the car, he immediately starts chasing crows perched in the right position. A fascinating spectacle of nature can be observed at this point: Dexter often goes for a bird in the group that is not the one I believe to be the best choice at first sight. Why should that be so? Over time, I have learnt that the animals Dexter chases and catches in a fraction of a second as they take flight are sick, weak, or inexperienced birds. In many cases, they have injured legs, damaged feathers, or the like. Hunting with a bird of prey therefore results in an ideal selection process that is not possible to the same extent for human hunters: sick or otherwise weak birds are removed from nature, helping to maintain a healthy wildlife stock.

Most hunting flights are a spectacle to behold. Many crows are late in perceiving Dexter as a threat. They take off after a long delay and try to escape the aerial hunter – already very close – by flying in agile loops, suddenly dropping in altitude, changing speed or carrying out other flight manoeuvres. Of course, the Harris’ hawk tries to follow these acrobatics. He is often successful, but not not always. Dexter stands no chance if the crow is too smart and experienced.

If one of these fascinating hunting flights is successful, I let the dog out to sprint to the bird. It is common for the other group members to resent the buzzard with his prey. Balu, my bird dog, therefore rushes up to his partner and keeps the other crows off his back.

Crows are very defensive, and their pointed beaks can make them dangerous for a sitting bird of prey. You could consider the dog to be the buzzard’s bodyguard.

Sandra Jung

If I get to the bird myself, I may take hold of the captured crow and help Dexter get to the meat by plucking some feathers. Dexter can then fill his crop on his prey – a turn of phrase we falconers use to mean that he can eat as much as he likes. This is the perfect end to the positive experience of a successful hunting flight: the bird will happily give his all next time to ensure a bountiful hunt.

Since these hunting flights use up a great deal of energy (and there may be unsuccessful attempts before the prey is caught), it is essential that hunting birds are in excellent physical condition. If they are not well fed, well trained and muscular, a few failed flights can lead to absolute exhaustion. That would lead to a bird being unable to hunt because he is too weak. This must not happen. Daily weight checks are essential when it comes to checking that hunting birds have a healthy constitution.

At the end of a successful day’s hunting, the bird can return to the aviary and enjoy some fresh water. Only if a bird of prey has everything it needs will it remain willing to work with a human partner. For me personally, the greatest happiness on earth is to go hunting with a bird and a dog in the knowledge that you form an unbeatable team with these animals.

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