Armed with a thick suede falconer’s glove, Deanna Curtis moves Cupid, a barn owl the color of a roasted marshmallow, from his enclosure to a wooden perch. If he’s noticed me (he’s more interested in a bag of game meat tied to Curtis’s hip), he doesn’t seem to care about my presence.
At least until I hold up my own sheathed fist. Immediately, Cupid’s amber eyes zero in—he knows there is a treat in my grasp. With a shriek, he unfurls his nearly three-foot wingspan, clears the 20 feet that separated us, lands on my wrist, snatches the morsel, and rips it into smaller pieces between his talon and beak. He’s surprisingly light—just about a pound.
We’re in the mews (like an indoor stable for trained raptors) at the Broadmoor, a 131-year-old five-star destination resort in the shadow of Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It’s where a handful of licensed falconers, including Curtis, offer guests the chance to try out the Sport of Kings.
Falconry—hunting in tandem with birds—is estimated to have started somewhere between 4,000 and 9,000 years ago in the Middle East. Although it’s still practiced there, it peaked in Europe in the Middle Ages, when the aristocracy of Europe considered the stately falcons and hawks important status symbols (hence the sport’s regal nickname). Interest in the Western world dissipated after the invention of the gun made hunting easier, but in recent years, luxury hotels have helped renew interest in the ancient tradition, by providing falconry classes for their guests.
“The goal of the classes is to give people a chance to have an up close and personal encounter with the sport, a variety of raptor species, and to teach about the historical and ongoing conservation efforts in falconry,” said Katheryn Wickberg, another falconry instructor at the Broadmoor.
In the United States, the sport didn’t get a toehold until the early 1900s, and for a while interest was concentrated in men’s clubs at eastern universities. (Native Americans didn’t traditionally practice falconry—they viewed the birds as messengers to the heavens, not something they could train to hunt on their behalf.) Today there are about 4,000 certified falconers in the entire United States.
“There are not a lot of us crazy, eccentric people,” Curtis joked.
Part of that is because falconry is the most highly regulated sport in the nation (due to a mixture of politics and animal welfare). To become certified, you first need to apprentice for two years under a falconer who has been practicing for at least five. After the apprenticeship, would-be falconers must pass a 100-question test before getting their own bird. To become a master falconer, like Curtis, it’s another five years of training.
While the North American Falconers Association doesn’t keep data on members’ genders, Carol Speegle, the assistant corresponding secretary, said, “It is safe to say there are definitely more male. However, the sport is growing, because it has become much easier to find a sponsor to learn from in our digitally connected world.”
Wickberg echoed that sentiment, saying, “I think in recent years the demographic of the sport across the country has been shifting—I think we’re seeing many more women and minorities pursue falconry.”
That’s mainly the U.S., though. While UNESCO added falconry to their Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, it’s still a heavily male-dominated activity throughout much of the Middle East and Asia.
At the Broadmoor, the staff falconers oversee seven birds of prey besides Cupid, including two falcons (a peregrine named Earl and a lanner named Lance), four Harris’s hawks (Goldie, Maverick, Goose, and Ice Man), and a Eurasian eagle owl (Layla). They also have a bird in training they hope to announce publicly in the near future and a handful of others they’re looking to add to the program in the coming months. Curtis also owns two raptors of her own (a Harris’s hawk named Roscoe and a peregrine falcon named Drake); she acquired both when they were juveniles. As Curtis explained, roughly 75 percent of birds in the wild don’t survive past their first year, mainly due to starvation. Taking one from the wild in that first year and teaching it to hunt better helps increase its chance of survival later on.
As we walk around a golf course that’s been repurposed as a falconry area on the Broadmoor property a little later, with Goose the Harris’s hawk flying ahead of us, Curtis notes that it’s a partnership—the birds could leave at any time, but they choose to come back. However, they’re not pets—the birds stay because there’s food, not an emotional attachment.
“Try putting your hand out,” she says. As I do, Goose notices the movement, banks left, and within moments is perched on my fist. He looks at me expectantly, though this time there wasn’t a tasty morsel hidden in my palm, so he flies off until the next time a gloved fist goes up.
On the way back to the car, Curtis asks if I enjoyed getting to know the Sport of Kings. I tell her I did and that I’m already itching to try it again.
“Good,” she said. “Maybe if enough women get involved, falconry will get a new nickname.”