County resident Strass’ falconry hobby really takes flight

Huntington County resident Kirk Strass hunts with a red-tailed hawk, trained to find rabbits and squirrels and return to his handler when the hunt is over.
Huntington County resident Kirk Strass hunts with a red-tailed hawk, trained to find rabbits and squirrels and return to his handler when the hunt is over. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published March 17, 2016.

Follow Kirk Strass’ gaze upward, and you’ll see a red-tailed bird sitting high in the tree.

A whistle from Strass, and the bird turns its head, spots the raw beef heart in Strass’ hand and swoops down for the food — settling in on Strass’ leather-gloved hand.

The bird is a red-tailed hawk, the latest in a series of hunting birds Strass has trained since taking up the sport of falconry about five years ago.

“I’ve always been interested in nature,” Strass says. He grew up fishing and hunting, all the while nurturing an interest in falconry.

“I wanted to do this years ago, but I had to wait until I got the kids out of the house,” he says. “It’s a big commitment.”

Since getting into the sport, Strass has trapped and trained three American kestrels; his current bird is his second red-tailed hawk. He’s had her for about two years and says he’ll probably hunt with her one more season before releasing her back into the wild.

“She’s my hunting buddy,” he says, stroking the bird’s white chest feathers. But he’s quick to point out the undomesticated nature of the bird.

“They’re not a pet; they’re a hunting partner,” he says. “If you don’t watch them close enough, they’ll attack you.”

As a hunting partner, the hawk has been trained to go after rabbits and squirrels. The pair becomes a trio with the addition of a beagle.

“I pair the bird and the dog up as a team,” Strass explains. The dog flushes the rabbit out, and the bird comes in for the kill.

But sometimes the kill isn’t the point. Just seeing the hawk at work is enjoyment enough.

“When I get her out chasing, it’s a thing to watch,” Strass says. “It’s just neat to watch them fly.”

The hawk will pursue a squirrel to the top of a tree; when the squirrel realizes it has nowhere else to go, it will run in a spiral to the bottom of the tree — the bird spiraling down right alongside it.

“They’ll both thump at the bottom,” Strass says. “If she hasn’t killed it by the time I get there, I’ll dispatch it.”

Strass allows the hawk to eat some of the kill; what she doesn’t eat, he’ll take home to feed her in the off-season.

Keeping the bird just a little bit hungry is key to keeping her under control. She flies free when Strass takes her out hunting, wearing a bell on her anklet so he can keep track of her.

“I’ll put her in a tree and she’ll follow me through the woods,” he says.

The bird could fly off at any time. In fact, some falconers have lost their birds in the woods because they’ve been fed too well. Strass is careful to keep his bird just a little bit hungry during a hunting trip. That way, it’s not difficult to call her in.

“I yell her name or whistle or I show her a piece of meat,” he says, and the bird returns to him. “She’s hungry.”

It takes a determined individual to get into falconry, a sport regulated by the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of Natural Resources. First, there’s a 120-question test to gauge the applicant’s knowledge of birds and their care.

“I read anything I could get,” Strass says. “I passed it the first time.”

The would-be falconer must build a facility to house the bird, incorporating areas for the bird to get out in the fresh air and to be sheltered from bad weather.

The falconer must also obtain the necessary equipment — including glove, hood, anklets, leashes and more. Both the shelter and the equipment must be inspected and approved by a conservation officer. After the falconry is established, the game warden can come in and inspect it at any time.

The sport is highly regulated because of the protected status of the birds, the result of a diminished population caused by the use of DDT and killings of the birds by humans, Strass says.

Once all the regulations have been met, the falconer still isn’t ready.

“Then you have to find a general or master falconer who will take you on for two years as an apprentice,” he says.

Strass found his sponsor an hour away in Waterloo, making frequent visits and phone calls to learn the sport.

“And then you go out and trap a bird,” he says.

There are breeders who will sell a bird for $700 to $800, but Strass chose not to go that way.

“Why do I want to buy a bird when I can go out and trap one?” he says.

The birds are trapped in the fall, when they’re six to seven months old. Strass uses a bal-chatri trap, baiting it with a rat or a bird. When a kestrel or hawk swoops in on the prey, its feet are caught in the nooses attached to the trap.

The birds are relatively easy to find, Strass says.

He took on an apprentice falconer this year and, when they went out to trap a bird, they found five young red-tails within a five-mile radius. Kestrels are also common, he says.

Once a bird has been captured, the falconer must redirect its food preferences. In the wild, a red-tailed hawk would eat mice, snakes and other small animals.

The falconer wants the bird to go after squirrels and rabbits, so the bird is fed squirrels and rabbits.

Strass takes his hawk out two to three times a week during hunting season and flies her every day for exercise.

A falconer must weigh his bird daily to make sure it isn’t eating too much. A bird kept a little bit hungry learns that returning to its falconer is a guarantee of food.

“If it’s too heavy, it won’t respond,” he says. “They have no need to come to you.”

Strass says the mortality rate for a six to seven-month-old bird in the wild is about 90 percent. In the wild, a bird’s normal lifespan is five to seven years, he says; the care it receives in captivity extends that lifespan to up to 20 years.

That care includes regular feeding, protection from severe weather and veterinary care — which can be expensive.

“The first bird I had broke his leg,” Strass says. “That was a $500 vet bill. And then later I turned him loose.”

If a bird does take off into the wild, the anklets it wears are designed to eventually fall off. And the bird will be able to resume its wild ways.

“The first one I had, she took off for a day,” he says. “I came home the next night and whistled, and she came back.”

Strass does most of his hunting in the area around his northern Huntington County home, and says the birds are generally very territorial. When  he turned a bird loose, he took it to the Andrews area so it wouldn’t return to his home.

“In a matter of a week, she’ll revert back to her wild state,” he says.

Although there are some special seasons for falconry, for the most part hunting with a bird is treated the same as any other type of hunting.

“You have to follow all the same hunting rules as if you were using a gun,” Strass says.

That includes observing rabbit and squirrel seasons. If a bird gets a rabbit or squirrel out of season, it can eat it; but Strass can’t take it home.

Strass volunteers with Soarin’ Hawk Raptor Rehabilitation Center, in Fort Wayne, and will soon begin working with the eagles there. That experience will help him get his master falconry license, which will then allow him to hunt with an eagle.

Strass says he plans to hunt with his red-tailed hawk for one more season, then turn her loose and trap an American kestrel to train.

“It’s just always fun for me to watch nature and be partners with it,” he says.