EDGEWOOD — On a breezy day just east of the Sandias, Tom Smylie releases E.Z., a Harris’s hawk.
E.Z. alights on the gauntlet of a visitor and plucks a piece of quail meat from between the fingers before flying back. The breeze pushes him off course and into a nearby piñon where he waits for a command from master falconer Tom Smylie to fly back to him. E.Z. is one of three birds of prey Smylie owns, flies and uses to hunt.
“It’s a way of life,” he says of being a falconer. “The first thing I think about when I wake up is what is the weather like today? Is it going to be too windy to fly?”
Smylie, 84, has been training and flying raptors for more than 50 years, having been captivated by the sport while playing football at the University of New Mexico. The Lobos were playing Air Force and the first half did not go so well.
“I was coming off at the ramp. It had been a tough day at the office because I was going up against their All-American,” he recalled. “As I came up the ramp at halftime, a cadet came by carrying a falcon; that’s their mascot.”
“I’ve always been an outdoors person, hunting and fishing; I just froze,” Smylie says. “I watched him stoop the falcon at halftime. I just thought that was the most incredible thing I ever saw.”
A falcon stoop involves flying upwards to a high altitude, then dive-bombing back down at unbelievable speeds that regularly reach more than 200 miles per hour.
That chance encounter irrevocably changed his life.
“I changed my major,” Smylie says. “I went into natural resource management as a result and it changed my whole life.”
Smylie has been around the globe studying raptors. He helped establish the Peregrine Fund after DDT use had reduced the U.S. population from an estimated 3,000 breeding pairs down to less than 100.
“New Mexico was one of the few places where we still had peregrines left because we didn’t have as much DDT in agriculture,” Smylie says.
He knew of three peregrine pairs and, along with pairs from other falconers, worked with Cornell University to start breeding them in captivity.
“Over 30 years, we put 4,000 peregrine back in the wild.”
He is one of about 60 falconers in New Mexico, only about half of which actually take their birds out to fly and hunt. There are some 2,500 in the U.S.
Becoming a falconer is no easy task.
“No. 1, all birds of prey are protected, so you have to get permission from the state and the federal government for some species.”
For New Mexicans, that means going to the state Department of Game and Fish seeking an application to become an apprentice under a master falconer. You have to pass a 100-question test and have your facilities for the birds inspected and passed.
An apprenticeship lasts two years, during which one of two birds may be removed from the wild; a kestrel or a red-tailed hawk.
The latter is easier to work with, Smylie says, because it is bigger, hardier and can better withstand the rough handling that comes with novices.
“We don’t want people to be pet keepers,” he says. “They’re not like parrots or something that you might want to keep for a pet. They’re really a hunting bird and they require a lot of special attention.”
An apprentice has to learn about the perches, jesses for tethering, gauntlets, and how to trap a falcon and then learn to train it.
Then there’s the husbandry: how to get the water to them; what kind of blocks for the weather and the sun.
“You teach by example,” Smylie says. “You take them out when you’re flying birds and they see how it’s done and how you’re doing it. I also demand that they catch something with their hawk, their first bird, so they don’t get into this, ‘Ooh, look at this hawk I’ve got.’ They should be used for what they’re designed for, which is hunting.”