Gary Lollman grew up on a dairy farm in rural New York state, and it didn't take him long to develop an affinity for the native wildlife there.
It was that innate curiosity which sparked his passion for falconry - the practice of breeding, training and using falcons or other hawks to hunt small prey and return from flight at a handler's direction.
For the past 20 years, Lollman has been a master falconer. Today, he trains his tan-and-brown spotted Harris hawk, Isis, five times a week in remote spots along the Central Arizona Highlands.
"As a kid, we had opportunities to hunt and fish when we raised raccoons and things, which was legal then," Lollman said earlier this week from an open field near
Highway 89A and Glassford Hill Road, where he carried along Isis, an exotic Saker falcon, on a short hunt. "I had always been interested in birds of prey and had read a lot about falconry, but I didn't know anyone who practiced it and didn't have any inroads into it."
But those circumstances would change.
Thirty years ago, Lollman was tubing on the Salt River near Phoenix when he stumbled on an injured Harris hawk. He captured the bird, which had a damaged wing, and handed it off to a veterinarian friend for treatment.
A short time later, Lollman realized he wanted to become a certified falconer.
After passing a written exam administered by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which tests knowledge on care, husbandry, training, disease factors and regulatory aspects of falcons, Lollman spent the next two years as a prospective falconer going through an apprenticeship program with a master.
He later became a Class 2, or general falconer. After serving five years at that level, he earned the master falconer title. Simply put, a master has had more time and experience handling birds of prey, and understands their behavior.
Humans typically have bonds with herding, flocking social species, such as parrots, horses and dogs, and they have become accustomed to interacting with each other over time, Lollman said.
With falcons, there's a big difference. These predators are solitary and typically come together only for breeding opportunities in the spring.
Falconers allow their birds to roam in the wild, but they keep a close eye on their health. Birds of prey are known to have a 75 percent mortality rate. Before a falconer is ready to release a bird, he or she will band it so it can be tracked. In captivity, Isis could live to be 30 years old. But if Isis were left in the wild, assuming she was in the right environment, she might make it just 12 to 15 years.
These days, all birds of prey in the U.S. are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to possess one without a permit.
"The only birds not protected are the starling, pigeon and the English sparrow, and they all came from Europe," Lollman said.
Falconers pride themselves on their preservationist role. They were first to notice the decline of peregrine falcons and began breeding peregrines in captivity before any governmental agency got involved.
"The neatest thing about falconry is you work with a live predatory animal, and it's such a unique relationship," Lollman said. "To be able to release a bird, have it fly free, hunt wild quarry and then return to you is a phenomenal thing."
Harris hawks, native to Eastern Europe and found throughout northern Asia, are bred in captivity in the U.S. and often used at zoos and renaissance festivals where they do flight demonstrations for the public.
Lollman acquired the 10-month-old Isis from a Nevada breeder 27 days after her birth. Once she was flighted, he said it took her two to three months of good, continual training to reinforce some of the right behaviors.
"If you work with a wild bird of prey that's been trapped legally, even for several years, and you lose it or release it, in two days they're completely wild again," he said.
Since a bird of prey naturally knows how to fly and hunt, a falconer's training of a bird revolves around teaching it how to fly back on command after release.
"It's important to understand the birds of prey, how they exist in the wild, what their mental processes are and what motivates them to do what they do," Lollman said.
When falcons catch quarry, they don't retrieve it. They are intent on feeding on it and finding a roost for the night. So the falconer must learn how to approach the bird and retrieve the food it has acquired.
In the wild, Isis catches a variety of birds, ground quarry, reptiles and mammals. But with practice in falconry, she will be trained to catch quail and dove during the hunting season.
"There's a little routine and repetition, but primarily that's food related," Lollman said. "When they're hungry in the wild, they're motivated to hunt quarry."
Falconers control their birds' body weight to keep them in a lean, muscular condition in the interest of physical fitness, similar to an athlete.
"If there's no edge to their hunger, you could take the bird out, release it, and it would drift off," Lollman said. "Or a hawk would sit on a pole and then refuse to hunt or come back to you."