How to Train Your Raptor—A Master Falconer Shares Her Story

In “Peregrine Spring,” Nancy Cowan reveals how she's spent decades working with birds of prey and their "wild instinct."

When Nancy and Jim Cowan decided to become falconers 30 years ago, there was one major problem: Falconry was illegal in New Hampshire, their home state. But they didn’t let that minor detail deter them. Instead, they launched an effort to legalize the sport across the state by lobbying lawmakers and their fellow statesmen. After several years of crusading, the couple emerged victorious, and the sport was legalized in 1988. 

Nancy and Jim now both hold the title of master falconer and run the New Hampshire School of Falconry, which they started in 2005. It currently hosts 10 birds of prey, including Gyrfalcons, Goshawks, Peregrine Falcons, Harris’s Hawks, and a Lanner Falcon, with two more male Harris’s Hawks joining their "flight squad" this spring. The raptors either engage in active hunting with Nancy and Jim or are used for falconry lessons at the school. Over their decades of falconry experience, the couple has also helped rehabilitate five wild birds.

In her new memoir, Peregrine Spring, published March 1, Nancy documents her journey to becoming a master falconer and preparing injured individuals for their return to the wild. Recently, she put down her falconry glove and lure to discuss the ins and outs of the sport with Audubon. 

Audubon: Why did you decide to become a master falconer?

Nancy Cowan: I have always loved the animal-human relationship. So two years after falconry was officially legalized, I took the test to become a falconer. In New Hampshire, you are an apprentice for two years, then a general for five years, and then you become a master falconer. I may be a master falconer now, but I still feel like a beginner. There is so much to learn and it’s that learning curve that propels you on. My birds still teach me things. With every new bird, there is a new experience.

A: Does anyone else in your family practice falconry?

NC: No, my children don’t have an interest in it. It takes someone with the passion to want to be a falconer. You can be an animal lover, but you need to have that passion to want to work with wild instinct. It’s not something for everyone.

A: Is it hard to be a female falconer? Do you ever face gender bias?

NC: Falconry is a passion that is universal and timeless and goes beyond gender. It’s not a competitive sport in any way, shape, or form and it shouldn’t be. Your trials should be against yourself to get better and not to compete with another man or woman. To me, that’s the best part of falconry—being in that zone is the greatest thing.

A: How do apprentice falconers obtain their first birds?

NC: To start, you must trap your first bird from the wild. This is done through very strict regulations, which vary from state to state. It’s allowed because after an exhaustive study on raptors, it was discovered that out of every 100 Red-tailed Hawks that might hatch each spring, by the following spring, 80 of those would be dead. When you take the hawk, you’re ensuring its survival. The type of bird you can take depends on what state you live in.

A: Is it a costly pursuit?

NC: It doesn’t have to be. We were on nickels and dimes when my husband started. I used an old cast-iron balance scale and modified it so we could use it to weigh the birds. Several falconry outfitters have apprentice startup kits that cost about $200. But how much does it cost to buy a good pair of hockey skates or to golf?

Once you complete your apprenticeship, you can buy [subsequent] birds from a breeder. The cost is relative to many factors and no breeder will sell to anyone who cannot prove they have the proper paperwork and licensing to obtain these birds. Birds can range from $8,000 (for ones that are planned for breeding) to $3,000 (for Lanner falcons, which are used to scare off other birds) to $650 (for the strong, healthy Harris’s Hawks that I buy from a local breeder in the east).

A: Have you seen the sport gain popularity over the years?

NC: I don’t think falconry will ever stop having a draw, but it’s very limited in the amount of people who are willing to devote changing their lifestyle to become falconers. Your priorities must always be to give the birds the best care possible. You can’t leave them with the local pet sitter. If you have Harris’s Hawks, you must be prepared to have a place where they stay warm enough in the winter, especially if you live in the Northeast like me with 15-hour-long, dark winter nights. And, if you’re married or in a relationship, your significant other must be as willing as you to make similar sacrifices to ensure the best care for the birds. It’s not a hobby. It’s a different way of life.

A: What tips would you give to someone interested in becoming a falconer?

NC: The first thing I recommend is to get the regulations from their state because they vary state to state. Study them at every point and do a reality check: Can I do this? Will I do this? There are also several books I’d recommend, including my own, that are based on U.S. falconry.

My book tells you what it’s really like—my foibles, errors, surprises and pleasures are all in there. I didn’t hold back. It takes you from a beginner up through a master. It’s about tapping into and understanding wild instinct and living with that. That’s what intrigues me the most about falconry . . . it’s what keeps me going.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Correction: The interviewee's last name was previously misspelled.
Peregrine Spring, by Nancy Cowan, Globe Pequot Press/Lyons Press, 296 pages, $26.95. Buy it at Rowman & Littlefield.