The Inspiring Ascent of Master Falconer Shawn Hayes

How one determined man built his dream life with birds of prey

Shawn  Hayes is one of the most impressive falconers I know. As someone who has dedicated his life to the practice of training and caring for raptors, he’s talented with any bird of prey, but his expertise is flying “long-wings”—the true falcons such as Gyrfalcons, Prairie Falcons, Peregrines, and others, which all have pointed wings and a very aerial style of flight. Their classic hunting technique is to come hurtling down from the sky in a colossal power-dive called a stoop. For falconers, hunting game with a bird in such a dramatic manner is both a challenge and, when done right, immensely rewarding.  

Shawn teaches his falcons to “wait on” high above him, circling upward of a thousand feet as they watch for him to flush game such as grouse and waterfowl. Success builds on itself, and as he flies his falcons day after day, always striving to flush prey at the perfect instant, he gets to know his birds’ abilities thoroughly—and his birds get to know how good he is at providing hunting opportunities. It’s one of the most amazing relationships between a wild animal and a person that I can think of. 

To say Shawn is a remarkable person would be an understatement. An internationally renowned expert on falconry, Shawn, 59, presents talks to groups all over the world—Japan, Europe, Africa, the Middle East—sharing the training techniques he’s developed and polished in his decades as a falconer. In many ways, he has become a global ambassador for falconry. And a documentary about Shawn’s life titled Game Hawker, produced by Patagonia Films and that debuted in February, will raise his much-deserved popularity to even greater heights. 

I was interviewed extensively for this film and was happy to take part in it. I’ve been an avid falconer myself since the age of 12, more than half a century ago, and wrote a memoir titled Falcon Fever: A Falconer in the Twenty-first Century. As the documentary explores, Shawn faced many challenges as a Black man in this country and while pursuing his life’s passion. As I’ve gotten to know him better over the many years of our friendship and learned of these experiences, my admiration for him has only grown.

Shawn grew up in Riverside, California, with his mother and five siblings. Despite living in an urban environment, Shawn always loved nature. He would often hike to Mount Rubidoux—a spectacular granite hill rising more than 1,300 feet above the surrounding area, right at the western edge of the city and only a couple of miles from where he lived. He also enjoyed fishing. But birds were his specialty. He raised pigeons, and—at the remarkably young age of eight—trained his first hawk, a fledgling Red-tail some local kids had rescued and given to him. “I loved that bird,” Shawn says. “I’d walk miles to get to fields where my bird could hunt gophers.” Shawn taught himself the basics of raptor care from a 1900 English book, The Art and Practice of Hawking, by E.B. Michel. He eventually released the hawk and would often watch it hunting on its own nearby.  

Later, when Shawn was going door-to-door selling newspaper subscriptions, he met a local falconer. “I knocked on the door and this guy answered,” Shawn recalls. “I looked down behind him, and there were two falcons perched on a cadge (a falcon carrier). I went, ‘Whoa, you got Prairie Falcons!’” Shocked that this kid could ID the species, the man quickly learned about Shawn's Red-tail and that he was well-versed in the world of falconry. Soon after—and with his mom’s permission—Shawn would ride his bike home from school, do his chores, and then head to the man’s house to go flying.

As soon as Shawn graduated from high school, he moved to Bishop, California, just east of the Sierra Nevada mountains. He loved the wide open spaces and spectacular scenery. And it was the perfect area to practice his two obsessions: falconry and fly fishing. “I knew I’d never want to live anywhere else,” he says. He soon started working with falcons in a big way. He became the falconry equivalent of a ski bum, working at odd jobs just to be able to fly his falcons at every opportunity. 

For the most avid young falconers, there is often a time, usually in the late teens and twenties, when the sport takes over your life. A time when you want nothing more than to hit the trail with a falcon and a dog, living out of your truck, driving the back roads of rural western states in search of wide open spaces to hunt Sage-Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Prairie-Chickens, partridge, waterfowl, and more with your falcon. You live for it. Your highest aspiration is for your bird to fly well, and you’ll do anything to make it happen. Both Shawn and I have lived this falconry bum lifestyle at different points in our lives. I loved every minute of it. But as a Black man, when Shawn made that trek, he was entering a world of potential danger. This was back in the 1980s, but as current events remind us—including the murder of Ahmaud Arbery—not much has changed. 

Finding places to fly your birds (or to locate a lost one) often involves driving out to isolated farmhouses and knocking on doors to ask permission to enter private land. Many of these people had never met or seen anyone like Shawn. Though his safety or their comfort level should never have been an issue, Shawn is such an amiable and outgoing person that he could easily engage most people in conversation and soon have them laughing along with him and enjoying his company. At one town in Kansas where he spent a couple of months, he became very popular with the locals, especially after he gave a talk at the high school. “I became one of the regulars,” Shawn says. “They even let me run up a tab at the local diner.”  

But other times, things didn't go as well. Shawn once told me about an incident when he was following the telemetry signal of his lost Prairie Falcon. He located the bird after dark in a tree near a lone farmhouse where a woman was there with her young children. He explained the situation and even showed them how the signal got louder when he pointed his telemetry receiver’s antenna toward the tree. “I told her I’d come back at 5:00 o’clock the next morning to call my bird down, and she said it was fine,” Shawn says. But as he walked into the field at first light the next day, the woman’s boyfriend came roaring up in a pickup truck, furious that Shawn was there. The man jumped out of the vehicle brandishing a handgun, and said if Shawn came around again, he was a dead man. “Look, I just want to get my bird back,” Shawn told the man, walking away while swinging his lure (a small leather pouch at the end of a cord used to call in a falcon). The bird flew down to him right away, and the man finally drove off. But Shawn was badly shaken. “Sometimes I feel like I have a big bull’s eye on my back,” he later told me.

And yet, in the face of such adversity, Shawn has always shown tremendous courage and grit. He has more of both than anyone I know. When the problem arose of how to finance the life of a falconer, for example, he took an unusual route: He became a professional rodeo clown (now usually called bullfighters in America). It fit his annual schedule perfectly: work the rodeo circuit in the summer, fly falcons in the fall and winter during hunting season. He stayed a successful bullfighter—like falconry, another largely white field—for far longer than he should have and still feels the throbbing aches from the thousands of times he’s been slammed into or knocked down by a bull. He finally traded the rodeo for the lecture circuit and has been giving talks ever since.

People sometimes ask why Shawn and I enjoy watching falcons come plummeting from the sky to catch other birds. I can only say that the stoop of a falcon is one of the most spectacular sights in nature, and witnessing it is an experience people remember for the rest of their lives. Shawn and I are both conservationists and determined to help all birds and other wildlife. We know that falconry is not harmful to the raptors or the prey species. It is the most sporting form of hunting ever devised by humans. The prey have evolved side-by-side with these predators through the millennia and certainly know how to dodge the stoop of a falcon—but have no such innate ability to avoid a shotgun blast. Federal and state game departments across America determine how many individuals of each game species can be taken per day by each hunter without impacting the population of the species, but falconers rarely catch the daily limit. I’m happy if my falcon catches one head of game a day. Our intent as falconers has never been to catch a huge amount of prey. We want to see great flights. 

I vividly remember one of Shawn’s most inspiring flights. We were attending a field meet in November 2006 in Kearney, Nebraska, a week-long sponsored event hosted by the North American Falconers Association and the International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey. Shawn had come there to hunt Greater Prairie-Chickens, one of the most difficult North American prey species to catch with a falcon, because they’re big and strong and fly powerfully. It was late afternoon on the last day of the meet, and so far no one had managed to take one, despite having a number of excellent opportunities. For Shawn, this was actually a do-over. He’d had a perfect opportunity the day before, with his falcon circling more than a thousand feet above him as he walked across an agricultural field where he’d seen a flock of prairie-chickens land. But just as he was about to flush them, a man in a pickup truck came driving out into the field shouting angrily at Shawn, threatening to shoot his bird if he didn’t leave right away. Shawn was perplexed. He’d gotten permission to fly there, but he went ahead and called his bird down. A German falconer who witnessed the incident told me he was sure this had happened because of Shawn’s race, and others present agreed. As it turned out, the man did not even own the property. 

The following afternoon was almost an exact repeat of the day before, with good weather and a decent flock of prairie-chickens. This time, though, instead of the typical 10 to 12 fellow falconers in attendance, the number of people who came to watch was astounding—falconers from all over the world, dozens of them, who had heard about what happened the day before and were eager to see Shawn fly his falcon. I was there that day and will always remember what happened. Shawn unhooded his falcon, which began pumping its wings powerfully, obviously excited to fly again, then exploded from his fist and immediately began circling up high above him. The bird’s rate of ascent was astounding. It soon became a tiny speck and yet still climbed higher. I could barely see the falcon with my 10x binoculars as he flew straight overhead. At this point in the hunt, there are so many things the falconer needs to be aware of: the weather conditions, the direction and intensity of the wind, the angle of the sun, the likely direction the game will fly. So much can go wrong, but if it all comes together, the moment is sheer perfection.

When Shawn flushed the prairie-chickens, the falcon folded up, vanishing from view for a couple of seconds before I spotted him again, hurtling down across the clear blue prairie sky, gaining speed with every pump of his wings and finally closing up into a strange dark projectile, unlike anything else in nature. Suddenly there was an explosion of feathers from the first strike and Shawn’s bird came swinging back up in an arc, letting his momentum carry him almost to his former altitude before diving again. He chased the prairie-chicken all the way to some brushy cover, crashing in behind it and quickly dispatching the bird. Shawn was beaming with pride as he walked back across the field with his falcon and the prairie-chicken—the only one caught in the entire week. And yet, he still took time to chat with three farm kids who came running up to him, wondering what was going on. Shawn finally had to apologize and excuse himself. “I’d like to stay here talking with you longer, but you see all those people up there?” he said, pointing up the road to all the falconers gathered beside their vehicles, eagerly awaiting him. “They came from all over the world, and they want to see the prairie-chicken my falcon caught.”

As he made his way toward the group, there was no question that, with that one incredible flight, Shawn had caught the attention of the international falconry community. He hasn’t lost it since.