The Hobby of Mine – Spencer Sweeney

Hobbies are fundamental aspects of ourselves. They help define who we are as individuals; they are the things we choose to immerse ourselves in with what little free time we have. This column aims to explore the vast range of unique and interesting hobbies and pastimes hidden within the Lawrence community, and to grant insight into what makes each Lawrentian unique.

Sophomore Spencer Sweeney.
Photo by Larissa Davis.

Most people settle for a dog or a cat. People wanting to spice it up might get a fish, or if they are feeling particularly daring, a snake. They want something docile and lovable, relatively easy to maintain and available at all hours for emotional support. For some people, it is not enough. For sophomore Spencer Sweeney, it was a hawk and more so, to become a falconer.

 “Falconry is the sport of hunting with birds of prey,” Sweeney explained. “The name, for the most part, is a generalization; the sport encompasses more than just falcons. For example, I have only hunted with hawks.” Stemming from her love of raptors, or birds of prey, Sweeney recalled what propelled her into becoming a falconer. “I volunteered at the University of Minnesota raptor center for a long time,” she said. “The birds fascinated me. I always wanted to hold them. But, you had to be 18 for this, and I was only 14 at the time.” She continued, “I asked how I could, and they sent me to the Minnesota Falconry Association. There, they let me hold the birds and told me, ‘Hey, you should be a falconer!’ So I went through the year-and-a-half long process of building a place to keep the bird and getting licensed. Then I went and caught one.”

A falconer does not buy their bird. As such, the prospect of ‘owning’ their bird is a foreign one.  “Technically, you could say that you ‘own’ it,” Sweeney said. “But no one really thinks of it that way. For a good falconer, the bird is your partner. In most cases, they  go into the wild and capture it, but in time release it back into the wild. It is not a pet.” However, she had not always known this. “In the beginning, I was really excited,” she said. “Thrilled, though, looking back on it, I had expected an idealized version of what falconry really turned out to be. I remember getting my first hawk — her name is Flynnie — and I thought there would be this instant bond between us, that we would be inseparable. But, they are wild animals.” She continued, “The first night I had her, she was flying away from me, hanging off my glove, her eyes wide, mouth open, panting and stressed and biting me.” She laughed, saying, “She did not like me at all!”

But with one or two delicious bribes, Sweeney and Flynnie’s relationship took a turn for the better. “It is pretty much all based off of food,” Sweeney said. “You feed them and they eventually learn that you are the one who gives them food.” She continued,  “Really, the birds do not like the people at all. Some do, but if you have a good bird, you expect the bird to work with you. It is not going to cuddle with you. It thinks, ‘This person gives me food,’ and that is fine.” But, as the ancient maxim goes, not all problems can be solved with food. “Flynnie was a great bird, but in the end she was not suited for falconry,” Sweeney said. “She was not suited for captivity; she was afraid of everyone but me. This made it hard for her to be out in groups, so I had to go out and hunt with her alone.” She continued, “Even then, she would not really listen. Flynnie liked me I think more than my second bird, but she needed to be free. Having to release her when I thought I was going to keep her forever, when I thought we would have this bond, was really hard.” 

“Hunting is different with every type of bird,” Sweeney said. “I hunted with red tailed hawks, which Flynnie and the others were.” She described the electrifying process of hunting with a raptor. “I usually do not feed them before we go,” she explained. “I would take Flynnie out of the mew, find a place by myself or with a team and unclip her. I would throw her up into a tree to perch and wait.” She continued, “The bird is well trained; it will wait for you until your whole group is ready and in line. Then, as the bird follows you from tree to tree, your team pushes through the area hoping to scare a rabbit from its hiding place. As soon as the bird sees one, it is ready to swoop down and catch it.”

“I never enjoyed the hunting part,” Sweeney admitted. “I never enjoyed killing animals. But the process is slower with the bird, and tougher to watch, so I have to do it.” But, at the heart of it all, there was something that made it all worth it. “It’s when everything falls into place,” Sweeney said.  “When you go out on a hunt, working as a team — especially if your bird is in the tree and you are the one in charge — it is just me and my bird, acting together as one organism. It is all connected, it is all in the moment.”

Sweeney described how she changed and what she learned from living, nurturing and hunting with these birds. “The responsibility was immense,” she said. “My mom and I came to an agreement — for both our sakes — that I would be the one to take care of the bird. I would make the decisions for it and I had to be there to feed it. If I wasn’t going to be there, I would have to make arrangements. Having that responsibility was heavy, but it made me more able to take care of the difficult things in my life.” She continued,  “Being a falconer, for a long time, defined who I was. When I didn’t have falconry, it was hard to figure out who I was. It was such an important part of my life that it took over everything else.”

Being at college has since separated Sweeney from falconry. As much as she misses it, the lifted responsibility has opened new doors for her. “It has given me time to open up and explore things I had put on the backburner, things I had forgotten about,” she said. Hesitating, she continued, “After being away from it, though, I don’t know if I will go back. I do not like hunting. I like everything leading up to the kill, but not the kill itself. But, I would like to work with birds again. They are still such an important part of who I am.”

Sweeney’s conclusion began with a warning. “If people want to get into it, they should know that it is a huge commitment,” she said. “It is not a college-time hobby. You have to be ready to take your hawk to the hospital in the middle of the night if it gets sick. You are living a symbiotic relationship. But, if you are willing, you should go online, find your state’s club and talk to the representatives.” She continued, “Falconry is very much a lifestyle. It is not just a hobby — it takes up everything you have when you do it. There are ugly parts, but there are good parts too. It is utterly unique. And it is beautiful.”

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