BROWNSBURG, Ind. - The hawk sat high in the tree, still and watchful.

Below, three girls, a mother and a father slowly walked through a vacant lot tucked between homes, strip malls and apartments.

In a rough line, the Thomson family pushed through dense brush, tree shoots and bramble vines that grabbed on to clothes and skin.

The hawk in the tree, a young male red-tail named Criere, belongs to Stephanie, the oldest of the girls.

The 17-year-old and her 15-year-old sister, Caroline, are among a very small and dedicated group of people who practice falconry, the state- and federally regulated sport of hunting with raptors. There are just 85 licensed falconers in Indiana and 3,800 falconers nationwide, The Indianapolis Star reported .

In Indiana, Stephanie and Caroline Thomson are among the youngest.

As the family walked, every so often, one of them would whack a snow-covered pile of brush or sticks with what looked like an old ski pole.

Suddenly, all the commotion did its job, and a cottontail rabbit jolted out from a hidden hole.

"Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" Stephanie shouted, her voice pitched with excitement as she hoped to catch the attention of the bird and direct it to the speeding bunny.

But Criere didn't need prompting.

He came rocketing down from its perch, a missile of feathers, talons and a razor-sharp beak. The rabbit let out a frightened scream as the hawk clobbered it on the snow.

Stephanie and Criere had been training for moments like these since she trapped the young bird from the wild in the fall of 2013.

Caroline's bird, a female red tail that she named Drea, was trapped at the same time.

In Indiana, it's legal to acquire a wild bird and hunt with it.

Indeed, trapping your hunting partner is what Indiana wildlife officials say an apprentice falconer is legally required to do to enter the world of falconry, a term that applies to keeping and hunting with raptors such as eagles, hawks, falcons and owls.

But to call what the Thomson teens and other falconers do a "sport" or even "pet ownership" doesn't do justice to the relationship between the handlers and their birds. Nor does it cover the responsibilities to which these teenagers have committed.

For one, while a bond exists between the girls and their hawks, the affection the girls feel for their birds doesn't get shared.

"They would be the worst pet ever, I tell you," Stephanie said. "These are still wild animals."

Adds Caroline: "We're good hunting partners. We're not really good buddies."

This is why it's imperative for the girls to immediately retrieve their birds if the hawks make a kill. If the hawks' appetites become satiated, they're apt to fly off and abandon their handlers.

So food plays a key role during bonding, training and hunting. The girls weigh the birds to make sure they are healthy, and feed them some of the rabbits they might have killed during one of their frequent hunting trips.

"It's not like 'Awww, I love you.' It's 'I love your food,'" Stephanie said. "It's not like a personal relationship, and they fly to you because you've had them for so long, and you're nice to them. It's like, 'You have food. I know I can get it from you and no one else is going to give it to me.'"

Dianne Moller, a spokeswoman for the North American Falconers Association, said there's a reason there are fewer than 4,000 falconers nationwide. She said the time commitment of caring for a raptor isn't for everyone.

"Some have this romantic notion that it's something glamorous," she said. "They don't realize the perpetual responsibility and daily devotion. A gun hunter puts their gun away in the closet at the end of the season, but a raptor has to be taken care of."

But that's part of the appeal for the Thomson girls.

"It's good responsibility," Stephanie said. "I love it."

The family loves birds and is a frequent visitor to Eagle Creek Park's ornithology center. So when they found out there were a pair of falconers at their church, they were intrigued. One took the girls out hunting with his hawk.

Edwin Brochin, a state-licensed, master-class falconer, has been hunting with raptors for 13 years. He offered to mentor them on the spot.

"They've really not let me down," said Brochin, who keeps a Cooper's hawk, a Finnish goshawk and a red tail. "They've outdone a lot of seasoned veterans in the sport in just their first and second years."

They needed to jump through more than a few regulatory hoops to become falconers.

Before the girls could trap their birds, an Indiana Department of Natural Resources conservation officer did an inspection to ensure they had the equipment needed to safely and comfortably house, move and hunt with the birds.

Brochin had to agree in writing that he would sponsor them while they're in an apprenticeship program, which lasts at least two years.

They also had to pass a state falconry test before they trapped their birds, which are fitted with a state-issued leg band.

The girls say they helped build equipment, such as outdoor aviaries for the birds - known to falconers as "mews." And they paid for most of the equipment with babysitting money they'd been saving for years.

Catching their birds wasn't easy.

The girls used a mesh wire cage covered in hundreds of noose-like snares of fishing line. Inside went a live quail. The girls placed the cage in a field and waited for a bird to pounce on the cage and get its talons snared in the line.

Only juvenile red tails still too young to have their trademark red feathers can be nabbed. Adult birds, by law, must be set free.

Then came hours and hours of training to ensure the birds were comfortable standing on the girls' thick leather gloves and that they would come to a whistle or a meat-baited, bird-shaped lure flung on a leather tether.

The Thomson girls say being home-schooled by their mother, Kim, has helped immensely. It's given them more time to spend hunting and caring for their birds.

Falconry has become a part of their biology curriculum. Cleaning rabbits is a poignant anatomy lesson.

Meanwhile, the Thomsons have taken to falconry so much that they've adopted the terminology.

When asked if the girls have any older siblings, father Robert Thomson, finance director for the Indianapolis Airport Authority, says: "Two of them have fledged."

Adds their mother, Kim: "We have three nestlings."

The Thomsons also have turned hunting into a family outing, one where everyone participates, including little Lauren, who helps thump brush to get rabbits to move for the birds.

On the recent hunt that included a shrieking bunny, the cottontail escaped before becoming a meal, leaving a clump of brown fur in the snow.

No cottontails died that day in spite of the hawks making several dive-bombing attempts.

But that, says Stephanie, is part of the experience.

"It's called 'hunting,' not 'catching,'" she said. "Sometimes we've been out for an hour and had two rabbits, and we went home. Sometimes we went for five hours, and we got nothing."

Not to worry about Criere's hunger pangs. The girls always carry raw rabbit pieces in a leather bag at their waists.

After the hunt, he sat on her leather glove, shredding a rabbit haunch. He gulped it down greedily.

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Indianapolis Star.