RENO COUNTY, Kan. - Last week about 250 people from as far as Australia gathered in Hutchinson to celebrate a sport many centuries old.

"Falconry has been around at least 4,000 years," said Sheldon Nicolle, North American Falconry Association director, "and that's what's recorded."

"The only thing that replaced it was shotguns the last few hundred years," added Jeremy Kessler, a falconer from Austin. "Before that, it was the only way to catch a pheasant in the air."

Nicolle said the group, with about 1,800 members, meets annually often in the Midwest or West, to attend falconry-based seminars and swap ideas. Much of the daylight hours are used for hunting.

For this gathering, members brought hunting birds ranging from pigeon-sized kestrels for hunting sparrows to golden eagles for hunting jackrabbits and cottontails. It always takes a lot of space to find good hunting for so many. Nicolle said groups went as far as Dodge City and Liberal to find the best jackrabbit populations possible.

Past meetings have been farther west. Fear of their hunting birds killing lesser prairie chickens, a bird on and off federal protection lists lately, was one reason to move east.

"It's been tougher because we do have to drive for jackrabbits," he said. "But the amount of game we're finding has been great. The pheasant and quail populations are definitely up quite a bit since we were last in Dodge City in 2011."

State law grants falconers longer bird seasons than for those who use shotguns. Traditional pheasant and quail seasons open Saturday in Kansas.

Last Thursday morning Nicolle and Kessler started at Potter Creek Outfitters, a hunting lodge north of Pretty Prairie, where there are good numbers of wild and released pheasants.

Kessler began with Chester, a custom-bred gyr/peregrine falcon hybrid on his arm, following guide Justin Bremer and his Brittany spaniel, Rylee. When the dog went on point, Kessler removed a hood from the bird and let it fly.

About a minute later the rooster pheasant flushed from cover, bringing Chester in an aerial beeline from several hundred yards away. The pheasant was no match for the falcon's speed and agility.

Chester first succeeded in knocking the pheasant to the ground, where it flushed again, flying low. Even 100 or more yards behind the bird, Chester quickly caught up with the pheasant, hit it with his talons and took the bird to the ground.

Kessler let the falcon feast on the pheasant for several minutes as a reward for its good hunting.

Both falconers talked of the work that goes into the sport. It's heavily regulated by federal and state wildlife agencies to make sure the birds are treated well and wild populations aren't put at risk.

Nicolle said that beginners must work as an apprentice to an experienced falconer. Most are required to live-trap a red-tailed hawk, then care for it and make sure it gets plenty of exercise and hunting time.

Once that's mastered, falconers can move on to more specialized birds like the peregrine falcon Nicolle uses for hunting ducks.

Kessler has another gyr/peregrine falcon hybrid and a pure prairie falcon he was allowed to capture as chick in Wyoming. All three birds are amazingly lethal.

"We had a (falcon) that weighed 27 ounces take down a sage grouse that weighed 84 ounces," Kessler said of a hunt in Wyoming.

Falconers spend about an hour a day on basic cleaning, feeding and training of a bird, Nicolle said.

"By the time you consider the time we use to take them hunting," he said, "we can easily invest 500 to 600 hours a year, minimum, on these birds."

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