Out and About
The Faith of a Falconer
When not ministering to his Silver City congregation, the Rev. Paul Moore finds heavenly inspiration on the wings of a hawk.
by Dawn M. Newman-Aerts
It is not unusual to find Reverend Paul Moore hiking along a remote mountain landscape with a fierce-looking hawk hovering nearby. The talons of the bird can slice like razor blades, but Moore shows no fear. That's because the Silver City Episcopal priest is also a falconer.
For Moore, falconry — originally a favorite hunting activity from his youth in Ecuador — has become more than a weekend passion. He embraces this sport as he does his spiritual duties as pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Silver City. A master falconer, Moore has developed a life-long zeal for these birds of prey and considers "this hawk" an awesome portal into the mystery of life itself.
As an active member of the New Mexico and the North American Falconers Association, Moore currently works with a red-tailed hawk he named Sir Rodley.
Falconry is a fine art that requires long hours, constant devotion, gaming finesse, subtlety and skill. The human "hawker" must train a bird of prey to fly free, hunting with his human companion, and then to fully accept its return to captivity. Dating back before the dawn of Christianity, says Moore, falconry was considered a status symbol of sport in medieval Europe. It didn't become popular in North America, however, until the early 1900s.
Today, Moore talks about the deeper biology of birds of prey, the practice and history of falconry with ease. "Hawks have fantastic eyesight — like humans. My own mother had the best (eyesight) of anyone I know," he says with a broad smile. "But we (humans) have something even greater; we have incredible insight. We can seize the deeper truths about others or ourselves."
Moore, whose own parents were missionaries, was born and raised in Ecuador, on the western edge, among the Tsachi people. As a young man, he developed an enduring love of the land, and in high school turned his attention to birds. "I actually learned to hunt with the people of this region," he says. "The birds of prey seemed amazing to me."
His long-time quest to work with birds of prey began during his first trip to the United States, where he purchased in-depth literature on the topic and all the necessary equipment he would need to become a practiced and qualified falconer.
It wasn't until Moore was on a missionary assignment himself that he obtained his first young Harris hawk. That taught him a difficult lesson about falconry.
"I lost my first hawk," says Moore. "In the world of falconry, we have a saying: If you come home with your hawk in one piece it's been a good day. Unfortunately, I had the awful experience of coming home with an injured bird. Then another of my very best hawks left me one spring day for a younger hawk! Today when I go out for a spin about the hills, if my hawk (Sir Rodley) comes back to me, I am thankful. If he is in good health, I am thankful. If the dogs come back in one piece, I am thankful."
That is the experience of seasoned falconers.
Moore, who describes himself as an "easy to please" person, says these are the sorts of lessons that falconers learn over time: both gratitude and appreciation. According to Moore, the hawks continue to teach him lessons. "For instance, red-tailed hawks are incredibly strong for their size, and like us, some of us are stronger than others. But there is more than one way to show strength in life: Some of us are intellectually strong; others are emotionally. In other words, they can teach us a great deal about personal strength, perseverance and the will to live."
Sitting atop a hillside, Moore vividly recounts a multitude of life and death moments he has experienced through the flight of his hawk. "These birds can skydive at 200-plus miles per hour. On an even playing field they can pick out and pursue a rabbit at full speed or a smaller bird in flight with the enviable sharpness of a tracking system." They have eight times the resolution of human eyesight.
"They are amazing to behold," says Moore. "I think I've always been fascinated with the idea that man and birds (or beast) can work together in partnership."
He says that maintaining the right equipment is essential in honing your skills. Falconers progress through three levels of experience: Apprentice (for two years), to General and finally, Mastery certification.
"We have had two major innovations over the past few decades," Moore adds. "The telemetry transmitter, which allows you to follow, track and pinpoint your bird, and the alymeri anklet and jesses tie, which allows the bird to free himself from a tree or bush that might otherwise entrap and kill him."
The advent of radio telemetry transmitters attached to free-flying birds, he says, has increased the lifespan of these birds. It also allows falconers to observe styles of flight that in past decades resulted in the loss of their hawk or falcon.
Moore has also studied the origins, history and biology of birds of prey for decades. He notes that the art of falconry most likely began in the Far East, with further techniques and methods developed in the Middle East, spreading out through Europe and into the Indian subcontinent.
"This really is an ancient sport, which you will find in many cultures and time frames. In early periods, a falconer might use a simple bell on the bird's legs that could hopefully find them if they were lost or injured."
He explains that both the red-tailed (Buteo jamaicensis) and Harris hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus) are very near the top of the predatory food chain. Only the great horned owl and the eagle command greater strength of flight and power. "I've actually lost birds to other predators twice in the past, and then, you have birds that just never return," says Moore. "But it is real gift to watch these birds in flight, to see them doing amazing things right before your eyes."
Moore believes that falconry is also a portal to greater truth and understanding of the human condition. "In some ways, the whole world is geared to steering us to greater insight, and calling us to a higher truth," he says. "There is something profoundly special about this particular sport. Along the way, you learn more and more about the bird, what makes them so special. You learn how to work with them and how to get the bird to realize that he needs you as well."
From a good perch, he allows the bird of prey to artfully use wind, angle or height to its advantage. If provided the right setting, a hawk can clearly demonstrate its prowess, strength and physical agility at a moment's notice. "You can see them hover and gain altitude; they can turn and soar to the ground," says Moore. "But what they demonstrate is the power of their eyesight, their strength and how they often use adversity (like wind speed) to their best advantage."
When Moore is not preparing a sermon for his Sunday service at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, you can often find him guiding and serving the members of his congregation. He likes to describe his fascination with falconry as yet another way to understand the Paschal Mystery of faith and life.
"So why is it that you have the experiences you have in life?" he asks with the logic of a falconer. "What can you do to take the world along with you?"