Imagine striding into the woods with a red tail hawk perched on your gloved arm. Sounds like something from the middle ages, but for Groove Life CX employee Kevin Morse, it’s a daily reality.
As a bivocational pastor of Grace Fellowship church in Thompson Station, Kevin doesn’t fit the “typical” falconer mold. He did grow up in the outdoors, fishing, hiking and mountain biking, but it wasn’t until about 7 years ago that he experienced falconry for the first time.
At that time, Kevin and his family were living down in Georgia, on a property that was backed up to 300 acres of woods. Kevin’s brother had recently started falconry so he visited and took Kevin’s family hunting.
“I can pinpoint the moment when I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I want to do this,’” Kevin says. “We’re out in the woods and we find a squirrel. It’s like this Wild America moment. Above your head, you’re watching the hawk stalk the squirrel and try and get it. Squirrels are like tree ninjas. I used to go squirrel hunting with the .22 or whatever and there you see the squirrel, you shoot the squirrel, you got the squirrel. But you go out there and try to catch a squirrel with its actual natural predator and you just see the most amazing things. These squirrels are designed to be able to elude the red tail hawk.”
One specific moment stands out to Kevin. “The hawk is chasing the squirrel around and the squirrel decides to bail out of this 50-foot tree, right above my head. I’m trying to duck out of the way. It lands about three feet in front of me and it hits the leaves, the leaves all fly up, and as soon as it hits the ground, the red tail just slams into it right in front of my face. It was the coolest thing.”
Kevin’s oldest daughter fell in love with red tail hawk hunting right then, so, a year and a half later, his family began their own journey in falconry.
Falconry can involve a lot of different types of birds and locations.
“Falconry is a broad term,” Kevin says. “It’s going to be very different depending on the geography. In the southeast, when people talk about doing falconry, it’s with a red tail hawk or a harris hawk, hunting squirrels or rabbits. But if you go out west, it’s going to be something totally different. You’re going to be using different birds, you’re going to be using actual falcons, like a peregrine falcon and gyrfalcons. You’re going to be hunting birds out in the prairies. So, depending on where you are and what your geography is, you’re going to be doing very different things. What we do here is hunt squirrels with red tail hawks.
“The way that we do falconry here in the south is kind of new, using red tail hawks and hunting squirrels. We’re not using falcons, we’re not hunting in more traditional ways because we can’t here. We can’t send a bird up to soar above us and come diving down because we’ve got all these trees. So, this is only how we practice falconry here in the south, but this is not how it is practiced everywhere.”
While hunting with red tail hawks might be new, falconry is far from a new sport. Kevin shared that even Shakespeare referenced falconry often. “You get into falconry and realize that all of these terms go back to the middle ages,” Kevin says. “I could talk forever about how Shakespeare mentions falconry. He references it constantly in his plays. ‘Cry havoc, let slip the dogs of war,’ that crying havoc is the hawks. The term ‘haggard,’ that’s a falconry term. Haggard is an older, wild, mature bird of prey.”
Kevin also shared that falconry is a social sport. While most hunting involves total quiet, falconry is the complete opposite. Kevin likened it to big game hunting in Africa. In that setting, the hunter goes out with a crowd of people who beat the brush and make noise to bring out the animals. “It’s kinda like that,” Kevin says, “only the bird is the big game hunter and we’re all the ones beating the brush and making a bunch of noise.”
Falconry sounds like an exciting sport, but Kevin shared that there is a correct process and it is lengthy and particular. Falconry is a long-term commitment and it should never be taken lightly. “You don’t just sorta get into this,” Kevin says. “It’s a very highly regulated sport.”
“You don’t just get into this sport casually.”
If you’re interested in falconry, Kevin suggested that you visit your state’s falconry association's Facebook page. “You can go on there and ask if you can just go out hunting with people. No sponsor who would be worth having is going to just be like ‘Hey, yeah, I’ll sponsor you’ because it’s a huge commitment. They want people who are like ‘Hey, I want to come out and hunt with you, I want to spend some time with you.’
Is all of the trouble worth it in the end? According to Kevin, the answer is a resounding YES. “It’s a very big commitment but it’s so much fun. It’s so worthwhile.”
Since Kevin had to release his bird earlier than expected, he doesn’t have a red tail hawk this year. Instead, he’s spent a lot of time hunting with David Hudson from Turnbull Creek Falconry. David offers falconry hunts in the Nashville area and is a great option for those who want to give falconry a try. Check out his website to book a time to give falconry a try!
After acquiring permission from the state of Tennessee, the next step for the Morse family is to get out there and catch a red tail hawk.
Kevin outlined the steps of his process to capture a bird.
First, he looks for a juvenile hawk, which is identified by its feathers. Next, he puts a couple of live mice in a Bal-chatri trap, which is a cage with lots of slip-knot nooses tied on the outside. After sighting a juvenile red tail hawk, Kevin places his Bal-chatri trap in a ditch on the side of a country road nearby, then drive away about 50 yards.
“The bird is gonna see it,” Kevin says. “You can set these traps football fields from the bird and they’re still going to see them.”
The bird comes down to try to catch the mice. If the capture is successful, its talons get caught in the nooses and it can’t fly off. Then, all you have to do is throw a towel over the hawk.
“As soon as it’s dark, they calm down,” Kevin says. “That’s why you see the falconry hoods. As soon as you put one of those on a bird, they’re chill.”
Once you have them, you check their weight, check their health, decide if this is the one you want. Everybody has their own opinions, whether you want to get a male or female, etc. Once you have the bird, it’s usually anywhere from 2-3 weeks of training before you’re out flying, hunting with it.”
Hawk training is nothing like training a “pet” like a dog. Hawks are wild and they will always be predators.
“It’s nothing like dog training,” Kevin says. “Dogs care what you think. There’s like this hierarchy and dogs are like ‘You are my master.’ It’s almost like dogs have a conscience. Birds have no conscience. If they could kill you and eat you, they would kill you and eat you.”
While it may seem that the bird and the falconer develop a close bond, Kevin shared that this is a common misconception.
“People are like, ‘Oh, I’d love to have a bird and bond with it.’ Anybody who has been doing falconry for a while will tell you that you never bond with the birds. They don’t care about you. They’re killers. That’s what they’re designed to do. They’re really cool, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing cooler than walking around with a bird on your fist, but it’s all in your head if you think that you’re bonding with them.”
“The harsh reality of it is, these birds are killing machines, even the cutest ones. One of the birds you can get around here is a little tiny American Kestrel. It’s about the size of a robin. It’s one of the smallest falcons. You can hunt sparrows and starlings with those. We got one and raised it from a little ball of fluff in our living room. We took it out of the nest - which you need to get a permit to do - and we had it for a few seasons before sadly it died of West Nile virus, which is actually pretty common among birds. It would hunt sparrows and starlings, or we would just take it out in the back field and hunt grasshoppers. It was a super cute animal. But, the reality is even that little tiny one which is super cute - my daughter would tie its little leash to her hat and it would just sit on her head while we would walk around - but it is still a killing machine. All it wants to do is kill stuff. That’s what they’re made to do. It looks cute when it is a little, tiny bird just attacking grasshoppers, spiders or bees, but still when you think about it, it’s the exact same instinct that the bigger ones have, that they want to kill stuff.
“The birds are most content when they are hunting and killing things regularly. A lot of people get into falconry because they want a pet, and they don’t like the bloodthirsty side of it. They end up getting birds that they end up having lots of problems with because they’re trying to get an animal to do something that goes totally against its design.
“I tell people who are like ‘Oh, I would love to be out in the woods just having a bird fly along with me as I’m walking’ which is super cool right, but what I tell them is ‘If you’re going to do that, you have to be willing, when the bird catches something, to kill a squirrel or rabbit with your bare hands.’ You have to be willing to let the bird be what the bird is and that really stops a lot of people because they’re like ‘I don’t want to be a part of that’ because they wanted a pet. They want something cute and cuddly and fun.
That’s probably one of the biggest misconceptions.”
Falconry and the training of the birds has not changed much over thousands of years. The essentials are still the same.
Kevin shared that the relationship between a hawk and its existence is entirely based on food. “They look at everything and go, ‘Can I eat you? Can you eat me?’ And if the answers to those questions are no, they don’t even care about you.”
The process of training a red tail hawk.
“Everything is food based, so you start by exposing them to everything again. I have them on my fist in my living room, I have my kids running around, I have my dog running around, I turn the TV up really loud. I’ll also take them outside… you want to expose them so they can do that threat assessment.
“You do that for the first day or two, and you’re waiting for them to eat from your fist. Their instincts are to not eat from your fist at all, so they’ll spend hours and hours sitting there. You might sit there with a dead mouse or a piece of squirrel meat in your hand and it’s right at their feet and they’ll just sit there and look at it and look at you and they won’t eat it.
“Finally, they’ll eat it. Once they eat that piece, the next goal is to get them to jump to your fist, and it’s the same thing. It may take days before they’re willing to do just a little tiny hop and they won’t do it. Instinctively, they can’t trust man. Once they make that tiny jump, you just space that out further and further. At first you have them tethered. You start inside, then you move outside. By the time you have them flying about 100 feet to you, then you’re ready to hunt.
You go out in the woods, you release them, and then you walk away. They’ll start following you for food because that’s what you have trained them to do.
Once they start following you, instead of feeding them, now you have to get game for them to catch. You want to get them to realize ‘If I follow this guy in the woods, squirrels and rabbits show up. So, it’s worth following this guy in the woods.’ My birds generally end up following my dog because my dog is much better at finding squirrels.
“The big discipline is weight management. Every bird has their ideal weight where they’re hungry enough to follow you and hunt but they’re not starving so they’re not unhealthy and they’re not sick. The real challenge is finding that weight and keeping them at that weight constantly. There’s a lot of care. You’re having to weigh your birds regularly. You’re having to measure out their food and how much they eat. If you take a bird out that’s not hungry enough, it’s just going to fly away and leave you.
“You’ve trained the bird to be comfortable with you being around when they eat. So when you’re out hunting and done for the day, hopefully we’ve caught stuff and finished with a kill so they’re on food.”
“Rule number one in falconry is you never take food from the bird, ever. I say that, but really, you do. You just can’t ever let the bird think that you take food from it. You have to be really sneaky because if the bird thinks you take food from it, the bird is going to get super territorial and attack you and see you as a threat.
“Let’s say my bird kills a squirrel. She’s down on the ground and she’s got this squirrel and she’s super happy about it and I’m super happy about it. I’ve trained her, because ever since I’ve had her she always eats around me, I’ll touch her while she’s eating, I’ll put my GLOVED hand near there, but I won’t take the food, so she thinks ‘This guy is cool. He’s not going to take my food from me.’
“While she has the squirrel, slowly start covering the squirrel up so all that’s left is just their feet and the meat is all covered. Birds are not always necessarily the smartest creatures in the world. So once you get to that point, I might have another smaller piece of meat in my hand and throw that out in front of the bird. The bird now can’t see the big giant squirrel it is on, but it sees that little piece of meat and it’s like ‘Oh, I’ll go get that.’ It’ll go and in the time it leaves the squirrel and goes to get that meat, I have to make the squirrel disappear. If I don’t make the squirrel disappear, I have to give the squirrel back to the bird if it catches me and we have to start the whole process over again. There’s a lot of patience here because you want the bird to trust you completely.
Every falconer keeps their bird for a different amount of time, depending on their personal preference. For Kevin Morse, that time frame is about two or three years.
“Any bird that is caught from the wild can be released back into the wild. We will do that with the red tail hawks because they honestly get so good at hunting. A juvenile red tail hawk sees a squirrel and just goes crazy over it. I released a bird that was three years old and he was phenomenal, I loved him so much. But, by the time he hit three, when he would see a squirrel, it could be twenty minutes before he actually dove on it because he would take his time, he would stalk the squirrel.. My kids and I that season, we would go out and no joke, I would just pull up Kindle on my phone and sit down and read because I knew it was going to take my bird a good fifteen minutes before it got in a position where it was ready to dive on it. We released him back into the wild to start back over with another juvenile.”
“They’re wild animals and they always will be. I have scars on my arms and my hands from letting my guard down. Being patient, being calm, and being disciplined are huge because they’re going to do what they instinctively do. They’re not going to do anything else. You can get really frustrated if what they instinctively do is not what you want them to do. You kinda have to die to yourself and just say ‘I’m working with an animal here who is going to do what its instincts lead it to do and I need to figure out what those instincts are and I need to do what I can to help bolster them.
“We talk about training hawks but really the only thing you’re training hawks to do is what it instinctively does with you present. You’re not training the hawk how to catch squirrels or how to fly or how to hunt. All you need to do is get out in the woods and the hawk is going to start doing those things. We’re just training the hawk how to work with us.”
Kevin shared that he’s had some tough moments that required a lot of patience during the hawk training process.
“When red tail hawks are juveniles, they have sticky foot. When they have something, they bind into it with their feet and they can’t let go. They’ll get stuck…. I had it happen with my first hawk and I have a nice big scar on my arm where the hawk tried climbing on my arm, got above my nice, thick leather glove, hit my skin, and then just dug in. It pierced my arm in three different places and there was blood coming, and here’s the thing - you can’t get mad at it. If you freak out, you’re just going to make things worse because it is going to see you as a threat. It can take sometimes ten minutes for them to let go. So here I am, sitting in this garage going ‘It’s all good. It’s okay. We’re all happy here.’ It really teaches you discipline and really just understanding.”
Falconry ends up developing a lot of personal growth and sanctification in the falconer because we’re naturally impatient, we want things our way. Kevin shared that this sport involves trying to work with a wild animal that is not going to do things your way and that can be challenging.
“You go out in the woods and you can direct a dog a little bit. I go out in the woods with my bird and I’m like ‘Ooh, over here on the left is an amazing area for us to hunt. We are going to find so many squirrels here.’ And I release my bird and as soon as it is free, goes to the right. It’s even worse when we are allowed to hunt on this property over here on the left and we get there and my bird goes to the right. The bird doesn’t care.”
Kevin also shared that there is something beautiful about seeing the natural instincts of creation in action, and it brings his thoughts to the Creator. “It’s amazing… the freedom to be able to go out into the world and see this creation the way that God designed it. It is awe inspiring. It is beautiful. Here in the southeast, watching the hawk and the squirrels and seeing how they are so perfectly balanced… we don’t always catch the squirrels because the squirrels have an amazing ability that all points to a Designer, all points to a God who has created the animals and it’s artistic. It’s beautiful. We get moments out there that you’re just not going to get sitting in an office. You’re not even going to get them watching on YouTube. It’s amazing, and to think that God is behind all of that is really precious.”
Kevin first connected with Groove Life at a casual dinner. He visited a friend’s house and ran into Groove Life founder Peter Goodwin. They immediately connected.
“Both Peter and I had big beards, both of us were outdoorsy, and somehow we got sitting across from each other. He was telling me about moving here from Alaska and I mentioned falconry and he just got so excited about it. I went over to his place and took him hunting and it was funny how God worked everything because I was actually doing something different at the time. It was about six to eight months later that I started to plant this church and I needed a part-time job and here was Groove. A couple of my church members were and still are employees at Groove. It worked out great.”
In addition to his role as a bivocational pastor, Kevin is currently a part-time customer experience employee at Groove Life.
“I love the vision of Groove,” Kevin says. “I love Groove Life’s desire to do more than just make money off of a product. It always gets me excited to hear and see the ways in which the vision is played out - the vision of adventure, of proclaiming God and bringing glory to Him, of inspiring other people to not just wear the cool stuff but to actually be out living life and doing it with God as the focus - I think that is phenomenal. I have been a pastor for almost ten years now and I have also worked in a big corporation for about ten years and I’ve never been at a place like Groove where they care so much about their employees. Also, they’re regularly trying to make moves and work in a way to emphasize ‘We’re not just about making money here. We’re about investing in people.’
Kevin also shared that Groove values his faith and that makes a huge difference for him. “For me personally, they have been so supportive of me being a pastor. My supervisor here, he has said, ‘If you’re in the middle of your shift and somebody from your church calls you and says Pastor I need you, as far as I’m concerned, you stop working for Groove at that moment. You feel free to take care of your people.’ I’ve been bivocational with a company before where that would never be the case.
If you’d like to follow Kevin’s falconry adventures, subscribe to his YouTube channel, Southern Woods Falconry! And don’t forget to check out Turnbull Creek Falconry to plan your own hunt and give falconry a try!
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