CO-OP PEOPLE
Living High on the Wing
Master falconer passionate about this ancient sport

Dan Hillsman and Sandia, his Peregrine Falcon, hunt on land he owns near Kenedy.
IMAGE: Will Van Overbeek

Since childhood, nothing has mesmerized Dan Hillsman more than the sight of a hawk high on the wing. “My kindergarten teacher inspired me to bird-watch,” says the 59-year-old Austinite, who’s a member of Nueces Electric Cooperative (NEC). “Later, my dad’s business partner gave me a book on falconry. Not long after that, I trapped and trained my first hawk.”

Simply put, falconry is the sport of hunting wild game—specifically, ducks—using a trained raptor. Considered an art form, the sport’s origins date to the fourth and fifth centuries in Europe and Asia.

In-depth research and visits with seasoned falconers help many decide whether they can handle the long hours and hard work required to become one themselves. Those willing to commit must obtain permits, pass a written exam, find a sponsor who’s a general or master falconer and then apprentice at least two years. In Texas, approximately 210 permitted falconers live the “hawking” lifestyle.

As a master falconer, Hillsman, a software engineer, may keep up to five raptors. In 2005, he purchased a Peregrine Falcon, named Sandia, from a South Dakota breeder. On weekends, he and Sandia hunt on land he owns near Kenedy—115 rural acres southeast of San Antonio served by NEC. Most weekdays, he flies her in nearby Hays County. “Sandia’s a supremely fine duck hunter,” Hillsman says. “She ignores doves and other birds.”

Each fall, he trains a young, wild-trapped bird, like a Harris’s Hawk or a Prairie Falcon. “Basically, I use food as a lure and associate that presentation with a whistle so the bird learns to return to me on that command,” he explains, adding that for tracking purposes, he fits his birds with radio transmitters.

Hillsman says he feels deep awe every time he watches a falcon dive from the sky and skillfully maneuver to capture its prey. “Their speed is truly amazing,” he says, “and a miracle of nature.”

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Sheryl Smith-Rodgers is a frequent contributor to Texas Co-op Power.

For more information on falconry, go to www.texashawking.org.

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