Two large-taloned birds perch on pedestals under a clear blue sky at The Ford Plantation. They stand strong and erect near the edge of the front lawn at The Main House, a 7,000 square-foot Greek Revival mansion originally owned by Henry and Clara Ford. Adam Hein, master falconer and owner of On The Fly Outfitters, an outdoor sports store in Brunswick that specializes in fly fishing and falconry, stands between the birds as a group of people gather around in the grass. The birds are hooded, wearing what looks like old leather helmets, with their eyes completely covered.
“The birds have excellent eyesight,” Hein explains. “They could be thousands of feet up in the air and still see tiny prey as clearly as you and I see each other now.” Because of their gifted vision, the hoods are used to keep the birds calm and undistracted when training for hunts. The hoods also prevent the birds from getting nervous in certain situations, like when surrounded by dozens of excited people on the lawn. Though temporarily blinded, the birds stand stoic in their puffed-breast postures. Like Hein, they too are pros at this sport.
Adam Hein was immersed in falconry and wildlife by his father, who became a falconer more than 30 years ago. When Hein was young, his father opened the Wildlife Center at Georgia Southern University, which is geared towards educating children about nature—specifically, birds of prey. Then, taking all that he learned from his upbringing, Hein opened On The Fly Outfitters in 2017.
“Opening up the shop was kind of a no-brainer,” Hein explains, “because fly fishing is an art form and a lot of people use that same phrase for falconry—that it’s a lost art—and I meshed the two together.”
The green grass where we gather is bordered by enormous Live Oaks draped in Spanish moss, which sways in the languid breeze. Hein dons a bulky leather glove and picks up Isabella, a 10-year-old hawk weighing just under 2 pounds, or roughly the weight of five sticks of butter. On hunts, these birds, the fastest in the world, are sent out to fly high and swoop down on ground-level prey too heavy for them to pick up and carry away. With the natural verve of a hungry predator, the bird attacks the game for the following huntsman to retrieve.
This teamwork between bird and human is considered the oldest sport known to man, originating about 4,000 years ago in Mongolia. Falconry flourished through the Middle Ages amongst the upper class and was known as “the sport of kings” until the advent of the shotgun, when the sport nearly died out as people began to hunt with new, more effective tools that needed no training. But a raptor-enthusiast renaissance began in the 20th century, bringing the ancient art of falconry back from obscurity and into Western civilization.
In the 1970s, hunters began to capture, breed and train popular North American species like the Red-tailed Hawk and the Harris Hawk for the sport. There are now roughly 4,000 falconers in the United States who track their targets with these birds of prey.
“It’s a lifestyle,” Hein says, “but in all seriousness, I think it’s a lot easier than training a dog because you don’t have to establish anything more than trust with the birds. We keep the falcons in what is called a ‘mew,’ and when I go on vacation I have a neighbor that will throw food in once every few days. It’s very easy in that sense.”
Hein hands off the near-weightless Isabella to gloved observers who want to share an up-close moment with the fierce predator in its serene state. In awe of the powerful lightweight killer, residents gingerly let Isabella perch on their hands, captivated by her strong, graceful stance. Then Hein picks up Louie, a 30-year-old falcon, who is old enough to run for governor if he were human.
“These birds usually live to 35 years old in captivity, but in the wild it’s five to seven years on average,” Hein says. “There’s a 70% mortality rate their first year, and then it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there with competition for prey and no vets.”
We walk out through the grassy expanse until we reach the middle of the lawn. Hein unhoods Louie and whistles him off. The bird soars to an outlying tree where he perches, watches, waits. A piece of raw meat is placed as a lure on the edge of Hein’s outstretched glove. With a subtle movement of his right hand, Hein summons Louie from his high station, the bird keen for a snack. Louie launches out from the tree into flight, swooping down to nearly graze the grass and then back up to land gracefully on Hein’s index finger.
After the quick meal, Hein sends Louie up again. The bird seems to float effortlessly through the air and perches on a different tree branch this time. Our group walks further into the lawn, and a volunteer is asked to wear the glove. Hein places another smidgen of meat on the brown leather-gloved left hand, and by the sound of his whistle, the hawk hurtles again through the air. More volunteers ask to have their hand act as Louie’s runway designation as the bird is circuitously sent out and lured back down again.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” an enraptured resident says delightedly after taking the glove off her hand. “You might as well do it now.”
As we walk back to The Main House, Hein explains that he will be taking interested residents on hunts in the wild. He considers the sport a second language and suggests we immerse ourselves in the wild, exciting beauty of falconry, too. While the number of falconers in the United States is relatively small, the allure of handling a hawk, training it and gaining its trust to work with you is an art form that anyone with dedication can master.
“The birds and what they do is fascinating,” Hein says. “It’s a privilege for us to see what happens naturally in the wild.”