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Among the many wonders of nature, raptors seem to have a special allure. At Southall, it could be the scream of a red-tailed hawk soaring against a clear sky, the cackling hoots of barred owls before sunrise, or the majesty of a bald eagle fishing Lake Mishkin.
Wanting to share the love of falconry with guests, Southall teamed up with David Hudson of Turnbull Creek Falconry in nearby White Bluff to lead hands-on encounters here on the farm.
Falconry’s roots go back several millennia, to Mongolian mountain warriors and nomads who captured and trained golden eagles for sport and sustenance. Likewise, desert Bedouins of the Middle East were trapping peregrine falcons as hunting partners, according to artwork dating to 750 B.C. Through the centuries, as cultures intermingled, the ancient tradition was carried across the globe.
In America, falconry began to gain popularity with the focus on the plight of raptor populations threatened by overuse of pesticides in the late 1960s. Falconers became a leading voice demanding policy changes and conservation efforts to save the species – from eagles to falcons, hawks, owls, vultures, and others. Over the past half-century in which all native raptors became federally protected, populations have returned to healthy levels – one of America’s great wildlife restoration success stories.
Hudson, who has been roaming the hills of Middle Tennessee since he was a child, was always fascinated by birds of prey. The mystique of falconry had stuck with him since he’d read about it in Shakespeare plays and the classic children’s adventure novel My Side of the Mountain, where a boy develops a special relationship with a peregrine falcon. As an adult, he completed the two-year apprenticeship required to become licensed to handle the highly protected species, and now hunts with his birds over 100 days a year.
A part-time high school cross country coach, Hudson has the heart of a teacher, and he’s dedicated his practice of falconry to educating people through experiences they’ll never forget.
“It never gets old being immersed in the wild, working in partnership with the birds,” he says. “We get to see things every day that would be once-in-a-lifetime experiences for many, and that’s what we love to share.”
Hudson works with raptors of all types, but he primarily utilizes Harris hawks at Southall. Guests have a chance to hold the magnificent birds, see the relationship between hawk and handler first-hand, and feel the power of a four-foot wingspan as it comes to fist.
“Each bird has a distinct personality, but their drive to hunt is incredible,” Hudson explains. “Hoods keep them calm, but they know when the hood comes off, it is time to hunt. It’s important for them, physically and mentally, to exercise those instincts.”
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) includes falconry on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity, citing an unbroken thread of tradition that has survived for nearly 200 generations. People like David Hudson are devoted to sharing the heritage, and it’s no small commitment. Aside from the responsibility of care for the animals and stringent record-keeping required, it takes at least seven years to become certified as a master falconer.