When junior zoology major Kili Walsh was a little kid, the bald eagle was her favorite animal. Her passion didn’t stem from a deep sense of patriotism—she found the birds interesting.
In first grade, she read “My Side of the Mountain,” a book about a boy who runs away to the forest where he lives in a hollow tree and keeps a peregrine falcon named Frightful.
For her fifth grade “distinguished woman project” at her all-girls school, Walsh researched an English falconer named Emma Ford and presented in her character. She then realized falconry is a great way to interact with birds, especially raptors, or birds of prey, and learn about them, she said.
Passionate about raptors, conservation and God’s creation, several times last semester Walsh approached James Huggins, biology professor and director of Union’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, about her interest in falcons, she said. A licensed falconer, he offered to teach an independent study on Falconry and Raptory Rehabilitation, or if enough people were interested, he would make it an official class.
“One thing led to another,” Walsh said, summarizing the process of generating student interest and gaining faculty approval, and it became a class.
According to Huggins, this is the second time the biology department has offered the course. The first time was about two years ago, after some students involved in Union’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which focuses on raptor rehabilitation, asked Huggins to teach a raptor rehabilitation class and “throw in some falconry.”
This semester, the class meets every Thursday morning in White Hall to learn about laws and regulations, how to keep raptors healthy, look for signs of illness, rehabilitate raptors, raptor anatomy and physiology, types of enclosure and equipment to use and what birds to fly in falconry, Walsh said.
Falconry is “a rather ancient sport,” Huggins said, where someone takes a bird of prey and trains it to hunt for its food. In Mongolia, falconers hunt for wolves with golden eagles. In America, falconers hunt rabbits and squirrels with red-tail hawks or ducks and grouts with falcons. Many people eat what the birds catch, but some merely enjoy the sport.
At the end of the class, Walsh and some of her classmates will take the falconry permit examination administered by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. The license is necessary to practice falconry in Tennessee, and those who take it must make an 80 percent to pass. Last year, five students took it and only one passed.
To pass, one must know how to identify a bird both up close and from a distance, catch a young bird and recognize its age, raise the bird and know several other aspects of falconry.
Students cannot handle the raptors living in the rehab center because they would need permit. However, some of the students, including Walsh, take turns feeding the raptors at the rehab center throughout the week. The class also built an enclosure for the rehab center as a part of the course.
The rehab center, located near the Facilities Management building, has been around for years. Huggins is the only raptor rehabilitator in the immediate area.
According to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency regulations, only faculty and students who feed and care for the birds can visit the raptory. Raptors need to be alone when recuperating because being around humans will bring up their stress levels.
While some people may enjoy falconry because they like birds, hunting and the falconry competitions, Huggins doesn’t enjoy falconry as much as raptory rehabilitation.
A barred owl, three red-tailed hawks, a screech owl with a damaged eye and Huggins’s own American kestrel falcon, Jack, all make their home at the rehab center, as do their temporary neighbors, rodents from South America called degus.
Walsh and her classmates are safe feeding the raptors because even though raptors have sharp talons, they will only attack if they feel threatened and cannot fly away.
Although the class is intended for biology majors, out of 12 or 13 students in this year’s full class, one is a business major and another is an English major with a biology minor. The rest are primarily conservation biology majors.
There are prerequisites to the Falconry and Raptory Rehabilitation class. Huggins considers accepting non-biology majors on a case by case basis.
Huggins hopes to offer the class again. Since the class is not in the catalog, he believes he can offer it one more time before he either has to drop it or add it to the catalog. He is also considering changing the course from one credit hour to three credit hours so he can cover more content.
“It’s kind of a dream class for me. I love teaching it,” Huggins said.