By Becky Jane Newbold
When a young Cody Atkinson read “My Side of the Mountain” he, as do many young men, dreamed of living off the land, away from people and communing with nature. The protagonist used a hawk to catch food enabling the runaway to survive the harsh winters of the Catskill Mountains of New York.
Inspiration from a children’s book grabbed hold of Cody’s heart, but a first year Red-tailed Hawk now holds the strings.
Not realizing how simple the story but complex the process, Cody, then age 15, began making plans. First he discovered a long list of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency requirements.
Undaunted, he dove in head first, checking items off his list, one at a time.
A captive hawk needs a home and before one can legally be trapped, Cody had to become an apprentice falconer. Not only would he have to construct an eight feet by eight feet structure called a Mews, a sponsor was required and a minimum grade of 80 on a supervised exam was necessary.
Jim Primus of Franklin gladly took Cody under his wing realizing this young man, who scored a nearly perfect grade, would most certainly keep him busy. And might teach the Master Falconer a thing or two in the process.
“He’s not a flash in the pan,” Primus said of Cody after meeting with him to check his hawk Monday, January 17, 2010. “The bird is in great shape and he is doing a fantastic job,” he continued. Primus, a retired biomedical scientist and former professor at Vanderbilt University said few youngsters Cody’s age could be “doing what he is doing….he keeps me on my toes,” he added with a chuckle.
Hawks in the falconry program and in the wild require whole mammals everyday to keep their digestive system working properly, Primus explained. Cody traps mice, rats and was successful in capturing a squirrel recently to feed his hawk, he named “Yale.”
For hawks and falcons, the wildness never leaves. After capture, it sometimes can be a week before they will accept food from their captor. Cody and Yale seemed to develop a strong bond early as Yale accepted food the first day.
“Fear can keep them from accepting food,” Primus said. Yale was flying to Cody within three days in the young man’s bedroom.
Not too many adults might allow a Red-tailed hawk to take up residence inside the home, but Cody has a special set of grandparents watching out for him. A willingness and eagerness to allow Cody to learn life’s lesson, Danny and Glenda Atkinson do not mind too much the intrusion of a hawk in the house. But just on occasion, most times, Yale remains outside in the mews.
Primus attributed Cody’s success to both his tenacity and to the support of his family. “A kid like that would have a hard time without the support of a family. He has it–that’s great.”
Falconry is the sport of hunting wildlife with a trained raptor, TWRA says. Originating in China, falconry is the second oldest form of hunting with the aid of animals. And it is a 24/7/365 job. “It takes one heck of a commitment,” Primus said. Primus has been in falconry for 10 years.
His inspiration came from his wife, who after a visit to a falconry school in England, came home excited to give the sport a try.
“We usually do a lot of things together. I was attracted to the sport because I gun hunt (muzzle loader). This is the only sport in the country using a wild trained bird to catch game,” Primus continued.
Events planned for the spring, offer falconers from across the state and the southeast to hone their skills and show off their birds. Cody hopes to attend a meet in early March to compare Yale to other hawks.
An apprentice falconer may only have one raptor and it must be an American Kestrel, a Red-tailed Hawk or a Red-shouldered Hawk. All three, native to Tennessee, survive on a diet of fur wearing animals, such as mice, rats, rabbits and squirrel. In Tennessee, it is illegal to practice falconry without a permit.
In the beginning, Cody realized quickly the high cost of creating a mews. It was then the value of the family barn was re-discovered. Built in the 1950s by his great grandfather, Marvin Whitehead, and once home to milking stalls and calves, the barn was a prospect.
After a clean up and modifications, the mews and a weathering area were ready for inspection. Weathering is an area completely enclosed with wire which allows the bird exercise and exposure to fresh air and sunshine. The aviary must also be suitable to protect the raptor from predators.
Nearly 60 years old, the log structure has new life, albeit no longer inhabited by the traditional farm animals, but by a predator. The Red-tailed hawk was known to old time farmers as a “Chicken Hawk.” How’s that for irony?
“Cody is a great kid with a lot of initiative. He is not afraid to learn on his own,” Primus said.
Looking to the future Cody hopes to attain his General license by next summer which will allow him to acquire a second raptor. With his sights on a Harris Hawk, Cody would be able to hunt different prey with the Harris. Quail, ducks and other feathered game would be part of the hunt with the Harris, Cody explained.
Yale hunted free for the first time since capture on Monday. “It was amazing,” Cody said. He placed her on a branch and began walking through the woods near his home on the Little Swan Creek, hoping to flush a rabbit. “I looked around and she was following me.” Although unsuccessful in pursuit of game, the outcome was tremendous for Cody. “At one point, I thought she might fly away,” Cody said. But she followed me like a dog.” Food hunted by Yale will be used primarily as food for the hawk, Cody said.
That is a scary time for falconers, Primus noted. “The bird will be free to fly [away] if it wants to,” he added.
But she did not fly away, she winged her way back to her new haven, landing securely on Cody’s gloved hand. “I’m still so excited,” Cody said. Tuesday.