I thought I already knew of everything cool to do in San Diego with kids until Sky Falconry contacted me about trying a basic falconry lesson. They offer these cool classes at La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Gliderport during the summer.
Falconry in La Jolla? Yes, you can enjoy intimate interaction with a Harris’s hawk as it flies against a backdrop of sky dotted with colorful gliders and a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean.
Whether you live in San Diego or are just visiting, this unique experience is one to book. My 9-year-old daughter and her raptor loving friend were tremendously excited to check it out (we’d recently done a hawk walk at Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire, England). So on an unusually cloudy August day we joined several other guests and four raptors on the Gliderport’s hillside.
What Is Falconry?
Falconry isn’t exactly something you hear about everyday in San Diego (yet). It’s defined as a sport of hunting wild quarry in its natural state and habitat with falcons or other birds of prey. It is an ancient art form dating back over 5000 years and one that is even recognized by UNESCO and on their list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity.
A strict code of ethics and regulations apply to falconers in the United States. Sky Falconry is a satellite school of West Coast Falconry, located in Marysville, California and one of only four falconry schools in the nation.
It’s clear that Sky Falconry owners Denise Disharoon and Kirk Sellinger have a special bond with their birds. Mutual respect is completely necessary when it comes to falconry. Simply put, the birds could simply fly away without returning, if they wanted to.
About the Harris’s Hawk
Harris’s hawks are special in that they hunt in groups which is a social behavior that makes them ideal for falconry and educational programs. Most other raptors prefer to go it alone. They are native to the southwestern United States and considered an intermediate size bird of prey. Sky Falconry has other birds, like a red-tailed hawk, lanner falcon and a yellow-headed vulture.
Sky Falconry Emphasizes Education and Conservation
While this certainly is a rare—maybe even once-in-a-lifetime—up-close interaction with a raptor, attendees walk away with tons conservation knowledge, a newfound motivation to help save these birds, and a better understanding of the art of falconry.
The kids were particularly moved by the types of things that can impact raptor survival and wellbeing, particularly the use of pesticides digested by these birds through eating contaminated insects and wildlife.
One our way home they talked about phone lines, trash and other risks to birds and wondered why people didn’t think about their importance to our ecosystem before littering.
I did not know that raptors who are native to North America are protected by law. We have red-tailed hawks in the coastal canyon below our house that occasionally rest on our fence.
Basic Falconry Lesson Activities
After learning about the Harris’s hawk and other raptors, it was time for Hayduke to fly.
We were taught how to wear and position our gloves. The latter we were thankful for as he can grab with something like 500 lbs of force.
As mentioned earlier, falconry is a sport and these birds are the athletes. They’re weighed daily to make sure no one is overfed. Hayduke definitely earned his chicken meat during our class.
Gloved participants spread out as directed. Denise put a small piece of chicken on my glove. I shouted, “Hayduke!” He flew low to the ground and up to my glove to snag his treat. With that massive wing span, I thought he’d be heavy, but he’s really only a few pounds.
We repeated this exercise several times between guests and whether you’re the one with a glove outstretched or watching him fly between others, it’s incredibly fun.
During another exercise, we threw little bits of chicken into the air for him to catch at amazing speeds. Though it was a little challenging to throw it without landing on our heads or feet… avoiding also a probably uncomfortably close encounter with a fast raptor.
Needless to say, if participating in a lesson, there’s no real chance for photos and that’s O.K., because you’ll want to give it full attention. But Denise and Kirk give every guest a photo opp with the bird. They’ll even help you capture a good shot.
Watch the Hawks in Action
I put together a short video of our experience.
Sky Falconry’s Alpine Ranch
The good news is that Sky Falconry also offers this class and so much more at their beautiful ranch in Alpine. While you can enjoy a basic falconry lesson, other choices include a hawk walk, a photography hawk walk and a private raptor experience.
Good to Know
Up to twelve people can join a class, which is about an hour long. The cost is $70 per participant and $35 per observer.
You may enroll as an observer at a reduced rate if handling a hawk is out of your comfort zone.
Sky Falconry maintains an excellent resource page for those who would like to learn more about raptors or have found an injured raptor.
Classes in La Jolla happen between June and September, but occur in Alpine throughout the rest of the year.
I highly recommend this experience! Would you fly a raptor?