Interview With Nancy Cowan of the NH School of Falconry
Nancy Cowan’s NH School of Falconry is one of only a handful of schools in the nation that teaches the art
Nancy Cowan of the NH School of Falconry
Photo courtesy of Laura Murphy, ADA Camp Carefree
It’s not everyone who would want to spend their days with raptors, aka birds of prey. But Nancy Cowan not only does that, she lets them winter over in her basement. Those are the cold-sensitive hawks; the falcons live in outbuildings on her property. “Every hawk and falcon here has a history, and I love them all,” she says.
Four of the 10 resident raptors (three Harris’s Hawks and a Peregrine Falcon) are part of Cowan’s NH School of Falconry, one of a handful of schools in the nation that teach the ancient art. It’s located in Deering, and offers classes led by Cowan, who is a licensed Master Falconer. The classes range from one-on-one workshops for younger children — handling and flying a bird — to the Falconer’s workshop — flying a bird and a half-day field hunt — for ages 10 and up.
The hunt, Cowan says, is a “never-to-be-forgotten experience” as you follow a hawk and pointer working as a hunting team. Afterward, the quarry is eaten (“who would turn down a roasted pheasant dinner?”) or split up among the raptors at home (“with a quail bill like mine, I sometimes forego the nice dinner”).
Cowan helped her husband Jim, a fellow falconer, pass legislation in NH that made falconry a legal way to take game.
How old is the craft of falconry?
Falconry goes back more than 4,000 years. Two years ago, UNESCO named falconry as part of Man’s intrinsic cultural heritage.
What’s the most amazing thing about falcons? There is so much that is amazing: physical prowess, beauty and speed. But the most amazing thing I have learned from them is that each, hawks too, is a unique individual.
How fast can they go?
What the falcons are known for is the “stoop” or dive. Peregrines have been clocked at more than 242 mph. The other falcons are not much slower. Hawks make short bursts of fast flights on the level at about 45 mph.
It’s said that falconry is one of the most demanding sports in existence. Why?
Moments calling for action are fast. Think of hummingbird wings going so fast human eyes see only a blur. Raptors sense and react at hummingbird speed. So falconers respond to things they may not yet sense are happening. That sounds contradictory, I know, but it is true. Perfecting technique takes years.
How do you “fly” a bird?
Flying is not hard at all. It is coming back that is difficult! Returning to the falconer’s glove means the bird trusts the human and comes down for a tidbit of food placed on the glove. Raptors learn the glove is a safe place, and the food is something they see as already being theirs … not a treat or reward.
Do you have falcons at your home?
We have 10 raptors here; four belong to the School. Usually each raptor lives in its own quarters, a building called a mew. But the Harris’s are not cold tolerant so they have winter quarters inside. They’re currently living in my basement.
Do you develop affection for them?
When you work with a bird in the field, day after day, the partnership that develops is very strong. The bird does not love me, but I do fulfill a role in the partnership and the raptor accepts me. I treasure those relationships.
How did you get started in falconry?
The old story: a MAN! My husband was a falconer when I met him at age 17.