Of all the red-tailed hawks that have ever soared on a Texas breeze, only one gets to live in Charlie Alvis’s house, at least during the winter hunting season. “My bird has its own bedroom,” said Alvis, a falconer who’s based in the unincorporated community of Porter, just beyond the northern outskirts of Houston. “When I come home at night, that bird comes in the living room with me. We socialize for hours at a time.”
The 43-year-old Alvis, who’s temporarily living in Brownwood, in Central Texas, for work, is long and lean and sports a gray beard. His five-year-old hawk has a golden chest, dark wings, a fan of reddish tail feathers, and, often, a murderous glare in her eyes. Alvis acquired the bird from a falconer in Georgia more than two years ago. He named her Calypso but doesn’t use it. There’s no point, he told me. Hawks respond to whistles and bloody snacks, not noms de guerre.
Human and hawk share a certain understanding, though. Alvis can sense any change in the bird’s demeanor. “I can open the door to her room and tell if she’s ready to hunt,” he said—her normally fluffy feathers become slicked back like a solid suit of body armor. In such moments, she answers an unspoken question: Do you want to kill some squirrels? “You know I do,” the hawk seems to tell Alvis. “Where are we going?”
The answer, on a cold and bright morning last February, was a big cattle ranch near Livingston, about fifty miles north of Porter, where Alvis and other falconers from across the state convened for the Texas Hawking Association’s third annual Bushytail Bash, an event known to participants as a “squirrel hawking” meet, which is exactly what it sounds like: a gathering where their hawks hunt squirrels.
About sixty falconers and their friends attended the event over a long weekend. It was more social affair than stiff competition. After all, squirrels are the state’s least dangerous game. Unlike at other, similar hunts, these full days of hawking did not culminate in family-style meals; there were no hunters stirring pots of gamey stew or smothering their chicken-fried squirrels in cream gravy. The falconers had assembled for sport and community, not sustenance. Each morning, they set off in small groups, typically with one bird per party, to scour the ranch’s upland timbers and bottomlands for their prey.
With Calypso perched on his leather-gloved forearm, Alvis marched into a wooded creek bottom next to a grassy pasture. Week-old snow from the record-setting winter storm patched the forest floor, and cows bawled in the distance. In less than ten seconds, the duo spotted their first unlucky victim: a gray squirrel. The hawk launched. She zigzagged through a maze of flora. Alvis sprinted behind her, dodging hardwoods and wild grapevines. When the rodent darted up the tallest oak, the hawk began to hop from limb to limb on surrounding trees, maneuvering into striking position. Then she dive-bombed, exploding through a mass of snapping twigs to snatch her prey. “Oh yeah!” Alvis hollered. “You got him!
“It usually don’t happen this fast,” he explained. Maybe not, but it was still breathtaking—a wild and ancient art.
Dating back four thousand years, falconry represents one of the oldest and most enduring relationships between human and bird. It is also perhaps the most romanticized form of hunting. In literature, falcons are forever turning and turning in one gyre or another. Shakespeare peppered his plays with references to raptors. Even today, several of our colloquialisms have roots in falconry, from “under my thumb” and “wrapped around my little finger,” which refer to the way falconers hold their birds, to “hoodwinked,” after the leather hoods that cover the heads of falcons to keep them calm while they are being transported.
The British writer Helen Macdonald found solace in training a goshawk while mourning her late father. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she wrote in her acclaimed 2014 memoir H Is for Hawk. Generations of younger readers were introduced to falconry through Frightful, the peregrine plucked from her mother’s nest and raised by fictional runaway Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain, the classic 1959 children’s novel.
For centuries, from Europe to Arabia to Mongolia, falconry was a sport for nobles and a food-gathering tactic for everyone else. In Texas, it tends to attract a blue-collar set. Anyone with an apprentice permit can trap a bird of prey and train it to hunt (becoming a full falconer, however, requires at least two years of training and passing a test). Hunting with a gun is more convenient and efficient, of course, so falconry is very much a niche pursuit. There are fewer than four hundred licensed falconers in Texas, about 10 percent of the nationwide total.
Although eagles can also be trained to hunt with humans, the Texas community is largely divided into two camps: those who hunt with falcons, known as longwings, and those who hunt with hawks. Longwings, most popular among them the peregrine falcon, are awesomely swift; they can pick off pheasants and ducks mid-flight. Hawks, by comparison, tend to pounce from a perch, catching their prey off guard. “You hunt different game with different birds,” explained Corey Roelke, director-at-large of the Texas Hawking Association. “Just like you would hunt deer with a scoped rifle or quail with a shotgun, you would never use a peregrine falcon to hunt squirrels, and you would never use a red-tail to hunt quail.”
Red-tailed hawks, thought to be the most ubiquitous raptor in Texas, are prized for their versatility. Females are bigger than males and have thick talons that can’t be bitten off easily by larger targets such as fox squirrels. Another hawk, the Harris, is extremely social for a carnivore, with a pleasant demeanor that lends itself to falconry. “The Harris hawk is the easiest bird in the world to train,” Alvis told me. “They’re smarter than you are, so they’re going to train you.” Commonly found in the wild in South and West Texas, where they often hunt in packs—hence their nickname “wolves of the sky”—Harris hawks also excel at killing rabbits, a pursuit that is sometimes derided by longwing falconers as “dirt hawking” for the cloud of dust that tends to arise from a successful catch. Their feathers sufficiently ruffled, dirt hawkers joke that their longwing counterparts are snooty elitists. “They may hold their heads up a little bit higher,” said Alvis, “but at the end of the day, we’re all falconers.”
Back at the tall oak tree, Calypso continued to clutch her first victim of the morning. A bell attached to her leg jingled as she swayed and shook in a tangle of branches. “Come on! Bring that squirrel down here!” Alvis called up to her. “She’s just trying to figure out how to work herself loose” without accidentally dropping the squirrel, he explained.
Alvis blew a whistle and dangled his lure, a second bell on a string with a small piece of meat at the end. Finally, she plummeted to the ground near his feet. “When she hears that whistle blowing real loud, that lure swinging around, she knows there’s food on that,” Alvis said, noting that hawks quickly learn to associate a lure with a snack awaiting their return. “She’s gonna come no matter what.” He knelt beside her and swiftly killed the squirrel. To distract Calypso, he pulled out a tidbit of raw squirrel meat he’d been keeping in a camo fanny pack and set it on the ground a couple of feet away. The hawk wanted the meat badly, but she didn’t want to release the squirrel. She began to whine. “She’s stubborn,” Alvis said. When he slid a pillowcase over the carcass to hide it from view, Calypso darted for the morsel and gobbled it down.
Alvis was careful not to let her eat too much. “This only works because the birds are not starving but they’re hungry,” he explained. “A fat hawk sits in a tree all day long and does nothing. If you let your bird eat too much on the ground and try to fly her again, she’ll say, ‘No, I’m good; I’ll go sit over here.’ ” Trained hawks are still wild creatures, after all, with minds of their own. On a full stomach, a hawk could very well fly away. “I gave her enough that she feels like she got rewarded and she’ll be able to hunt some more today,” Alvis said.
He and the hawk proceeded deeper into the forest, on the lookout for their next kill. Alvis came to a muddy creek. On the other side of the steep bank, a squirrel ran by, rustling the leaves. “Ho, ho, ho!” Alvis called to the hawk, before crossing the stream on a snow-covered fallen log. Safely on the other side, he continued his pursuit. The squirrel darted up another stately oak. The hawk lunged for the rodent, which scampered to the underside of a limb perhaps forty feet above the ground, narrowly avoiding capture. Unexpectedly, a wild red-tail arrived. Competition. The untamed bird circled the tree, looking for an opening to swoop in and steal the prize. Alvis shouted to scare it away and frenetically tugged at a grapevine, shaking branches in an attempt to knock the squirrel loose. The squirrel leaped, as did Calypso. She couldn’t hold on. “Ho, ho, ho!” Alvis yelled again. Predator and prey plummeted to the ground, the hawk landing talons-first directly atop the squirrel. As a reward for her catch, Alvis cut off one of the critter’s hind legs. His hawk feasted.
Their two kills that morning were the seventy-third and seventy-fourth squirrels that Alvis and Calypso had taken together, by his estimation. A welder by trade, he supplements his income by working with trained raptors as a “bird-abatement” specialist, shooing seagulls away from trash in landfills. “Birds are a part of me now,” he said. “I’ll never not have a bird.”
Alvis was already an experienced hunter when he became a falconer seven years ago, during a difficult period in his life. “I was dealing with the loss of a child,” he said. Alvis’s toddler son, Mason, died in 2006, after Alvis and the boy’s mother had separated. An autopsy ruled that the cause of death was blunt-force trauma to the head, and Mason’s common-law stepfather was convicted of the murder and sentenced to thirty years in prison. “It probably took me ten years to process all of that,” Alvis reflected.
When a friend introduced him to falconry, it became an obsession. “I needed something to ground me, give me structure, because I was just running wild,” Alvis said. “When I got into falconry, I quit drinking; I quit running around partying. This is what I do, and this is what I’m gonna keep doing. It changed me as a person.”
Falconry, Alvis said, is therapy. Keeping a bird of prey is not expensive, he noted, but it is a huge time commitment. In addition to frequently training his hawk, Alvis weighs Calypso every day, sometimes multiple times, to ensure she’s maintaining a healthy hunting heft of about three pounds. Every squirrel she kills is gradually fed back to her. “This is all I think about,” Alvis said. “Now I wake up in the morning and I think, ‘All right, I need to go check on my bird. What am I going to feed my bird today? Am I going to hunt today?’ ”
His partnership with hawks has taken him places he never would have gone otherwise. “I’m hunting stuff behind Dollar General,” he said. “I’m hunting in places most people can’t even walk through. But we’re not walking. She’s flying. She’s good, doing her thing.”
Ready to see birds of prey in action? Members of the Texas Hawking Association will hunt with hawks and falcons during their annual meeting, January 14–16, in Lubbock. For information about the event, which is free for spectators, visit texashawking.org.
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Eat, Prey, Love.” Subscribe today.