Wild Things

Raptors offer powerful healing for Odell falconer

Story and photos by Drew Myron

Taylor Mesa takes Gimli, a red-tailed hawk, on daily flights. The raptor is about 1 year old and has not yet acquired his red coloring.

Taylor Mesa loves something that will never love her back—and she’s made peace with the pact.

“There’s something unique about creating a bond with a wild animal,” says

Taylor, 30, a licensed falconer who lives in Odell. “A raptor is not a dog or a cat. The birds are not loving, and they do not show affection, but it’s a very tranquil feeling.”

Taylor is practicing the art of patience and finding a strong calm.

Falconry is the traditional art and practice of training, flying and hunting with raptors. In use for thousands of years, falconry has roots in medieval history and has been practiced throughout the world. Originally a method of securing food, the tradition has evolved into a niche hobby.

Falconers are often drawn to the sport by the powerful soar of a predatory bird or the intensity of a trained hawk in flight.

Nationwide, there are 4,600 licensed falconers, according to the North American Falconers Association. Few are women, though exact numbers are not known, says NAFA’s Carol Speegle, a falconer for more than 25 years. Oregon has approximately 160 licensed falconers.

“It’s a small community of people,” Taylor says. “It’s very serious work.”

From a young age, Taylor was fascinated by birds. She grew up in Mill A, Washington, and graduated from Western Washington University. While a student, she discovered falconry and quickly realized the endeavor is not easy.

Of all sports, falconry is the only one that uses a trained wild creature. Raptors are protected by state, federal and international law. Aspiring falconers must obtain permits and licenses in a process that requires intense study, exams and apprenticeship.

In Oregon, the falconry program is operated by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Potential falconers must pass a written exam and apprentice with a sponsor who holds a general or master license.

After a flight across the field and into the trees, Gimli returns to Taylor.

In many ways, the license is just the first hurdle in a sport requiring significant time, money and attention. Apprentice falconers spend 2 years working closely with their sponsors learning to trap, train and hunt with a wild bird. Apprentices must build a mew—housing—for the raptor, make or buy equipment for the bird and pass ODFW inspections.

“It is a continuous learning process,” says Taylor, whose apprenticeship was accompanied by three years as a volunteer with the raptor education program at Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles. “Every day you are picking up something new. Even when you have finished your apprenticeship and move on to become a general falconer, you are still always learning. Most people take years on years to master the sport.”

Becoming a master falconer—the highest level of falconry—takes at least 7 years, according to the North American Falconers Association.

“Falconry is not an overnight achievement,” the association notes. “Your hawk requires a significant amount of time, every day, 365 days a year.”

For Taylor, a passion for wild birds began when her mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and life was churning with change.

“During the years she was sick, working and hunting with my birds was a very healing experience,” Taylor says. “My first bird, a juvenile red-tailed hawk I named Rhea, really helped me reconnect with myself after struggling with the news of my mom and helping with her care. It reminded me that I can still live my life and find joy.”

The joy is not without danger. Raptors are wild animals with large bodies, broad wingspan and fierce talons. For protection, falconers wear thick leather gloves, use bird hoods and leashes. They often use GPS to track their birds.

“I’ve learned a lot of patience,” Taylor says. “You really have to become present, to become aware. It forces you to be calm. I’m trying to be as peaceful as possible with this wild thing.”

Taylor has homed four birds: three redtailed hawks and an American kestrel. She considers each bird a hunting partner. They spend at least an hour together each day, as the birds takes flight or hunts for squirrels, rabbits, mice and small rodents in open fields and public lands in the Hood River Valley, Mosier, Wamic and Tygh Valley.

“There is something very special about the bond you create with these raptors,” Taylor says. “It’s been very healing and powerful and has channeled much growth within me during some very difficult years.”

When her mother died in 2021, Taylor took a break and only recently returned to the sport. Her current bird, Gimli, is a juvenile red-tailed hawk she named after a character in J.R.R Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”

“He’s stubborn,” she says fondly, holding out bits of raw quail to call him back from a nearby tree. “He has been such a wonderful bird to start fresh with, and he has already taught me a lot. I cannot wait to finish out the season with him.”

The 2 hunt autumn through spring. In late spring or summer, the bird is released as it needs additional energy for the molting season.

“You have to know your bird will always belong to the wild,” Taylor says. “You get to have a glimmering moment in their life. It’s a very special experience.”

For more information, visit the Oregon Falconers Association website, or the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center - Raptor Program website.