KUNA, Idaho — Gary Moon releases "Laser," his young prairie falcon, as the sun's first rays set southern Idaho's desert horizon ablaze. The two-pound female, a tiny radio transmitter strapped to each leg, lifts from Moon's leather gauntlet and with every rapid wing beat circles higher into the sky.
Moon, a semi-retired 70-year-old businessman and mechanic from Boise, waits until his bird soars to 400 feet before sprinting toward a pond. With no ducks on the water, however, he reaches inside a sack at his side, flinging a homing pigeon aloft. Instinctively, Laser dives; only a last-second maneuver keeps the pigeon from becoming falcon fodder.
"Anybody can go out with a gun and get a limit of ducks in a few hours," said Moon, who 53 years ago pulled his first bird, a young red-tailed hawk, from its nest and was bitten by the falcon bug for life. "With falcons, it's the lure of the unexpected."
With its arid southern plain scoured with deep river canyons, Idaho is raptor country. More than 700 pairs nest each spring in the 485,000-acre Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area south of Boise. Moon's Laser has plenty of wild company, with up to 200 prairie falcon pairs, the highest breeding density in the world — along with American kestrels, golden eagles, red-tails and fleet peregrine falcons that dive at 200 mph and decorate Idaho's state quarter.
It's also home to a select few who, like Moon, use these birds to hunt.
What they practice today is a remnant of what residents of the Middle East, China and Europe did hundreds or even thousands of years ago: Using birds to scare up a meal. Whether it's a duck or a pheasant, falconers must act quickly after a successful hunt to separate raptor from prey — not unlike nomadic tribesmen in places like Mongolia who still fly giant eagles after small game or even foxes. Other modern day falconers don't eat the prey, but hunt for the sport only — and to provide their birds with food.
"It's watching something that happens every day in nature, but you get to do it up close and personal," said Boise falconer Bob Collins, who flies a gyrfalcon and a peregrine.
Falconers are active in many states. Moon joined more than 300 people from around the world this fall hunting with falcons in Kearney, Neb., during the annual meeting of the International Association of Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey.
In Idaho, about 160 people have state raptor permits, according to a 2011 Department of Fish and Game survey. They reported harvesting 700 game birds, half of them ducks. That's just a sliver of the 210,000 ducks shot by all 14,100 licensed hunters in Idaho in 2011.
"They're really dedicated to making sure that their tradition stays alive," said Jeff Knetter, upland game and waterfowl biologist at Fish and Game, the agency that regulates falconry in Idaho.
Some animal rights groups have questioned the practice of keeping wild birds captive. That's one reason the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outlines strict requirements for people who want to hold raptors, to prevent them from being exploited.
In Idaho, falconers must buy a $29 state license and a $100 federal license, as well as serve a two-year apprenticeship under a master falconer with at least seven years of experience.
Before unleashing their raptors on ducks, pheasant or even sage grouse, every falconer must buy a general hunting license.
Would-be falconers also must pass a written test even experienced falconers say is difficult. Idaho Fish and Game also inspects their raptor houses, known as "mews." Moon's mews, at his home in a neighborhood just south of Boise's downtown, consists of a storage shed with three 10-by-10 dog kennels for his birds.
Like many falconers, Moon acquired Laser the old-fashioned way: Permits in hand, he and a friend scaled a lava cliff in southeastern Idaho's Minidoka County on a rainy spring day, taking two of four young birds from a nest.
That makes Laser an "imprint" bird, one Moon will likely keep for life.
For others who capture "passage" birds — migrating raptors simply on their way through an area — they may keep them for just a season before returning them to the wild. For instance, nearly every winter, Bill Heinrich, another Idaho falconer, traps a dark, chocolate-colored merlin, trains it for three weeks and flies it after starlings, their natural prey.
"Merlins are extremely fast," he said. "The starlings are dead within seconds."
Come springtime, Heinrich releases his merlin to return to its summer home in the vast boreal forests of pine and spruce trees in Canada or eastern Russia.
Heinrich is a raptor biologist at The World Center for Birds of Prey, an education center run by the raptor conservation group, The Peregrine Fund. From its 580-acre hilltop campus south of Boise, its staff does work around the world, including saving endangered species like the California condor.
Falconers use bits of chicken or sometimes quail as treats to lure their birds back. But in rare instances, they don't return.
Stephen Buffat, an eastern Idaho falconer and licensed raptor breeder, was flying his peregrine-gyrfalcon hybrid in hopes of killing a sage grouse near Craters of the Moon National Monument and Reserve's ancient volcanos west of Idaho Falls.
Zeus, Buffat's bird, shed one talon-mounted transmitter; the other malfunctioned and the bird flew off into the failing evening light.Comment on this story
"It's a good probability he's gone," concedes Buffat, who posted a "Lost Bird" ad on the Internet. "But I'm going to keep my hopes up."
With a leather-hooded Laser sitting calmly on a backseat perch, Moon drives his camouflaged Honda SUV nearly every day into Idaho's open country. It takes hours of patient training. "The more they fly, the better they are," he said.
Just recently, Laser took her first Hungarian partridge, a classic midflight strike above the stark eastern Idaho desert beneath the Lost River Mountains.
"It's was beautiful," Moon said, still amazed. "The feathers just flew in the sunlight."