THE first time Paul Mascuch’s falcon saw a drone, she didn’t know quite what to make of it.
Mascuch, an experienced falconer in Parma, Idaho, was nursing the bird back to health after she had suffered a broken wing. The quadcopter, which Mascuch had fitted with blade guards, was placed on the ground next to his falcon. She eyed it warily. As the motors started up, Mascuch distracted her from the noise with a snack.
Soon the bird was up in the air, chasing the drone – and the half a quail dangling from it. Her owner is now a drone convert. “It’s easy to use, quick and very versatile,” says Mascuch. “If you have a bird that’s difficult [to train], these tools make it easy.”
Drones have taken the ancient sport of falconry by storm over the past few years. Falconers train their birds to reach high altitudes, so that they can see across larger areas and are more likely to find prey. Traditionally, they have done this by rewarding the falcon whenever they happen to fly high. Some trainers tempt the birds upwards with bait attached to a kite or balloon. But drones offer more control over this process – they can make the bait fly where the trainer wants or hover, even in a stiff breeze.
Wingbeat, a falconry company based in Carmarthen, UK, has built a drone called the Robara. Designed to resemble the houbara bustard, a game bird frequently hunted by falconers in the Middle East, the Robara has a foam head and flapping wings, and flies at the speed and height of a real houbara. It is set to go on sale in the Middle East in September, in time for the hunting season.
But the drones don’t appeal to everyone. Real falconry means hunting wild game in the field, says Tom Cade, founder of conservation group The Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho. “If you want to go artificial, if that makes you happy, that’s fine,” he says. “But please don’t call it falconry.”
Nick Fox, a falconer who has bred birds for the royal families in both the UK and Abu Dhabi, is director of the Robara project. He says robotic falconry could be turned into a competitive sport. If it catches on, it might help protect houbaras in the wild, where they are at risk of extinction.
“To the average person, it would seem like this great leap forward, but it’s really an evolution of what falconers have done for a long time,” says Mike Dupuy, a falconer in Pennsylvania who plans to incorporate drones into his training. “It’s a beautiful thing, it’s a new thing and I think we’re going to get a lot more of it.”