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The Stay-at-Home Mom Turned Falconer

Decades ago, Deanna Curtis was captivated by a birds of prey demonstration. Today, she's one of a growing number of women involved in the ancient sport of falconry.

"Being able to work with wild animals. To think you can have this wild animal, trap it one day, and be hunting with it in two to three weeks, working with you as a team member — it’s kind of a romantic thought," says Deanna Curtis. (Erin Wilson)
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Decades ago, Deanna Curtis was captivated by a birds of prey demonstration. Today, she's one of a growing number of women involved in the ancient sport of falconry.

Name: Deanna Curtis
Job: Director of falconry at the Broadmoor Resort
Home Base: Colorado Springs, Colorado
Age: 52
Education: Graduated from Estacada High School in Oregon

For Deanna Curtis’s two sons and their Cub Scout buddies, it was an extra-special pack meeting, featuring a birds of prey demonstration put on by an organization called HawkQuest. But for Curtis, then a stay-at-home mom, seeing those majestic creatures in action almost 20 years ago was a life-changing moment that inspired her to pursue a career in the ancient sport of falconry.

“At that point I had no idea that falconry even existed,” Curtis says. But she immersed herself into her newfound passion, learning about different species of birds of prey, their history with humans (which, according to some experts, may go as far back as 10,000 B.C.), and the exacting care involved (measuring their weights pre- and post-flight, for example, right down to the gram). Soon after the Cub Scout meeting, Curtis attended her first falconry meet, where falconers gather to share information on training techniques, go on hunts, and, Curtis says with a laugh, “come back and tell tall tales.” She was hooked. “The light bulb moment happened: Holy smokes, I can have my own birds. I can hunt with them.”

About two years later, Curtis joined the staff of HawkQuest and eventually became licensed as a master falconer, a designation that comes after seven years of apprenticeship, training, and passing a 100-question exam. She also founded her own nonprofit, Wild Wings Environmental Education, which cares for birds that have been wounded or injured and are unable to survive in the wild. She currently owns five birds. “As a falconer, you can take birds from the wild, but they cannot be an adult,” Curtis explains. “They must be a young juvenile bird, and we know this from the way their plumage looks. You can also purchase them from breeders.” (Curtis notes that falconry is a zero-impact sport, meaning falconers have no impact on wild raptor populations, as noted in several studies, and can even help them survive when they otherwise would not.)

Curtis joined the Broadmoor Resort in December 2017 as director of falconry and, along with a co-worker, oversees eight birds of prey, including Harris’s hawks, a Eurasian eagle owl, and Saker falcons, and leads falconry demonstrations for the resort guests. There’s also a class for those with some falconry experience. Curtis hopes to offer hunting outings soon as well.

On What She Loves About Her Job: “Being able to work with wild animals. To think you can have this wild animal, trap it one day, and be hunting with it in two to three weeks, working with you as a team member—it’s kind of a romantic thought.”

On Why It’s Legal for Licensed Falconers to Take Birds from the Wild: “It’s something I try to go over in all of my classes. People at first are like, ‘What? Why would you want to do that?’ But falconry is a zero-impact sport, and 70 to 80 percent of birds in the wild will die their first year, mainly due to starvation, but also things like being hit by a car, electrocution, being shot by people. But the main thing is starvation. They grow so quickly, then Mom and Dad kick them out, then winter comes and the prey population decreases, which makes it much harder for them to survive. So we take them, train them to hunt with us, and then you can release them at a later date, when the bird has a better chance at survival. You don’t have to release them, but I’d say a big percentage of falconers catch new birds every year and release them every spring.”

On What She Would Be Doing If She Wasn’t Involved in Falconry: “Working with wildlife in a different type of setting. But education is really important to me, so there’s not much else I could do and be able to get this kind of fulfillment. Perhaps falconry-based bird abatement, where you use raptors to keep pest species like starlings and gulls away from airports, vineyards, and resorts. Dassi is one of our Saker falcons who was used at JFK, keeping the airways clear of birds that could bring down airplanes. You hear a lot about the bird strikes at airports, and a lot of airports are using falconers now to help keep the runways clear.”

On an Ordinary Day: “I’m typically at work by 9 or 10 a.m. Then I make sure the birds are at [proper] weight for flying—not too heavy, not too thin. I also get all the food prepped for our classes. I will take Chase [one of the Broadmoor’s Saker falcons] and put him outside and weather him for a bit, which basically means getting him some vitamin D in the natural light and getting him used to the weather conditions prior to flying. Then I will load up the birds into their cages and into my car. Then we’re off to do the class. We’ll do a class or two, maybe three, then I clean the chambers thoroughly. Then I go home.”

On Her Least Favorite Part of the Job: “One of the food sources we have for the birds is day-old rooster chicks. Nobody wants the roosters, so they get offed on their first day. So it’s kind of a nice way to not let them go to waste. It’s pretty easy food prep, since you don’t have to cut up rabbit or quail. You can just pull off a leg, which is a small enough tidbit that the bird will want to continually fly. You have to keep them very closely weight managed for flying, so if I was to feed the bird the entire chick, the bird would say, ‘Well, I don’t need to fly to you anymore. I’m full.’ But there are drawbacks, too. Because they’re only a day old, the chicks still have that yolk sac inside them, and they can burst. Recently, when I was flying Chase, I was lure-flying him, and I was a little klutzy and the egg yolk exploded on me. With Rosco, the Harris’s hawk, sometimes I’ll fly him to the fist [industry terminology for the bird landing on the falconer’s outstretched, gloved fist] for a day-old chick, and I’ve had the yolk sac explode in my face as he’s eating it. That’s a bad day at the office for me. You just hope the guests can handle it.”

On Being a Woman in Male-Dominated Field: “For every woman, it’s probably a little different. I read on falconry forums how some women feel like they’re not taken seriously by men. I’ve not ever felt that at all. I always feel like I’ve been welcome. I don’t feel like I’ve been treated any differently than anyone else. I don’t walk around going, ‘I’m a female falconer.’ I’m a falconer. If you want to be good at something, you’re going to be good at whether you’re male or female, black or white.”

On More Women Getting into Falconry: “We’re in an age where we’re realizing it’s good for our kids to see we’re not just moms. You’re seeing a growth in women in not just falconry, but in hunting and all sorts of other outdoor sports. We’re not being told that we can’t do it anymore.”

On That Iconic Glove and Other Gear: “The glove is made out of leather. You can have them custom fit, or you can buy a generic glove. I get mine from a place called Traditions Glove, and I will trace my hand, and they will make a glove based on that. I go through mine in a couple of years. Jesses are the leather straps that are put on the birds’ ankles so you can hold them without them flying off. You can also use bells so you can hear them as they fly.

As far as the hood [for the bird], people are always curious about that. You need to have a hood to keep them calm and focused. The hoods came about in the beginning of time, and there are several different types. There’s a Khan hood, made around the time of Genghis Khan, and you have Dutch hoods, invented by the Dutch, and many others. You have some that are very ornately decorated and some that are that are just very plain. If you train the birds properly, they don’t mind it. If you can relate it to a dog, if you pull out your leash, your dog gets excited because they know they are going for walk. So if everything is associated with positiveness—the hood comes off and the bird gets a reward—the bird accepts it very nicely, and you start that at a very young age.”

On How Technology Is Changing Falconry:Telemetry—which is the use of a transmitter that the bird wears and a receiver that the falconer uses to track it—is the newest invention with falconry. Now we have GPS telemetry, which can track how fast your bird flew, how high it flew, how far it few, the temperatures it flew in. You can tell if he had a good day, or you can see he really wasn’t trying, was he?”

On the Most Fulfilling Part of Her Job: “When I get to see people smiling from ear to ear after experiencing a connection with these birds, that tells me it might make a difference in the future of that species. That’s how you make change—you make a connection with something. It happens in every single class. There has never been a grumpy person when they’re holding Chase.”

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