Bryn Close has a brand-new Lamborghini. It’s cherry red and goes 220 miles per hour, and he got it because he let a falcon have sex with his head. A few hundred falcons, actually.
Let me back up: Close is a falcon breeder. For more than 15 years, the boisterous, 66-year-old Geordie has bred peregrines, gyrfalcons, sakers and hybrids on his farm in Doncaster, England, a sprawling, well-appointed facility where he and a dedicated team of 10 experts mate and raise anywhere from 200 to 250 birds at a time. Most are sold to Middle Eastern sheiks for tens of thousands of dollars a pop (hence the Lambo), but he keeps a few as breeding stock (hence the head-sex).
Most of his falcons reproduce as nature intended, but others are “imprint falcons,” meaning they were born in captivity, raised by humans and see people, not just other birds, as soft, flightless members of their family. It’s this group that usually requires something called a “falcon hat” in order to mate. For the uninitiated, a falcon hat is an animal husbandry tool that looks like a cross between a sombrero and a Croc. Originally created in the 1970s to rescue Peregrine falcons from extinction, they’re designed to “catch” bird semen in one of their many dimples so it can be collected for artificial insemination.
Imprint falcons prefer the hats to birds because the person wearing them feels more “familiar,” but getting them to use one isn’t exactly easy. According to Close, imprint males have to be wooed a bit, a delicate process of trust-building and 24/7 hat-wearing that can take years to finesse. Once the falcon decides the hat is worthy of its spunk, the breeder kneels on the ground and tries to think about anything else while the bird mounts his head, flaps it wings and emits a series of pleasurable chirps before ejaculating. They orgasm with what Brad Wood, another breeder in Olympia, Washington, has described as a “noticeable shudder.”
“The whole time, you’re just thinking, Well, this is part of the job,” Close tells me in his molasses-thick accent from the den of his English home. “It’s worth it, though. It really is. I love my birds. I love them passionately. Some would say I’m obsessed with them. Truly, I’m the most committed falcon breeder you’ll ever meet in your life.”
He’s also the richest and best-known. Close is particularly infamous for alchemizing the so-called “Usain Bolts of the falcon world,” an invaluable skill in the explosively popular, high-stakes and high-status world of falcon racing, a sport that’s recently overtaken parts of the Middle East with a rabid ardor on par with that of football or soccer.
In Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, falcon races are the thing to watch, with millions of people tuning in to the 400-meter time trials to see whose falcon can beat the 16-second record set by one of Close’s own. Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have the biggest competitions for these races, each of which offer huge bounties, like $87,520 cars, towering trophies and up to $7 million in cash.
It’s not uncommon for trainers to spend more money on their falcons than they’d win in a race, either. Close says his clients often drop millions of their own cash on high-quality birds, expert trainers and world-class raptor vets, sheerly for the prestige of competing against some of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world. “It’s a massive, massive status thing over there,” he says. “It’s all about who has the fastest time.”
More often than not, it’s whoever has one of his “babies.” His birds have won more races than anyone’s ever, cinching the Grand Prize in six out of seven of Dubai’s most recent President’s Cup. In his worst year, one of his falcons committed the abominable sin of placing second, but he bounced back in 2016, when the seven fastest times were all his.
The unique speed of Close’s birds has made him extremely valuable to buyers, all of whom are more than happy to lavish him with gold Rolexes, Range Rovers, first-class plane tickets and priceless thoroughbred horses as tokens of their appreciation. But while he’s sold his illustrious crop to buyers on nearly every continent — including the Crown Prince of Dubai, affectionately known as “Fazza” — he now breeds exclusively for the royal family of Abu Dhabi, a well-appointed bunch who purchase his falcons for anywhere from £35,000 to £60,000 a pop. Recently, a pair of his hybrid gyr-peregrines went for £450,000, or about as much as a house.
Close credits his success to his “undying dedication.” He doesn’t train them himself — that’s considered insulting to the sheiks who buy them — but he does spend almost every waking moment with them, seeing that they’re cared for, monitoring their fertility and earning their trust. During breeding season, he sleeps in a caravan outside his facility and averages about four hours of sleep a night so he can ensure they have the “very best” — massive, pristine aviaries, fresh water and the most high-quality dead quails and ground-up rats money can buy. And when his client’s private jets aren’t available to pick them up, they will book out entire commercial flights so the birds can ride from the U.K. to the Middle East in style. “My falcons have afforded me a comfortable lifestyle, so it’s only right I do the same for them,” he says. “They have to be absolutely perfect.”
Falcon opulence isn’t limited to racing, though. In Qatar — where collecting falcons is considered a national pastime and a status symbol — wealthy buyers drop tens of thousands on the birds simply because they “just like them.” Across the Gulf in Dubai, you can book a $3,675 “luxury falcon experience” that takes you to “exclusive” destinations to witness the training and racing of the world’s fastest and best-trained birds on the Crown Prince’s very own property. Platinum Heritage Tours, a sustainable tourism company in Dubai, will even tack on a personal Range Rover, a six-course fine-dining menu crafted by a private chef, a butler and a blinged-out “private luxury camp” for discerning falcon fans longing for a taste of the extravagant lifestyle that’s become synonymous with the area’s most prestigious pastime.
Nearly every culture on the planet has a documented history of using birds of prey to hunt, but falconry has only become swank in recent memory. The sport is believed to have originated in Mongolia and Persia around 4,000 B.C., where it existed as an everyday pastime among all social strata in Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and later, the Middle East. But it wasn’t until Al Harith bin Mu’awiya, a monarch of present-day Saudi Arabia, began to train and hunt with falcons that the sport took on its royal status. Soon after, it became known as the “sport of kings,” and royal families would gift each other with falcons as tokens of their grace and approval. The Quran backed it, too — prey caught by falcons was considered to be halal, which only increased its popularity amongst the majority-Muslim countries that practiced it.
Then, in the 10th century, the Chinese invented gunpowder and guns all but wiped out the need for falcons as hunting companions. It was much easier to shoot your dinner with the push of a trigger than it was to train a falcon, so falconry waned as a way of life and spent a couple centuries existing as a niche hobby practiced by those who were either so rich they didn’t need to hunt, or those so poor they couldn’t (or didn’t want to) access guns.
Lately, however, it’s back in vogue. As the countries around the Persian Gulf grow wealthier and old traditions regain their value, falconry has returned as a popular upper-class hobby for those with the time, money and tricked out falconry Bentleys to honor the bygone custom. But as Close will tell you, it’s really just racing, not falcon hunting, that people care about in the Middle East. After Fazza introduced the sport in the early 2000s as a conservation tactic to protect endangered raptors, it became not only a status symbol to own and race a falcon, but an entire cultural landscape. In Dubai, falcons are printed all over street signs and currency, and in the UAE, they’re proudly emblazoned on the national emblem for their association with prestige and honor, so revered that they’re given their own passports so they can enter and exit the country with far more ease than most humans could ever dream of.
Falcon fever isn’t limited to the Middle East, though. Humanity’s fascination with the majestic, enigmatic birds has been resuscitated all over the globe. In the U.S. and U.K., a renewed interest in falcon hunting (not racing) has doubled the price of some raptors, increased the number of people applying for hard-to-get falconry licenses, and bizarrely, spawned the creation of a number of minor Instagram celebrities who drum up interest in the ancient pastime with flashy photos and heartwarming stories of interspecies friendship.
Adam Baz, who goes by @hawkonhand and has 38,000 dedicated followers on Instagram, is the king of these. A falcon trainer, wildlife biologist and bird abatement specialist who’s gushed over for his good looks far more than he’s comfortable with, Baz and his professionally photographed hawks and owls have played a small-time role in falconry’s increasing cool factor ever since he started posting, in 2016. Many of his captions contain educational elements about birds of prey and wildlife conservation, but some also contain a more personal, diaristic element that invites fans inside the Instagram-able moments of his life as a falconer.
As is the case with most Instagram accounts, the most common response is nothing more revealing than the ubiquitous heart-eye emoji (“Most of those are bots in India,” he jokes). But the people who actually engage with Baz’s content tend to do so in a curiously specific way: by expressing their desire to do what he does. It’s a job he admits is nowhere near as glamorous, profitable or casual as the current falcon craze makes it seem. Many of his followers seem to agree that hawks are preferable company to humans, and there are too many “How do I be you?” and “Man, I wish I had that life” comments beneath his artfully lit owl portraits to count.
Reading through these comments, it appears that Baz, despite his reluctant Insta fame, has attained a very different type of status through falconry than the one peddled in the Middle East. It’s one that comes with the nostalgic and increasingly rare privilege of not only working with, but merging with, nature.
Baz often wonders if comments like these — and the way people respond to his Instagram in general — are related to “nature-deficit disorder,” the belief that the decreasing amount of time humans spend outdoors is the root cause of developmental, behavioral and psychological problems like depression and ADD. For some, falconry, with its insistence that falconers immerse themselves in nature and participate in the predator-prey relationship much of humanity has lost touch with, provides a potent antidote. “Whether we realize it or not, we have a desire in our DNA to connect with the natural world,” says Baz. “Falconry is probably the most compelling way to get back in touch with nature that I’ve come across, and social media is helping people see that it’s easier to do that than they thought.”
What you don’t see on Instagram — or in the reflection of Close’s well-waxed Lambo — is what the actual day-to-day reality of owning a falcon is really like. Beneath the glitz, riches and superfans is a much humbler, honest and more personal world of falconry, one whose nuances, rituals and rigor suggests that pretty pictures and 400-meter races are just the tip of the iceberg.
Curious to know what was below it, I reached out to Pete Martin and Don Hildebrandt of the California Hawking Club, a growing group of conservationists and falconers working to advance the art and practice of falconry through training, apprenticeships and education. Intrigued by a questionnaire on their website that read, “Will you, can you, commit part of your waking hours to a creature who, at the very best of times, will merely tolerate your presence?” I asked if I’d be able to join them on a hunt so I could see what the whole falcon thing is really about. Next thing I knew, I was trekking up to Sacramento from L.A. in late November to join them.
I woke up at dawn on a bright and crisp Saturday morning and drove out to the rural intersection where Martin, Hildebrandt and a group of their falconry apprentices were meeting to hunt. As I left the city for the farm-lined country roads where we’d be going after rabbits with Harris’ hawks, my mind started turning and I began to grow skeptical over what, exactly, I was about to see. Martin had told me the purpose of the hunt was so the hawks could exercise and eat, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that spending countless hours training an animal to do something it was already doing in the wild made sense.
Nor was I sold on CHC’s conservationist rationale. A few days prior, Hildebrandt had told me over the phone that wild raptors have an 80 percent mortality rate in their first year of life, but that capturing them and involving them in falconry can actually conserve their numbers, creating a positive impact on what the Department of the Interior considers a valuable natural resource. By taking young raptors from the wild during that crucial year and training them to hunt, he says they’re able to “develop” them enough to be released back to nature after hunting season ends. That seemed more like a Beastmaster fantasy novel than an ecological strategy to me, but it also explained why the CHC website asks potential falconers to decide “upfront” whether they’re ready to be seen with “awe, amazement and sometimes anger,” an emotion I wasn’t expecting after my steady diet of posh falcon culture with Close. “Anytime you involve a human in a biological process, it’s bound to really upset some people,” Hildebrandt tells me. “But those people truly don’t know what they’re talking about.”
As I pulled up to a small caravan of trucks and vans parked off the side of the road where he, Martin and the rest of the group were unloading their hawks, I had a feeling I was about to find out how true that was.
Nearly everyone in the CHC group was in their 60s, from middle- or working-class backgrounds and happily retired, a status that showed in their well-worn outdoor gear and the deep tan of their skin. Not to mention, it’s common for people like Martin, a retired cop, to take up falconry in their AARP years to crush the boredom of retired life. As such, many falconers in the U.S. and U.K. are older, more modest and more rugged types — or you know, the exact opposite of the monied racers of the Middle East. So while young guns like Baz and a new generation of female falconers are starting to shift that image, the CHC group is about as average a falconing party as you can get.
Also, along the lines of “crushing the boredom of retired life,” very few people have the time, income, lifestyle or patience to become part of what CHC calls an “elite band of hunters in the most awesome sport on the face of the earth.” As the organization loves to remind people, only about one in eight people who begin the falconry licensure process actually completes it.
A quick tour of what it takes to become a falconer in the U.S. reveals why. Interested parties must pass a written exam, apprentice under a licensed falconer for two years, pass a mew inspection, pay a series of licensing fees and be able to afford the equipment, food and vet care that their birds will need.
And even if they make it to the finish line of that gauntlet, their work has only just begun. Raptors require one to three months of training before they hunt or race, a time commitment that can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 24 hours a day. Martin, Hildebrandt and Baz fly their hawks at least every other day, and when they’re not out goring rabbits, they’re checking on their birds, weighing them to make sure they’re at prime hunting weight, feeding them chunks of bloody meat and cleaning what Baz refers to as a “veritable sea of falcon shit” out of their cages (sadly, that part never makes it to Instagram). In some cases, falconry can even become a frustratingly all-consuming multi-day affair. Despite the expensive GPS and telemetry systems falconers often use to track their companion’s whereabouts — $1,000 to $3,000 per bird — some raptors just sort of… fly away. “Next thing you know, you’re chasing your bird around for three days straight,” says Baz. “I’d like to think they miss you when that happens, but I don’t think that’s the case.”
The CHC concurs, writing that falcons are, at best “about as affectionate as a stone.” These birds aren’t pets, their website warns, and anyone who sees them as such will discover that their beloved companions have little to offer but “heartache and puncture wounds” in return. “I’m not entirely sure what they think of us,” Hildebrandt says. “I guess I haven’t asked!”
On our hunt, he brought a brother-sister duo named Shooter and Jenny with him. He carefully untethered them from their wooden travel boxes and removed their hoods so they could see. While they acclimated to their surroundings, he gave me a tall, T-shaped stand to hold, and as soon as it was in my hands, each of them hopped up onto it from out of the car before they took off with Martin’s hawk Zeva toward the power lines that ran along the road. “They’re ready if you are,” Hildebrant offered, as he gestured for me to follow.
He led our group to a quarter-mile strip of huge, red-berried bushes, dry trees and golden brush. This, he explained, was where the rabbits live. It was our job to “flush them out.” Taking the T-stand I was still holding, he began to thwack and prod the foliage, rustling it as loudly as possible in order to scare the rabbits into making a break for it. It looked a little goofy, but it seemed to excite the hawks, who hopped from branch to branch and cocked their heads in anticipation from the tree above. “Here,” he said to me, handing the stand back. “You try.”
For the next 30 minutes, the apprentices and I walked up and down the road, beating the bushes as hard as we could while the three hawks circled overhead, the bells on their necks jingling as they watched the ground for scurrying prey. Every time Hildebrandt or someone else spotted a rabbit darting out from beneath the brush, they yelled “Ho ho ho!” at the top of their lungs to alert the hawks, but the excitement was always short-lived. Though the hawks made a couple of impressive dives, the rabbits, perhaps wise to the game, stayed hidden in the brush.
It was kind of exciting at first, but after half an hour of bush-beating and fruitless ho-ho-ho-ing, my crotchety skepticism returned. It didn’t really feel like we were hunting — as far as I could tell, all we were doing was going absolutely ham on some innocent bushes while the hawks waited impatiently in the trees. This couldn’t possibly be what all the buzz was about, could it?
As I slogged back and forth on the road, I considered something Baz had mentioned to me earlier. In the U.S., some people get into falconry not for the love of the sport or the birds themselves, but for a different, status-fueled reason: To stroke their ego. “Most falconers are extremely passionate, knowledgeable and responsible people who really care about their birds, but there’s a small amount who seem like they’re just doing this to master some untamable beast,” he says. “I think some get a bizarre thrill out of taming and domesticating an apex predator.”
Knowing how cold and unruly raptors can be, I can understand why it might be validating to tame one, but as I watched Martin, Hildebrandt and their colleagues stomp in and out of the thorny bushes in what appeared to be an increasingly pointless pursuit, I wondered if the lure of that feeling outweighs its substance. What, exactly, were these spry retirees getting out of all this galavanting? Sure, they’d trained wild beasts not to fly away from them, but why?
My question was quickly answered when a cat-sized jackrabbit darted into the middle of the road. It was a clear and easy opportunity for the hawks that felt like a breakaway and an open goal, and I was shocked at how quickly I turned from curmudgeon to fanatic. In the split-second between when I saw the rabbit and I heard the whoosh of the hawks slicing through the air above, an unfamiliar and surprising feeling overtook me: I wanted them to catch it. Not because I wanted to see something die or because I was sick of quite literally beating around the bush, but their impending catch felt blisteringly and undeniably real; like I was watching nature’s most honest cycle unfold. I felt connected to my surroundings in a way I hadn’t for a long time.
The unexpected surge of adrenaline caused my heart to beat with excitement when the rabbit twisted the plot by scurrying out of sight behind the bushes. The hawks fanned out in a triangle above it as the humans followed suit, each appearing to fly with a clear and understood purpose in their formation. It was exhilarating to watch the way they all worked together, moving swiftly after the rabbit like separate limbs on the same organism, wordlessly collaborating toward the same goal. It was silent for a moment after I lost sight of them and I wondered if they lost it, but as soon as Hildebrandt started running toward the trio of jingle bells that sounded off in the distance, Martin yelled “They’ve got it!” and we high-tailed it over to the site of the kill.
In the few seconds it took to get to the scene, everything started to click into place. Suddenly, all the riches, reverence and responsibility that surround birds of prey started to make sense, and I even felt a bit daft for not seeing it before. It’s not so much their utility as hunters or their ability to win you an $80,000 Range Rover in Qatar that must fuel the passion for hawks, falcons and other raptors; it’s the palpable symbiosis between humans and the natural world that falconry demands. In a hyper-modern age of technology, sedentary living and an increased reliance on animatronics over animals, it’s easy to forget the synergy that can exist between species and we as humans are every bit a part of that ecosystem as the rabbit, hawk or flora in which they live. Falconry — or at least this semi-grueling iteration of it — is a face-slapping wake-up call to remember.
Even its goriest, least glamorous parts are a mesmerizing collaboration. After he “dispatched” the rabbit Zeva caught by kneeling on its throat, Hildebrandt helped the hawks feed by cutting into its body with scissors, reaching into its ruby cavern with his bare hands and pulling out its entrails to make it easier for the birds to feed. Every now and then, he squirted some water from a spray bottle into the gash to help them stay hydrated, squatting over the scene to ensure everyone got an equal fill.
As I watched him wash the blood from his hands onto the dusty ground with the spray bottle and gently squirt the gore off Shooter’s and Jenny’s faces like a father delicately wiping food off his child’s mouth, I was struck not by the affection they seemed to be sharing, but the respect. Instead of becoming territorial about their kill, the birds seemed to inherently know that Hildebrandt was there to feed them, and the sense of pride he emanated from helping them get their fill was palpable. In that moment, it didn’t seem like one had tamed the other, but like they were two very differently shaped beings sharing the same playing field.
Driving home that afternoon, I got why Close sleeps in a caravan outside his falcon pens for six months a year, sleeping only three or four hours a night so he can check on his birds. I got why someone would drop a couple thousand on a falcon or a hawk. I got why someone would spent years romancing a falcon so it would, er, fuck their head, and I most certainly got why in places like Dubai or the UAE, falcons are treated not just as status symbols, but as cultural icons.
I just had to see it to believe it.