A Haines falconer has acquired and trained the bird of his dreams – a gyrfalcon. The large falcons have traditionally been flown by royalty, but recent breeding programs have made them more accessible to the common falconer.
Mario Benassi has had a lifelong passion for birds of prey.
“I remember the very first time I thought of being a falconer,” Benassi said. “I saw a guy — I never saw the guy, but I saw his hawk tied on a perch in the backyard. I would go sneak and look, and I wasn’t even supposed to go down the alley, I was 4 years old.”
From that moment, Benassi became obsessed. As soon as he could read he ordered books from the library about falconry. At age 11 he started an apprenticeship with a master falconer.
“By the time I was 13 I got my first bird, and I got a redtail hawk and oh my God what an amazing adventure that was, and how much fun I had with that bird,” Benassi said. “I began to catch game with it right away. Then it was really hard because I was in school and it would be a beautiful day in the fall and I’d be looking out the window thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what I am I doing in this school, I have a hawk waiting at home for me.’”
At other times the bird benefited Benassi’s studies.
“I always managed to get an A on any science project because I would bring my hawk to school and give a talk about it,” he said.
As an adult, Benassi continues to bring birds into schools. He leads a program at the Haines school called Chilkat Forest Investigators where he teaches a few students about falconry and the natural world.
This year he visits with a special bird named Mirum. She’s a gyrfalcon. Gyrfalcons breed in the Arctic. They are the largest falcons and can weigh close to three pounds with a wingspan of around 4 feet. They have a powerful beak and are more closely related to parrots than to hawks. Benassi says in medieval Europe, only kings were allowed to hunt with them.
Benassi consulted with his students to name her. They chose Mirum, Queen of Hearts. The hearts refer to the patterns her feathers form on her chest. Mirum means surprise in Latin. This refers to the surprise Benassi had at being able to care for such a unique bird. Mirum had been in captivity for a few years when she came to him.
“The first year that she was trapped, she was successful as a trained falconry bird,” Benassi said. “And then the guy for some reason his circumstances didn’t allow him to keep her. And he transferred her to a captive breeding program. And she was in the captive breeding program for almost four years. She didn’t like any of the males that were presented to her.”
Because she wasn’t contributing to the breeding program, her owners sought someone else to care for her. When Benassi heard this, he went to Anchorage to pick her up. He and Mirum drove back together earlier this winter. Mirum wore a hood during the trip. Benassi says it is important to cover a falcon’s eyes during transport — otherwise, they might see something that startles them and could injure themselves in the car.
Mirum now has a new house called a mews. It’s about the size of a small wood shed, with bars on the windows and a perch. It has to be small enough to prevent her from picking up speed when flying so she doesn’t injure herself. Benassi is now training her to fly and hunt with him.
He goes out with her and lets her fly away. But she is tied to a leash. The leash is light, and won’t allow her to fly more than 300 feet away from him.
Benassi has to learn to know his birds before he can hunt with them. He starts by weighing them multiple times.
“A bird, this is how their life is, they eat until they are not hungry anymore, and then they rest and preen and do whatever they are going to do while they are satiated,” he said. “And then when they are hungry again their weight falls into the hunting weight. And so as a falconer, this is what you are looking for is you are looking for that hunting weight. Then it wants to go out and catch game. Obviously, if the hawk is not in that weight class, then when you release it, it may just as well go out and take a bath and sit and sun itself as hunt.”
The hunt is teamwork for human and bird.
“You take the bird to the hunting ground, and so with a goshawk I release it, and then I walk for miles and miles and miles through the woods,” Benassi said. “And then the hawk just stays in the trees above my head. Any game that I flush, the hawk will give chase, it usually occurs within a couple hundred yards of me and often I actually get to see the hawk make the catch, the whole pursuit occurs right in front of your face. And that’s really why you practice falconry, is because you have this alliance with the bird, and then you also have to have a ringside seat at this most athletic display of amazing flying ability. A goshawk threading itself through the thickest bushes and trees at 80 miles an hour is just something to witness.”
Benassi says hunting with a falcon is completely different.
“Falcons do not like the forest, and they don’t venture out into the trees — it’s just not their domain,” he said. “And so you need open ground to fly a falcon. Of course, a falcon is going to go up a couple thousand feet if it’s trained well, and wait. And then you push, and hopefully flush a duck or a goose. The falcon will come down in a spiraling stoop and hit the goose or duck and break its back or its wing, and then it falls to the ground and the falcon comes and lands on it.”
Benassi hopes to hunt with Mirum for a few years and release her. He says maybe she will return to Nome, where she was born, and find a mate to her liking.