Written by Thomas Calder | Photos by Anthony Harden
Passion, hobby, and business for Jeff Curtis
Despite following a circuitous career path, his childhood fascination with birds would one day fuel a permanent passion. Falconry—or pretty much anything related to birds, flying, and the skies—is not the first thing that springs to mind when you enter Curtis Wright Outfitters in downtown Weaverville.
It’s hard to miss the fishing rods, hooks, sinkers, baits, and related apparel, from waders to wading boots, headgear to vests. And of course, one of the main draws of the business is its wade and float fishing outings, as well as fly fishing classes. Beyond the immediate world of lakes, rivers, and creeks, however, owner Jeff Curtis does indeed deal in the realm of the flight. Customers might be surprised to learn that, while they’re in the front section of the store examining rods or learning how to tie a knot, Curtis is in his back office, going over inventory and taking care of orders and bills, all under the watchful eye of a wild Kestrel (a type of small falcon) named Little Sumpin, perched calmly on its rest—and minus a cage.
“All my birds,” he says, with a grin, “are named after beers.”
Jeff Curtis, as it turns out, is a licensed falconer, and for the past four years via his companion business, Curtis Wright Falconry, he has been trapping and training these wild birds of prey. During that time, he and fellow falconer Peter Kipp-DuPont have also offered guided falconry trips to guests interested in learning about the ancient practice.
“The first time a bird flies to your glove—it’s just one of those ‘Oh my goodness!’ moments,” says Jeff, whose enthusiasm for the topic of falconry is unwavering. An eager smile accompanies wide eyes. “And every time I take a person out, I get to experience that moment through them, while they get to fulfill a dream of being a falconer for a day.”
For many, a day is the closest they’ll ever get. The process of becoming a licensed falconer is tedious. Paperwork, time, and money are three very real components of the sport. As is a two-year apprenticeship. It’s no surprise, then, that it took Jeff nearly fifty years before he pursued the sport in earnest. And yet, as he tells his story, it’s hard not to see how his life’s various paths were leading him to falconry all along.
A Childhood with Birds
Birds have played a prominent role throughout Jeff’s life. As a boy growing up in Clearwater, Florida, his father brought home a few homing pigeons for him and his younger brother. “I don’t know why he did it, but he did,” Jeff says.
Within a few years, he graduated from working with pigeons to volunteering at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in nearby Indian Shores. His duties there were primarily housekeeping, with weekends spent cleaning bird cages.
Around that same time, his sister Katherine introduced him to bird watching. “She showed me the Loggerhead Shrike. These birds will catch grasshoppers and worms and impale them on a fence.”
By 1982, he had enrolled at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, majoring in psychology, but throughout his four years he also worked at bird rehabilitation centers both on and off campus.
“I knew so little back then,” he recalls. “I remember asking one of the attendants how you tell the difference between an owl and a hawk.” Experience soon taught him the distinction: “Hawks back away when you enter their cage. Owls attack.”
Birds of prey continued to fascinate Jeff, but in the mid-Eighties, the availability of literature on falconry was limited. By the time he graduated from Furman, in 1986, he had traded in his position as an assistant at the various bird rehabilitation centers in order to work as a Unit Counselor at Marshall Pickens, a psychiatric facility in Greenville. Every so often the thought of falconry returned to him, but life had a way of redirecting his attention.
A Diverse Résumé
After two years at Marshall Pickens, Jeff returned to Florida to partner with his father in retail. “I decided to go into business with my folks because my dad is an incredible businessman, and I wanted to learn all I could from him about retail and small business ownership. The transition was pretty smooth. Both jobs involved working with people and establishing relationships.”
His desire to work with and help children, however, led to his eventual return to the Carolinas. As the Director of Programs for Project SOAR (the acronym stands for “Success, Opportunity, Achievement, and Responsibility”), he worked outdoors, leading hikes and rock climbing adventures for children with ADHD/ADD and LD. The activities taught the kids both teamwork and self-reliance, in an effort to develop and increase healthy self-esteems. It also provided him plenty of opportunities for bird watching.
It was during this time at SOAR that he also met future wife Susan. Whereas candlelight dinners and wine might accompany the more traditional love story, they fell in love under the soaring wings of Peregrine Eagles, Red-Tailed Hawks, and American Kestrels. “She tells me bird watching is how I wooed her,” Jeff says.
The couple married in December of 1992.
Shortly thereafter, he returned to his former role as a Unit Counselor, this time at Park Ridge Hospital in Fletcher, before joining Susan and her family in the design, development, and management of the Sourwood Inn—a retreat style bed and breakfast that sits on 100 acres of hilly terrain on the northeast edge of Asheville.
By the early 2000s, while still running the Inn (he helps with bookkeeping there to this day), Jeff felt the call to return to retail. He and a friend, Carlton Wright Murrey, discussed opening a shop that would combine Curtis’ knowledge of retail, along with both men’s passion for the outdoors, specifically fly fishing.
By April of 2003, the doors to Curtis Wright Outfitters opened. A second location opened in Saluda the following year. And in May of 2006 they added their third store, in Biltmore Village.
With growth, however, came growing pains. In October of 2011, the Saluda location closed its doors. “Being responsible for a business can get burdensome,” he notes. “I’m the last to get paid. Inventory, rent, and employee salaries come first.” Such financial realities would eventually lead to Murrey’s departure from the business in 2011; by then it was becoming clear that the retail operation couldn’t support both men’s families. (Murrey went on to become the CEO of the Cradle of Forestry in America Interpretive Association, and according to Jeff has “grown it [Cradle of Forestry] incredibly well.”)
Shortly thereafter, in early spring of 2012, a man by the name of Peter Kipp-DuPont emailed Jeff. He was raising money for the Quest Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates environmental education through the combination of the arts and sciences in an effort to preserve wildlife refuges, while championing sound environmental practices and defenses. He wanted to see about setting up a table in front of the Curtis Wright Asheville location. In addition to being an environmentalist, DuPont also happened to be a falconer.
By then it had been over 25 years since an owl had chased Jeff out of its cage during his time at Furman. Nevertheless, he knew this was his chance. He responded to DuPont’s email. He did not bring up his past interest in falconry. He did not bring up birds at all. He simply told the falconer that it would be fine for him to set up outside his shop.
Two Peregrine Falcons, named Zelda and Seymour, accompanied DuPont at his table outside Curtis Wright Outfitters in Biltmore Village. Their presence drew people in. Pictures were taken and feathers stroked, while DuPont spoke of environmental awareness.
“He has a way of making people see how everything is interconnected,” Jeff says.
One of DuPont’s many talking points involved DDT, a chemical used throughout the ‘60s and early ‘70s to kill mosquitoes. In 1972 the chemical was banned from agricultural use, but by then the damage had already been done, in that DDT magnifies through the food chain. Meaning by the time the falcon ate the duck that ate the insect that ate the crop that was sprayed with the chemical, the effects intensified, resulting in eggshell thinning.
By the mid-1970s there were only an estimated 300 pairs of Peregrine falcons left. In the 1980s, DuPont, along with other falconers, combated the Peregrine’s endangered status by breeding the birds in captivity, and by 1999, their numbers had sufficiently increased to have them delisted.
Jeff, of course, had immediate respect for DuPont’s knowledge and life’s devotion to the Peregrine. So much respect, that it took him a few weeks to work up the courage to ask if DuPont would be willing to sponsor him in the required two-year falconry apprenticeship. “He told me no. He had had some bad experiences in the past with guys who thought they wanted to be a falconer, but who weren’t truly committed.”
Romanticism combined with inexperience increases the likelihood of a bird being injured by an apprentice. And such a result—especially if the apprentice quits shortly thereafter—is devastating to the falconer.
DuPont did give him two other names, though. But even with DuPont as a reference, both falconers turned him down. “There’s a lot of risk involved in sponsoring,” Jeff says, explaining that romanticism combined with inexperience increases the likelihood of a bird being injured by an apprentice. And such a result—especially if the apprentice quits shortly thereafter—is devastating to the falconer.
After his second round of rejections, Jeff returned to DuPont with a simple request. “I asked him to come see my house. I wanted him to see that I had access to land. I also knew my wife’s cooking would win him over.”
Over a home-cooked meal, DuPont learned more about his history and passion for both birds and the sport. He saw the amount of property Jeff had to work with, as well. That, along with the fact that he was self-employed and therefore able to adjust his schedule at the stores, played into Jeff’s favor. By the night’s end, DuPont agreed to sponsor him under one condition. “He wouldn’t help prep me for the tests,” Jeff says. “I’d have to study for that on my own. But he agreed to teach me the hands-on stuff of falconry.”
A Brief History
In teaming up with DuPont, Jeff not only became an apprentice, but a member of a sport with a long history. One that can be traced back as far as 1000 BC, to Mongolia, where falconry was refined on military campaigns by the Great Khans. By 1030 BC, the Ancient Egyptians had discovered the sport as well. From there, it made its way to China, Indo-Pakistan, Japan, and the Islamic world. By the Middle Ages, it took hold in Europe, where it was considered the “sport of kings.” Falconry in the United States, however, would remain relatively dormant until the early 20th century.
Even with this extensive history, the techniques involved have seen little change. In particular, the falconer has to make sure that the birds aren’t over-fed, or they will not be sufficiently motivated to hunt or return to the falconer for food. “Most of what we do is weight management. You have to maintain a certain weight because a full bird isn’t coming back to you.”
The sport is also a test in patience. “This is the most unnatural thing in the world for them,” he says, while sitting in the Weaverville store’s back office with Little Sumpin perched on his hand. “We’re one of their few predators. This is an amazing display of trust. And that’s something that comes gradually.”
All Things Gradual
As with most falconers, Jeff was eager to trap his first bird and participate in a hunt. To get to the hunt itself, however, he had to get through a series of preliminary steps. The first one involved confronting a moral issue: His wife Susan was initially opposed the idea. “She couldn’t understand how I could go from a bird watcher to wanting to capture a wild bird and put it in a cage,” he says.
Like DuPont, Jeff sees falconry as a vessel—a way for people to connect with the raptors in order to better understand their relationship with the creatures and, by extension, all wildlife. “It’s the simple stuff we don’t even think about. When you throw an apple core out your car window you assume it’ll decompose. What you don’t consider is that a mouse is just as likely to run out to get it. Well, up in the sky is a raptor. The raptor’s only focus is the mouse. Meaning when it swoops down to snatch the mouse, it doesn’t even see the grill of the 18-wheeler it’s about to crash into.”
In addition, Jeff spoke with Susan about falconry not as domestication, but behavior modification—a component of the sport that tied in nicely with his past experience as a Unit Counselor. As he puts it, “I understand small steps and positive reinforcement.”
And while the definition between domestication and behavior modification certainly blurs somewhat (these birds do learn to equate food with the glove), Jeff also went into the fact that the hunt itself is a partnership. Both the raptor and the falconer seek prey from their separate vantage points; the falconer walks the land, while the raptor follows, from tree to tree. In some instances, the bird spots the prey and takes off. In other instances, the falconer’s disruption of groundcover initiates a critter’s desperate dash. Either way, once caught by the raptor, it is the falconer’s job to locate the bird, rather than the popular misconception that the bird brings the catch back to the falconer.
This, again, is where falconry turns into weight management. If the falconer does not get to the raptor quick enough, the raptor will fill up on its kill and have no need for the falconer. More often than not, though, the falconer gets to the scene in time. The leash is hooked back around the raptor’s feet, while an exchange occurs wherein the falconer offers a substitute in place of the kill. “You never have a bird think you’re stealing their food,” Jeff says. Otherwise, the partnership is off.
In the end, however, what swayed Susan was a simple agreement: Jeff agreed to never keep a bird for more than two years.
With the moral issue resolved, he moved onto the next step of licensing. This is where falconry as both a sport and an enterprise gets complicated. In the United States, an Apprentice Falconry License allows you to work as a falconer with a sponsor. During this two-year period, you can only possess one bird. Upon completion, the falconer is eligible to apply for the General Falconry License. In order to acquire this license, however, the apprentice must also get recommendations from two additional falconers. Once this license is obtained, the falconer can possess up to three birds. After five years, the General Falconry License can be upgraded to the Master Class Falconer License. This license allows the falconer to possess additional birds, with fewer restrictions regarding what types of birds the falconer can capture. All licenses, incidentally, are acquired through state-administered written exams.
In addition to the licenses, there is also the matter of permits. In order for Jeff to take people on falconry outings, he is required to hold a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Permit. Even with this permit, however, those who accompany the falconer are legally prohibited from handling a wild bird of prey, in that regulations specifically forbid financial gain through the use of wild birds. Jeff, who is licensed, is allowed to trap a wild falcon for the purposes of training it himself; but when he takes his customers out, they can only handle birds that have been bred in captivity—which, unlike wild birds, are forbidden by law from ever being released into the wild.
Lastly, falconers must have a state inspected facility built for their raptors. The facility, called a mews, must be a minimum of 8’x 8’.
Only after these requirements are met is a falconer legally permitted to capture that first bird. And much like young love, a falconer never forgets his first.
Like so many other specialized disciplines, falconry has its own roster of unique, at times unusual, terminology. master the glossary below and you won’t be left flapping in the breeze when you find yourself deep in discussion with an enthusiast.
Mew or mews – the hawk’s secure enclosure (the hawk house).
Creance – a long line or cord attached to the raptor when it is flown outside during training; the creance is used in preparation for free flying the bird.
Anklet – the leather strap that goes around the hawk’s leg—the jess passes through the anklet.
Jess – the leather strip that passes through the anklet, which allows the falconer to hold the bird; the swivel and leash attach to the jess to secure the raptor to the perch or glove.
Coping – to re-shape the bird’s beak back to its optimal form.
Feak – the action of rubbing the beak against a surface to clean it; this is a sign of a content bird.
Rouse – the action of a raptor erecting its feathers and then shaking them; part of preening and also a sign of a content bird.
Free Loft – a management technique of allowing the hawk to stay in the mews untethered; the raptor is given full roam of the mews.
Gauntlet – the falconer’s glove (left handed glove for a right handed falconer).
Hood – the leather head covering used on hawks and falcons, the purpose of which is to keep the bird calm.
Stoop – the act of a falcon folding its wings back and diving through the air, usually in pursuit of quarry; the Peregrine Falcon has been clocked at over 250mph in a stoop.
Saint Hubert – the patron saint of falconers and falconry.
Bate – the action of the raptor attempting to fly from a perch or glove while attached by a leash.
Taking the Bait
Trapping season runs from August to the end of February. It overlaps with the hunting season, which runs from mid-October to the end February. The length of time spent training varies, depending on the bird. Some need only a few weeks to free fly. For others it can require months. The uncertainty involved, along with the build-up that went into Jeff’s legal right to trap, resulted in his being an eager trapper.
“I wanted to go right away,” he says. “Of course, Pete [DuPont] told me no. That we had to wait for the leaves to fall in order to see the birds.”
Like a child marking the days off the calendar until summer, Jeff spent the next few months waiting for the green leaves to turn orange, yellow, and red. Once they began to fall, he and DuPont loaded the truck.
There are three common traps used in falconry: dho gaza, bownet, and bal-chatri.
The dho gaza involves an upright net mounted in front of the bait. The bait can range from a mouse to a rat to a sparrow. Just as a raptor might collide with the grill of an 18-wheeler in pursuit of a meal, so too will it collide with the net of the dho gaza, which subsequently collapses, trapping the bird.
Unlike the dho gaza, the bownet is a spring-loaded mechanism, operated either remotely or trigged by the raptor’s landing. Either way, once the bird of prey swoops down to capture the bait secured at the center of the trap, the net springs open, capturing the bird.
The third and most commonly used trap is the bal-chatri. Unlike the other two techniques, the bal-chatri does not rely on a netting system, but rather a noose-covered cage. As with the other techniques, bait is placed inside the cage. Once the raptor attempts to capture the prey, its feet become tangled in the nooses.
The latter technique is what Jeff and DuPont were working with. They’d gone out twice before without any results. By their third outing the rain fell, and so, too, did the hours.
“We’d been driving for about four hours that day,” recalls Jeff. “I came to the intersection of Ferncliff Park Drive and Highway 280. We were talking about which way to turn on 280 and had decided to go toward Mills River when Pete spotted her.”
They pulled off onto the shoulder in order to get a better look. Sure enough, a Red-Tailed Hawk sat perched on one of the landing lights at Asheville Regional Airport.
It is believed that most raptors breed for life. Because of this, the law prohibits falconers from capturing mature birds. Initially, DuPont thought their bird on the landing light was indeed a mature hawk, based on her chest and eye-color.
Jeff, of course, did not want to believe this. With binoculars in hand, he studied the bird, certain he’d seen a barred brown tail—an indication of immaturity. Once DuPont confirmed Jeff’s observation, the two men laid out the bal-chatri along the side of the road, and drove 30 yards up.
“Once we pulled back over, Pete tells me not to look at the bird,” Jeff says. “He then tells me if it doesn’t land on the trap within the first five minutes, it isn’t going to.” After that, DuPont let him in on an additional observation he’d noted over the years: “He told me if a bird spots your trap and poops, it’s a good sign.”
As things went, the hawk on the landing light defecated. Seconds later it swooped down onto the cage. The predator’s speed would inspire its name, Rocket Girl (derived from the golden lager). Its feet tangled, Jeff and DuPont took off on foot. Once they got to the hawk, DuPont held the wings while Jeff released its feet. DuPont then handed the hawk off for Jeff to hold.
Normally you hood a bird once it’s caught in order to calm it down,” Jeff says. “But Pete didn’t want to hood her. He wanted to see how she would act as I held her on my lap for the drive home.”
Picture this final scene. DuPont is driving down the road, while Jeff sits beside him, holding an un-hooded hawk on his lap and observing her behavior. Which, unsurprisingly, is more than just a little agitated. Gradually, though, the nervousness begins to subside—for both the bird and her handler.
“It was amazing to see the transformation,” marvels Jeff. “She started to calm down—her crest started to lower and her gape started to close. I think Pete just wanted the two of us to be able to see each other and start the process of getting to know each other.”
It was during this initial period that he felt everything come together.
“We were the only car out on the road that day with a hawk in it. My hands were starting to cramp as I was holding her, and we were just about to cross the Smoky Park Bridge.
“I was like a little kid sitting there, thinking that, this was it.”
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