MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
A red tail hawk dives at breakneck speeds like a missile toward a Marine. In a split second the bird changes speed to gently land on a leather gauntlet.
To Sgt. Thomas Parker, a ground safety manager with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Training Squadron 303, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, his hawk Akando, is not a pet, but a hunting partner.
He pursued falconry, the sport of noblemen, more than two years ago after being inspired by a red tail hawk flying overhead.
“My buddy Sgt. Holland and I saw a hawk at the rifle range and he told me about how people raise them and train them to hunt,” said Parker. “After we talked about falconry for a bit, it peaked my curiosity.”
Parker researched the sport and visited some online forums looking for someone in the area who could sponsor him. New Falconers need sponsors to be certified by the state and federal wildlife agencies. His big break came when he found a local falconer, Adam Chavez.
“It took me a while to find a sponsor especially since there are roughly 5,000 in the nation,” said Parker. “Once I found my sponsor I spent a few months apprenticing and studying everything there is to know about raptors. After a lot of work I passed the test offered by the California Department of Fish and Game.”
Parker has since trained three raptors and is currently training a red tail hawk that he captured with a federal government approved trap more than a month ago. During the week, Parker takes his feathered friend to a field where he can practice releasing and calling for a few hours four days each week. Some tools that Parker uses to train and hunt include, a hood to prevent the bird from being spooked, a transmitter to track him and a leather gauntlet for him to land on.
“I release the raptor from my glove and train him to return using a leash,” said the Houston native. “When I’m on the hunt, I might set my raptor near a spot where it can ambush unsuspecting prey.”
After his raptor swoops in and catches an animal in its sharp talons, Parker runs to him and holds the raptor on his gauntlet giving him several pieces of quail meat for his reward.
“It takes weeks to build a relationship with the bird and get him to trust you. I treat him like an equal,” said Parker. “I benefit from the training and the raptor benefits from the improved hunting skills. Falconry is based on a beneficial understanding between the raptor and the person.”
It is this way of understanding that has been passed on for ages. Falconry is said to have originated in Asia more than 3,000 years ago. Some falconers would say that the world’s oldest field sport dates back before the first records of civilization.
Falconry was rooted in Chinese culture often as a sign of wealth and nobility. It spread not only through Asia, but to Europe and across the globe.
Raptors were not only used for hunting, military commanders used them as part of campaigns and diplomacy. A nobleman’s raptor was often attributed to their status in society. A person who could train a bird to hunt and behave was seen as a great leader. Since his beginnings as a falconer, Parker has used his newfound strengths to better himself and his fellow Marines.
“It takes a lot of patience to train these birds and I’ve learned how to cooperate more,” said Parker. “I would compare this relationship to that of my junior Marines. You have to gain both their trust and respect. If a Marine isn’t performing well there’s an underlying problem. Just like when your hawk isn’t able to hunt well. I’ve learned how to approach my Marines in a better manner to solve those problems.”
Parker works each day to meet the needs of his Marines.
“Sgt. Parker is a hard worker and always goes out of his way to take care of his Marines and friends,” said Sgt. Jason Holland, a tool control program coordinator with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 267 and friend of Parker’s. “I think if more Marines pursued new ideas and things to do in their personal time, then pushed to have others participate as Sgt. Parker has, the Marine Corps as a whole would be richer.”
As a ground safety manager, Parker performs basic safety walk inspections to make sure everyone is following proper environmental procedures and the Marines are wearing proper safety gear. He inspects maintenance safety and makes sure people are using up to date publications. After a day of work he also coaches youth soccer and basketball.
He aspires to pass on falconry to other Marines and currently trains to become a sponsor for others. The world’s oldest field sport has been passed down to generations and with the time and effort he has put in, he can help the sport continue on.