WOODSTOCK, Vt. — When Jessica Snyder takes her hawks to hunt, the falconer said an indelible bond forms. But only for her.

“In the bird’s world they will follow me around because I am a tool for a successful hunt,” Snyder said. “I can show this bird a squirrel by shaking a bush and the bird will attempt to pursue and capture the animal. But if they are unsuccessful, their belly is still full at the end of the day in the hand of a falconer. Unfortunately, as much as I care for my birds, and I love them all, they do not return the affection.”

A Harris hawk is held on a falconry glove by a guest at New England Falconry in Woodstock, Vt. The falconry center, run by Jessica Snyder, operates year-round, seven days a week, and each year is visited by more than 500 people from around the world who want to learn about falconry.

This unique relationship between a falconer and a wild hawk is what Snyder teaches when she introduces the public to falconry at New England Falconry in Woodstock, Vermont.

When she hunts, Snyder uses wild birds she has captured and trained. But at the educational center, Snyder uses federally licensed, captive-bred birds to show participants how to use a leather glove to allow a raptor to fly to them.

Falconry, a form of hunting that dates back more than 5,000 years, is practiced today by only about 6,000 hunters in the United States, according to the North American Falconers Association.

Since the nation’s first falconry school opened in 1996 in Manchester, Vermont, three more have opened in New England – most recently New England Falconry’s Vermont location.

Since 2015, through mostly word of mouth, the center has been visited annually by more than 500 guests who come from as far as New Zealand, Japan and South America.

New England Falconry also has a center in Hadley, Massachusetts. But at neither location are participants taught to become falconers because the process takes years and requires a lengthy apprenticeship. Instead, visitors learn in a personal way about this ancient hunting practice.

“We offer an experience with falconry, and hopefully our guests develop a love for birds of prey and an appreciation for the ancient sport of falconry,” Snyder said. “If we can encourage an appreciation of the birds, maybe our guests will try to help with habitat loss.”

There still are only about a dozen falconry centers across the country, and none in Maine.

By all accounts, the encounter with raptors at these centers is strange, rare and unparalleled.

“It’s a great thing to see, this wildness in the birds,” said Sy Montgomery, an author who has visited the New Hampshire School of Falconry in Deering, New Hampshire.

“It’s really like a glorious hunger, and it’s evident when you look at the bird’s face. It’s wonderful to connect with.”

Montgomery has cage-dived with white sharks, and worked with chimpanzees and apes for her nature books, but practicing falconry with falconer Nancy Cowan was unlike any experience she’s had. She’s visited the school a dozen times.

“There is value in returning,” Montgomery said. “It’s not radically different, but you see deeper and you experience more. You get a feeling for the birds.”

Katie Pritchard of Wakefield, Massachusetts, took her son, Brendan, to Cowan’s school last spring for his birthday. Pritchard said the short time the 9-year-old spent with a peregrine falcon and flying a Harris hawk changed the way he views nature.

“It was amazing. He still talks about it,” Pritchard said. “We were just in Texas and as we were driving for hours he was looking at birds, making notes, drawing pictures. He notices things about birds now he didn’t notice before.”

Cowan, a falconer of 30 years who opened her school in 2005, plans to teach about falconry for as long as she physically can.

“If you do not satisfy the bird’s strongest drive, which is to hunt, then you will have problems with him. It’s a misunderstood thing,” said Cowan, 71. “The licensing to become a falconer is arduous because you have to be really committed to the care of the birds. I attract a few who are interested in becoming falconers, but most people I attract are wildlife lovers. They leave with insight they use the rest of their lives.”

A barn owl is held on a falconry glove by a guest at New England Falconry in Woodstock, Vermont, on Dec. 1. The falconry center teaches the public about birds of prey used to hunt by falconers, such as hawks, falcons and eagles. Owls are not generally used to hunt by falconers, but some are used at the center to educate the public about raptors. Deirdre Fleming photo

Scott McNeff of Kennebunk, a falconer of 25 years, worked at the nation’s first falconry school. He said 26 of the 33 licensed falconers in Maine all hunt frequently with wild birds.

“Every one of us is a serious hunter,” McNeff said. “We hunt the heck out of our hawks. When you have that hunting relationship with the bird, you don’t have time to run a falconry school.”

McNeff said falconry is often misunderstood, and that seems to be changing. He points to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s 2010 designation of falconry as a living human heritage.

McNeff said the falconry schools have helped.

“Although these falconry centers are rare around the continent, the falconers of Maine feel lucky to have a few available in New England,” McNeff said. “These centers and the instructors who operate them are doing a good service by offering the public an up-close look at what we do, and why we are so passionate about raptor conservation, and the protection of prey species and habitats.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at

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