KUNA, Idaho -- Gary Moon releases "Laser," his young prairie falcon, as the sun's first rays set southern Idaho's desert horizon ablaze. The two-pound female, a tiny radio transmitter strapped to each leg, lifts from Moon's leather gauntlet and, with every rapid wing beat, circles higher into the sky.
Moon, a semi-retired 70-year-old businessman and mechanic from Boise, waits until his bird soars to 400 feet before sprinting toward a pond. With no ducks on the water, however, he reaches inside a sack at his side, flinging a homing pigeon aloft.
Instinctively, Laser dives; only a last-second maneuver keeps the pigeon from becoming falcon fodder.
"Anybody can go out with a gun and get a limit of ducks in a few hours," said Moon, who 53 years ago pulled his first bird, a young red-tailed hawk, from its nest and was bitten by the falcon bug for life. "With falcons, it's the lure of the unexpected."
With its arid southern plain scoured with deep river canyons, Idaho is raptor country. More than 700 pairs nest each spring in the 485,000-acre Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area south of Boise. Moon's Laser has plenty of wild company, with up to 200 prairie falcon pairs, the highest breeding density in the world -- along with American kestrels, golden eagles, red-tails and peregrine falcons that dive at 200 mph.
It's also home to a select few who, like Moon, use these birds to hunt. What they practice today is a remnant of what residents of the Middle East, China and Europe did hundreds or even thousands of years ago: Using birds to scare up a meal. Whether it's a duck or a pheasant, falconers must act quickly after a successful hunt to separate raptor from prey -- not unlike nomadic tribesmen in places like Mongolia who still fly giant eagles after small game or even foxes. Other modern day falconers don't eat the prey, but hunt for the sport only -- and to provide their birds with food.
"It's watching something that happens every day in nature, but you get to do it up close and personal," said Boise falconer Bob Collins, who flies a gyrfalcon and a peregrine.
Falconers are active in many states, including California. Moon this month joined more than 300 people from around the world who spent a week hunting with falcons in Kearney, Neb., during the annual meeting of the International Association of Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey.
"They're really dedicated to making sure that their tradition stays alive," said Jeff Knetter, a biologist at Fish and Game, the agency that regulates falconry in Idaho.
Some animal rights groups have questioned the practice of keeping wild birds captive. That's one reason the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service outlines strict requirements for people who want to hold raptors, to prevent them from being exploited.
Like many falconers, Moon acquired Laser the old-fashioned way: Permits in hand, he and a friend scaled a lava cliff in southeastern Idaho on a rainy spring day, taking two of four young birds from a nest. That makes Laser an "imprint" bird, one Moon will likely keep for life.
For others who capture "passage" birds -- migrating raptors simply on their way through an area -- they may keep them for just a season before returning them to the wild.
With a leather-hooded Laser sitting calmly on a backseat perch, Moon drives his camouflaged Honda SUV nearly every day into Idaho's open country. It takes hours of patient training. "The more they fly, the better they are," he said.
Just this month, Laser took her first Hungarian partridge, a classic midflight strike above the stark eastern Idaho desert beneath the Lost River Mountains.
"It's was beautiful," Moon said, still amazed. "The feathers just flew in the sunlight."
Falconry in California
Falconry is legal in California, although all states must submit updated guidelines that meet federal standards by Jan. 1, 2014.
In California, the falconry hunting season for most species (pheasants, quail, chukar, sooty/ruffed grouse and white-tailed Ptarmigan) runs the third Saturday in August through the last day in February. For sage grouse, the season is the first Saturday in November extending for 60 consecutive days and during the general season. For wild turkeys, there are two seasons: fall, the second Saturday in November extending for 30 consecutive days; and spring, the last Saturday in March extending for 37 straight days.
Among the potential rule changes in California:
Meshing age requirements: Current state rule is 14 for apprentice, 18 for general class; national standard is 12 for apprentice, 16 for general.
Wild take: Species allowed: Northern goshawk, Cooper's hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, merlin, prairie falcon, barred owl, great horned owl. Species removed: Ferruginous hawk.
Learn more about falconry in California, including proposed regulations updates to meet federal standards, at dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/falconry. For California Hawking Club membership details, visit calhawkingclub.org.