South Dakota Teen Falconer: Bird Training Changed His Life | South Dakota News

By ERIN WOODIEL, Sioux Falls Argus Chief

WORTHING, SD (AP) – Gabi Olson smiled, her suspenders parting her lips as she took a deep breath of the wintry air moving through her long blonde hair. In the small wooded area behind her home in Worthing, she was in her happy place with no one around. At least not other people.

Reaching into a side pocket of her canvas bag, she pulled out a piece of quail, still covered in feathers and bone, holding it aloft in her thickly gloved hand. At the sound of the black plastic whistle she kept around her neck, a familiar mottled brown hawk with pale yellow eyes spread its wings from the trees above and flew directly to her fist.

Olson is one of 34 licensed falconers in South Dakota, of which only seven are women. At 16, she and another share the distinction of being the youngest falconers in the state, reported Sioux Chief Falls Argus.

“I’m unlikely to find anyone with the same experiences,” Olson said. “And it’s hard when you’re at that age where all you want is to be loved by everyone.”

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A person’s adolescence is a time to grow, to find who they are, to find their place. Like any other child, Olson is in the midst of this search to understand himself. His path happens to include forming a wild bird with razor-sharp talons to hunt alongside him.

After finishing school homework each morning, Olson trained with Harley, the Harlan’s Hawk she caught in November, until the sun went down. When she wasn’t working with Harley, she was thinking about her.

“It’s not just a hobby, it’s not just an art, it’s not just a sport, it’s not just a relationship,” Olson said. “It’s all of those things and more.”

She knows that sounds like an exaggeration, but Olson says falconry has changed her life. Nothing challenged her or gave her a thrill like bonding with a wild bird.

“Before I was a falconer, I had very low self-esteem,” she said. “I couldn’t talk to people, you know, I struggled so much with confidence. After becoming a falconer, I had to do so many brave things to achieve my goal.

Developing a sense of trust with a wild bird takes time.

Olson became obsessed with falconry as a child after reading “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead George and “Falcon Wild” by Terry Lynn Johnson. A child bonding with a wild animal seemed like something that would only happen in the books, and when 12-year-old Olson learned that it was indeed a real chase, she couldn’t let go.

Armed with a new passion and knowing that the preliminary falconry license test could be taken as young as 14, Olson convinced her parents to support her efforts and get into the books. She passed the 100-question written test two years later and found Bruce Eckman, one of the few available falconers in eastern South Dakota, to sponsor her two-year apprenticeship. She quickly proved that she was more than “a little girl who wants a pet bird”.

“She’s always been introverted, so it was all about finding a sport that suited her,” said Laura Olson, Gabi Olson’s mother. “It’s an extracurricular outdoor interest that’s unlike (anything) anyone else has.”

Basically, falconry is the act of hunting game using a bird of prey. Birds such as hawks and hawks will not form an affectionate bond with humans, but they will accept a working relationship if someone earns their trust and keeps them comfortable.

“The feeling is indescribable,” Olson said. “You are in this partnership with this creature that doesn’t need you, but chooses to stay with you.”

In order to establish a sense of trust, Olson spent each day acclimating Harley to his presence. After Harley ate from her (heavily gloved) hand, she began to move away to encourage the bird to jump on her fist. This continued for a few weeks until Harley assimilated Olson into a stable food source. Once that precedent was set, Harley would follow Olson anywhere, free-flying and no longer tethered by some sort of tether. That’s when they started to hunt.

“When you grab that bunny, when your bird flies into your fist, you’re kind of filled with a mixture of adrenaline and joy, and you just need to have it again,” Olson said.

Of all the birds she has worked with since becoming a falconer, Harley was the first Olson trained entirely by herself, and she was Olson’s favorite. As the pair bonded, Olson learned exactly what feather ruffling meant or what type of head movement indicated his bird was bored.

Recognizing raptor anatomy and understanding Harley’s behavior are the most important skills Olson developed as a falconer, but they were by no means the only things she learned. A leatherworking tool kit allowed him to make custom leg bands. Basic carpentry skills were needed to build a mews or stable-like enclosure. She now has a contact at a zoo supply company to buy frozen quail in bulk.

There are so many elements involved in a successful falconer that Olson compares a day with Harley to solving a series of algebraic equations. There are several variables to eliminate or simplify in order to identify and solve the problem at hand.

It’s ironic, she added, that she doesn’t particularly enjoy the algebra lessons she receives while being homeschooled.

“It matches his interests, it matches his intellectual abilities,” Laura Olson said. “It’s been very good for his growth and emotional maturation.”

With a plethora of practical business skills under her belt and an abundance of connections to wild animals that seem straight out of a tall tale, Olson admits she feels wiser than many others her age. However, she added, finding the dedication of one’s life in such an unconventional place comes at the cost of exclusion.

“When you’re a kid, you’re always told that being different is okay,” she said. “I believed in it so much that I really wanted to be different, and I did everything to not be like the other children. But now that I’m finally doing something that isn’t something many kids do, I feel alone.

By not attending public school and being educated at home, Olson is already at a distance from many of his peers. Spending the rest of her free time with her falcon, she misses social media trends and often doesn’t understand jokes made by other kids. Likewise, when she tells them about her love of falconry, they either have never heard of it, or they say they don’t understand and send her away.

“It’s really fun when people have the first reaction because then you can tell them everything and share your love for once,” Olson said. “But even then, they will never share their knowledge with you. No advice will be given. »

Being a teenager without typical social ties is a hard thing to accept. But for Olson, the idea of ​​ditching falconry for a more common extracurricular activity will never be on the table. She is there for life.

“For me, falconry is so obvious,” she said. “I just have to do this. It’s a part of me.

According to Olson, a life lesson that every falconer must learn is that of grief and loss. She didn’t expect to face it so soon, but on January 10, Harley passed away. Olson said she doesn’t know exactly what Harley is sick with, but she and her parents have their speculations. One day the falcon was “fat and happy” with a full harvest of food and the next day it got worse.

“Even though I know it’s not my fault, I still believe it is,” Olson said. “There’s definitely a lot of guilt there, you feel so responsible for your bird.”

Since Harley was the first hawk Olson trained since graduating from apprenticeship, she said she felt the most attached to Harley of any bird she had worked with in the past few years. Facing her first defeat alone was a blow.

“It was my chance to prove myself and show that I could be a falconer without someone holding my hand along the way, and that’s it,” she said.

All the constant challenges, long working hours and detailed regulations surrounding falconry might be enough to turn some people away from the practice for good. These people are not Gabi Olson. Although it is a little too late in the season to trap and train another falcon this year, she will study and prepare her equipment to do better with her next bird.

“I can’t think of a logical reason why falconry is worth it other than the feeling is so good it’s really hard to resist,” she said. “It’s something you can’t experience anywhere else. You have to be a bit crazy to be a falconer.

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