MAIZE — Tommy Kinsch spent Saturday walking through weed patches with some of his best hunting buddies. His favorite of the bunch stood about 2 feet tall and weighed about 3 pounds.
When a rabbit flushed, Kinsch opened his hand and Buddy, his red-tailed hawk, took to the air.
Kinsch was one of eight members of the Kansas Hawking Club at a weekend gathering in Wichita.
"I've always liked all kinds of birds and loved to hunt, so this is kind of a natural," Kinsch said. "I've really enjoyed it."
Kinsch, the club secretary, said there are about 60 licensed falconers in the state. They work their hawks and falcons on some of the most productive falconry grounds in the world.
"We had people from Austria, England, Germany and even Australia come to Kansas to work their birds," Nate Mathews said of a weeklong November gathering in Dodge City. "They just can't believe the amount of game we have in Kansas compared to where they come from. A guy flew in from Pennsylvania last week just to hunt jackrabbits."
Mathews said there's a hawk or falcon that is perfect for hunting any kind of animal in Kansas. American kestrels can be used for small birds, mice and large insects, while golden eagles are perfect for hunting big jackrabbits. Assorted falcons can be used to take flushed birds from the air.
All require permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
The group said all falconers earn the privilege before they launch their birds on a hunt.
Beginners must be supervised by an experienced falconer, pass written tests, undergo facility inspections and become federally licensed.
Though birds can be purchased from breeders, first-timers in Kansas must capture their own bird in the wild.
Kinsch trapped Buddy last fall in Butler County.
From there the training began.
"It's all a feeding process. First you have to get the bird to feed, then to take meat from your hand," Kinsch said. "Once they start that, they're on their way."
Kinsch worked Buddy from simply stepping from a perch to his hand, to jumping a few inches, then flying across a room. Within a few weeks, he had the young redtail working outdoors and flying on hunts.
"Every bird is different, but some of them are ready to hunt for you pretty quickly," he said. "It's all about them really wanting that food."
Saturday morning, members spread out across a patch of weeds in Maize. Some slapped the brush with walking sticks to help flush rabbits.
Had there been a tall tree nearby, Kinsch could have released Buddy to fly to a high perch to watch for flushed game.
With none around, he carried the bird on a hand covered in a thick leather glove for protection against the hawk's long, sharp talons.
When the bird flew off, he coaxed it back with a whistle and a chunk of rabbit or quail meat on his raised hand.
Randy Carr of Douglass carried an elevated perch so his Harris's hawk, Lolita, could get a bird's-eye view and take off when she spotted a target.
Carr and Kinsch were the only members to bring their birds to the gathering. Others were resting their birds after several months of hunting.
Rabbits were plentiful in a covert not hunted routinely by wild hawks and coyotes. Members called loudly to get the hawks' attention when they saw a cottontail bobbing through the weeds.
And all of those cottontails are still there because the hawks grabbed none.
The redtail was nursing an injured foot. Lolita made no serious attempts at a rabbit. Carr thought the cold and wind may have sapped any hunting desire from his bird.
Eric Brandenburg drove from Coffeyville to watch the birds. The day's lack of success won't stop him from beginning the process of becoming a licensed falconer.
"I've always been fascinated by birds and always been around nature," said Brandenburg, 39. "I'm now at a point in my life where I can make the huge commitment it takes to have a bird. It's a lot of time and money but it'll be worth it."