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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Falcons Flying High With Teens

May 25, 2016

Falconry is gripping the hearts of young people across Japan. More women are also becoming interested in the tradition, and are training to become falconers.

Hawks have been used for hunting since ancient times in many parts of the world, including the Middle East and Central Asia.

In Japan, the practice is said to have begun between the third and sixth centuries. It has taken place during winter duck and pheasant hunts.

The skills of a falconer were recognized by those with power, including shogun, who ruled the country. They were regarded as having a high social standing, and were put in charge of carrying out Shinto rituals.

In recent years, more young people are taking an interest in the practice -- and stepping into the world of falconry.

On one recent morning in the Tokyo shopping district of Shibuya, crows picked at the garbage left out by restaurants the night before. This type of scavenging has been a problem for a long time.

In search of a way to control the situation, a demonstration was held using a hawk. The birds are the natural enemies of crows.

The falconer is a woman.

A growing number of younger people throughout Japan are becoming interested in falconry.

A public demonstration of one of the hawk-handling approaches, known as the Suwa style, was held recently. All of the participants were female, except for the teacher.

High-school student Sakuya Shinoda is one of the group’s young hopes. Every day, she dedicates time to caring for and training her hawk.

Sakuya lives in a town near the foot of Mt. Fuji. She's owned her hawk for 2 years, and dreams of becoming a falconer.

“I saw a bird show and I was impressed by the staff's performance. I thought it was cool. That's why I decided to become a falconer," Sakuya says.

"Before I got a hawk, I thought they were pets that could be taught tricks, like dogs. But then I realized how much falconers respect hawks. The hawk takes precedence over the handler. The hawk is like a God."

The two begin their day early in the morning, before school. Her hawk is named Souga.

Basic training involves resting the hawk on the owner's arm. Hawks are extremely vigilant and sensitive, and need to grow accustomed even to their owners.

To prepare Souga to hunt in any environment, Sakuya spends 2 hours every morning walking with him on her arm.

"It’s best to let the hawk be outdoors as much as possible. If it doesn't get enough basic training, it may show fear towards people, or fail to develop any attachment to me," Sakuya says. "It’s not easy.”

Hawks are wild animals with strong instincts. They don’t become attached to their owners like a pet would. Sometimes they fly away and don’t come back.

But through daily training, owners can build a relationship of trust. This training teaches the basics of hunting. The hawk flies to tree branches, then returns to its owner’s arm when called.

If the timing is wrong or the hawk is feeling too vigilant, it will not return.

A successful hunt boosts a hawk’s confidence and is part of the training process.

Tradition states that owners should nurture their hawk’s hunting instincts by using purchased pigeons as prey. In order to end the wounded pigeon's suffering, the falconer wrings its neck and pulls out its heart to feed to the hawk. The organ is the hawk's favorite part.

This is a traditional process intended to help the falconer build trust with the hawk.

"Honestly, at first, I didn’t want to do it. But I want to be a real falconer," Sakuya says. "You can use other foods, like frozen meats, but I want to feed my hawk prey that I have prepared myself.”

The club that Sakuya belongs to holds a training session at the teacher’s home once a month.

Falconry involves a lot of tasks like maintaining and repairing instruments. Sakuya has begun to make new gloves.

Her old gloves are covered with stains and holes from the hawk’s daily training. The dirt stiffens the leather, dulling her hands' senses.

More than half of the members in her club are women. The youngest among them is a junior high-school student named Arata Akaike. She too aims to become a falconer.

"I like birds, and I was reading a guide on birds of prey one day when I saw a picture of a falconer and read about what they do. I was fascinated to discover that such a thing existed,” Arata says.

"I want to become like my teacher. I also want many people to know about and understand the tradition of falconry, so that it never fades," Sakuya says.

A demonstration was held last month. Sakuya was with her hawk, getting it accustomed to the atmosphere of the venue. Her daily morning walks paid off.

Sakuya and her teacher show off their skills by flying the hawk between them. She succeeds in getting the hawk to fly to her teacher.

Next, she calls him back to her arm.But the hawk doesn't return. It slips away and disappears into the woods.

Sakuya calls out for her hawk using a technique she's been practicing, and the bird eventually returns.

"Halfway through, the wind stopped. The hawk could probably feel that there were people everywhere and that I was nervous,” Sakuya says.

Sakuya and her hawk have been working together for 2 years. Their daily training has strengthened their trust in each other.

"I want to stay partners with Souga, even after I become a professional falconer," Sakuya says.