A Rare Queen in the 'Sport of Kings'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a khaleesi, or at least one of her cousins, lives.
By Gregory Clay and Melanie Ruiz
Video by Melanie Ruiz.
If you’re walking in the Arizona desert early in the day, say around 6 a.m., the air will still be cool for a little while longer. In every direction, you’ll see only greens and golds, scrub and boulders. All of it dwarfed by an immensity of sky. If you’re lucky, you might come across a figure. And it’s just some fellow wanderer to you until you notice that one arm is sheathed in a stiff, medieval-looking glove. On that glove? Something that belongs to the sky.
You’re not on a Game of Thrones set. You’ve stumbled across a master of falconry — a Black woman, no less. These days, falconry is a little-known club of people blurring the lines of hobby, history, pet ownership and hunting. It’s also an ancient art that dates back thousands of years and was once practiced by Genghis Khan. But a handful of people have brought it back to life.
Meet Tiffany White. The curvy, curly-haired woman with the chunky silver jewelry is one of only about 4,800 American falconers, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The falconers of yore were out to feed their families. For White, 44, falconry is all about passion. To pay the bills and put gas in her black Mustang convertible, she does marketing for a mystery novel publisher. Weird as it sounds, working with these birds is a way for her to relax.
To become a falconer, you essentially have to be married to the sport.
It started when she was a fisheries biologist for the state of Florida, and a colleague brought in her kestrel. Falconry has never been a whim, nor could it be. “You have to jump through hoops,” White says. That’s one way of putting it. The process is intriguingly feudal: Aspiring falconers must start as apprentices — there’s a test and an inspection — spending at least two years with a veteran sponsor. From there you become a general falconer. Stick it out for another four or so years — learning about raptor biology, ornithological diseases and treatments, relevant laws and more — and you might just earn the title of master falconer.
It’s been 20 years since White began. She is single, with no kids — but she has two hawks, Morpheus and Morgana. To become a falconer, you essentially have to be married to the sport. “I’m not the type to settle down,” White says.
Of course, there are plenty of people who would be repelled by this hobby. Keeping a wild animal locked up is unethical, says Ashley Byrne, a campaign specialist at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The pastime not only terrorizes and kills game birds for pleasure, she says, but also causes falcons to become neurotic and self-mutilate. For falcons, “a life in captivity where they are denied everything that is natural to them is a miserable experience.” Even state game and wildlife officials acknowledge the problems. “Anytime you are talking wildlife, there’s a certain sensitivity,” says Tim Snow, a falconry administrator and regional non-game specialist for the Arizona Game and Fish Commission.
The agency’s regulations include health inspections and a requirement for spacious housing, which is one reason all this can burn a hole in your pocket. Back in the day, hunters captured their own birds, but falconers today can buy them too. Many of White’s falconer friends come from the Middle East, especially places like oil-rich Dubai. She recalls one saker falcon going for a cool $750,000 at auction in the UAE. Her Harris’s hawk Morpheus? A more down-to-earth $750, yes, but still a far cry from the cost of hiking boots or movie tickets.
But it’s a cost the true falconer isn’t going to complain about it, even if this is a curious pursuit — spending all that time with creatures designed to fly, fly away from you. As for White, she has her eye on a new member of the family: a golden eagle, a bird that is revered in this circle. “To me, that is a dream.”