When Alexander Larsen decided to join the Air Force, he was faced with some tough realities. Changing careers. Moving to a new state. Not seeing his friends and family for two years.
All of that, he said, he could deal with.
“Oh, but I’m going to have to give up my birdie,” Larsen said, remembering the most difficult part.
By “birdie” he means Scarlett, a Harris hawk that Larsen kept as a falconry bird. Through a little networking — and a listing on www.raptorsforsale.com — Scarlett has now found a new home at North Georgia Zoo in Cleveland, where she arrived two weeks ago.
Larsen, a 26-year-old firefighter from Salt Lake City, first became interested in falconry a few years ago. The ancient sport involves a falconer and a hawk hunting together, with the bird tracking down animals and bringing them back to their owner.
Falconers go through intensive apprenticeships and tests to get their permit, a process that took Larsen about a year and a half.
Once permitted, Larsen went to work catching a bird in the wild, the traditional way a falconer finds their falcon.
But when he didn’t have any luck, he started talking to others in the sport and came across Scarlett, a fairly old 17-year-old
Harris hawk who at one point had been used for falconry but for the last 10 years was a breeder bird.
“That’s all she’s been doing is making babies,” Larsen said.
Despite her age, Larsen decided to buy her, and the two formed a quick bond. When Larsen would get ready to take Scarlett out into the woods, the bird would jump around like a dog excited for a walk.
But a few months later, Larsen lost his job as a wildlife firefighter. Having always wanted to serve in the military, he decided now was the best time.
He put up a few sale listings for Scarlett and was flooded with calls. Most, though, were from falconers who scoffed at Scarlett’s age.
“I didn’t want a wishy-washy person taking her,” Larsen said. “I wanted someone that was excited about having her.”
And then he heard from Hope Bennett, the owner of the North Georgia Zoo, who said that because of her age and comfort around people, Scarlett would make a perfect educational bird.
Larsen had planned on handing Scarlett off to another Utah falconer, but became convinced that Georgia was the right place for his bird.
Bennett and Larsen arranged to have Scarlett’s permits transferred, making her an educational bird rather than a falconry bird. Two weeks ago, Larsen packed Scarlett onto a plane and shipped her to Georgia.
Bennett said Scarlett has settled into her new home quickly.
“We opened the carrier,” Bennett said. “She peaked out and she looked around and … she walked around for 5 or 10 minutes. And then she decided, up, and she hopped right up on (the falconry) glove.”
With her “spunky” attitude, Scarlett has made a wonderful addition to the zoo, Bennett said. Most educational birds are rehabilitated and can’t fly, so Scarlett will go to good use in the zoo’s children’s programing.
“Most birds of prey, they actually will acclimate in the sense that they get used to people. But do they really like people? It’s rare,” Bennett said. “... But the Harris hawk is actually one of the few birds in the wild known to be a very social bird.”
Larsen heads to basic training in February.
When he mentioned to one of his counselors that he was a falconer, they suggested he look into taking care of the prairie falcons the Air Force’s uses for ceremonies. Larsen didn’t know there was such a position, and now hopes to one day become a falconer with the Air Force.
He said he’s still upset to have lost Scarlett, but thinks his “birdie” will be perfectly happy in her new home.
“It’s almost like hawk retirement. She gets to be pampered. ... They were going to get her all bathed and get her nails all trimmed down,” Larsen said. “It’s like, yeah, go get your hawk makeover and retire. You’re an old lady hawk now.”