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Some Massachusetts hunters embrace fly-by-night approach

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Daniel Ackerman
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Joe Gomes hunts with Bobo, a great horned owl

Just after 9 PM, Joe Gomes unlocks the wooden shed behind his house in Acushnet. He’s greeted with an earsplitting squawk. That’s a good sign, says Gomes. “He’s very active. He wants to go hunting.”

A two-foot tall great horned owl hops through the open door. The bird, named Bobo, peers up at Gomes and unleashes another shriek.

Gomes slips on a rubber glove and coaxes Bobo onto his hand. The two walk toward Gomes’ pickup truck, where Gomes eases Bobo into a carrying cage in the bed.

With that, Gomes is ready to go hunting. No gun. No ammo. Just Bobo.

Falconry — the practice of hunting with trained birds of prey — developed thousands of years ago in the Middle East and Central Asia. Gomes is one of Massachusetts’ 40 permitted falconers currently hunting with birds like peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls and a number of other raptor species.

To become a falconer, Gomes had to pass a 100-question written exam and complete a two-year apprenticeship. “It’s a super regulated sport,” said Erik Amati, the falconry coordinator for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

The lengthy permitting process is just the beginning — next, falconers must strike up a working relationship with a raptor. Most start by trapping a young bird from the wild. Amati said this practice boosts a raptor’s chance of surviving its first winter, a period when most wild raptors perish. “This bird has as good or better chance, in some cases, of making it through its first year in the hands of a licensed falconer,” he said.

Food is key to building mutual trust between falcon and falconer, according to Amati. Training a raptor to hunt cooperatively is a months-long process. Falconers “start working with [raptors] very slowly,” said Amati. “They start feeding them, then eventually they wind up working with the bird on a small leash. There’s basically a series of reward systems to try and get the bird to come back to you.”

Falconers have also played a key role in raptor conservation, according to Amati. In the mid-1900s, peregrine falcons were completely wiped out in Massachusetts after a pesticide, DDT, weakened the birds’ shells. When DDT was banned in 1972, wildlife officials tried to bring the falcons back — so they turned to falconers.

“They had the expertise on how to actually raise peregrine falcons,” said Amati. “State and federal agencies relied heavily on their knowledge. We now have more peregrine falcons than ever in recorded history in Massachusetts.”

To falconers like Joe Gomes, the sport isn’t just about conservation. It’s about the relationship with his birds. “It’s very gratifying,” said Gomes. “Anyone can just go out and shoot a rabbit. You get a bird to do it for you — I think it’s something special.”

Around 10 p.m., Gomes and Bobo arrive at their hunting ground, an old railroad bed surrounded by overgrown weeds in the outskirts of New Bedford. A rabbit darts across the tracks. Bobo takes off from Gomes’ gloved hand and plunges toward it, narrowly missing the prey as it finds refuge in an open pipe.

Catching a rabbit can take hours — Gomes says he’s often out with Bobo past midnight. But not tonight. A second rabbit runs across the tracks. Bobo swoops toward it, this time making a clean tackle.

“You got ‘em!” Gomes exclaims. He rushes to Bobo and tosses the bird a frozen mouse he had kept stashed in his pocket. As Bobo turns his attention toward the mouse, Gomes snatches the fresh-caught rabbit from Bobo’s talons.

Gomes will put the catch in his freezer back home. Some of the rabbits he eats himself. Others he saves for Bobo to enjoy come springtime, when rabbit hunting season ends.

Bobo won’t fly for another few nights. But Gomes will be back out after dark tomorrow with his other midnight hunter: he has an eagle owl waiting back home.

Most falconers — those who hunt with hawks or falcons — keep daylight hours. But Gomes prefers night owls.

“This is what I like to do,” says Gomes. “There’s nobody around. Everyone's asleep. Just me and the bird.”

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Daniel Ackerman
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Bobo with his catch