If you wish to start falconry, you should budget around a year to become permitted, and start your apprenticeship.
There are three stages of falconry:
- Apprentice, which is where you begin
- General, or two years of falconry
- Master, after seven years of falconry
To become an apprentice, you need several things:
- A permit from both your state, and the federal government
- A sponsor, at least a General level falconer
- A Mews, housing for your bird
Unsurprisingly, getting the permit takes the most time, and is why you should start a year before your first expected hunting season.
You must be 14 to start the apprenticeship program. Getting a permit starts with a test, administered by your local branch of Fish and Wildlife service. In Florida, you can contact myfwc.com to find your local office, where you will take the test. You can also get help with test prep materials from them, but most of the things you will need to learn, you can learn from your sponsor.
The test covers all aspects of falconry, bird care, housing, types of raptors, and history. The test is not only a test of your knowledge, but how much time you are willing to put into your apprenticeship. If you can't find the time to study and learn enough for the test, you will probably not have enough time to keep a hawk.
Although you are not required to find a sponsor until you have passed your test, it is helpful to have one beforehand, since they've already taken the test, and can help you study! The test has changed very little over the decades, and old test prep books are just as helpful as new ones.
Your sponsor should be at least a general level falconer who lives in your area. It's very important that they are local to you, since problems you run into with your bird may require immediate assistance, and someone two hours away may arrive too late to help.
For help finding a falconer in your area who takes on apprentices (they are not required to!) you can contact your local fish and game office, or read this page on sponsorship for more information.
After you have passed your test, and found a sponsor, you are still required to build a mews, or hawk house, that will be inspected by a state Fish and Wildlife officer, to ensure that your bird has safe housing from the elements, and wild animals. Your sponsor can help you with plans for your mews, but most states require at least a 10'x10' square structure, with a window and perching.
At this point, they usually also want to see that you have your equipment ready for your bird. This includes a leather glove, scale and perch for daily weighing, a source for food (rats, chicks, beefheart), leather jesses, perching, a bath pan, a leash and swivel. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and you can check out tons more equipment here, on the Modern Apprentice.
Once your mews has been inspected and approved, the Fish and Wildlife officer will (hopefully!) send off your inspection, along with your test results and sponsor information, to the state and federal permitting offices.
It can be weeks to months before you hear back from anyone with your permit information, and it's not a bad idea to call if weeks have passed with no notice, to make sure that your permit is progressing smoothly.
Once you have a sponsor, a mews, and a permit, you can trap a bird and get hunting! In Florida, you are required to trap your bird as an apprentice, and you can either keep your bird for both years, or trap a new bird each year. You may only trap a juvenile of either the Red Tail or Red Shoulder species. Roughly 70% of young raptors do not make it to adulthood, so you are not impacting the breeding population by taking a first year bird. Also, red tails and red shouldered hawks are plentiful in Florida, so you are not messing with a threatened, or endangered species.
Trapping a new bird each year allows you to learn the different temperments of birds, and gain more experience. Some people do enjoy keeping their bird over both years, as it requires less training the second year, and lets you hunt with a more experienced bird. It is a very rewarding experience, and nothing is quite comparable.
ARCs Master Falconer, does sometimes take apprentices, but he requires them to first start as volunteers at ARC. This is to make sure that caring for, and dealing with raptors is something that they are up for, and not a passing fancy.
If falconry is something you're passionate about (and you're over 14) you should come out to ARC and volunteer!
Here are some more helpful links about falconry for apprentices:
The Apprentice Falconry Forums - A great resource for apprentices all over the US, wonderful, helpful members will answer almost any question you have in the middle of the night, when your poor sponsor is sleeping.
American Falconry - A great page with tons of general information on the sport, as well as for beginners.
The Modern Apprentice - Lots of falconry information, helpful when looking for plans for your Mews, or even a guide to making your jesses.