Beginners Circle ~ In Praise of Apprenticeship

Finding the Right Sponsor

by Jim Gwiazdzinski

Jim Gwiazdzinski with his first redtail. Photo by Laura Skrobe

I am an apprentice. Which is to say, I'm still clueless, part of the job description. What is also part of the job description is locating and deciding on a sponsor. This is one aspect of falconry I think is grossly overlooked and needs considerable attention. Yes, passing the test is first and foremost, and the endless list of everything thereafter. However, most of the reading I had done merely touched on sponsorship, but didn't elaborate enough, stressing the importance of an integral facet of falconry. If it wasn't for my sponsor, Dick Morrison, I wouldn't have a bird right now. Not only did he show me how to trap a bird, but the man took two days off work to better my chances of success. During the first month, I called him every day with questions, such as "Why is my bird doing this?, Why isn't my bird doing that?". There is a considerable distinction between reading information on how to trap and train your bird and actually trapping and training your bird. For me, it was overwhelming to actually have a redtail in my possession. With all the justifiable red tape we all go through, it seems actually obtaining a bird is somewhere between reality and the unobtainable distant future.

Within the chaotic fury my bird possessed, my sponsor put my worries at ease. All the information that was stored away pertaining to the different approaches of manning and training your first bird, I must admit, did not come readily to mind. It's here that my sponsor picked up the pieces; I did all the work, but he supplied an opinion and helping hand when it was needed most. When I say I did all the work, this isn't to say he was absent during the process. My sponsor takes a very active role in sponsoring me. I think it is a crime for the sponsor not to take an active role. The apprentice learns bad habits which aren't corrected; the apprentice turns to general and the bad habits are now passed onto an upcoming and non suspecting apprentice. The vicious cycle continues. Dick's personal approach to being a sponsor suites me fine. I do the task while he watches over my shoulder. He allows me to make the mistakes I need to make in order to learn, but he also prevents me from making any grave mistakes that would be detrimental to my bird. I also learn from his past mistakes. He isn't embarrassed to share with me his own mishaps. A fine balance it is.

I remember the first time I met Dick, his comment on sponsoring me was simple. He said: "You do the work." He taught me how to make bewits, jesses, a leash, and how to trap a bird. I wasn't given his bird as does occur in certain situations ­ the sponsor simply handing down an already trained bird to the apprentice. Where's the learning? I manned my bird. I know of some sponsors that mann the bird for their apprentices during the first week or so (until its eating readily from the fist), and then give the bird to their apprentices. Again, where is the learning? The learning that occurred in the first month was exponential. This time of hands-on experience is essential. The apprentice must know to some degree how he wants to approach falconry. If the sponsor and apprentice have two entirely different philosophies, the apprentice is not going to learn a great deal. Both will be too busy arguing over how to train the bird, flying weight, how to approach the quarry; you get the picture. If a sponsor is a bit unorthodox, which to me indicates intellect, willing to try something new and unheard of, and you would rather play by the rule book (there isn't one in falconry), look for another sponsor. My sponsor does things a bit differently, but his methods have passed the test of time. The best indication to me is the condition of his birds and how they respond to him in the field.

Jim's sponsor, Dick Morrison getting ready to slip his goshawk at some ducks. Photo by author

An apprentice does have authority on one aspect of falconry ­ sponsorship. There is a written void on sponsorship, but this should not be an indication to the apprentice that it is unimportant. While the rest move on to general and master, the apprentice must, and rightfully so, continue to learn from himself and his sponsor. What an apprentice will also quickly learn is that sponsors do indeed walk on water. There was a documented case of this phenomenon in the December 1996 issue made by Larry Dickerson. It's true, I am here to say it does occur, but I only think apprentices are able to witness this occurrence. I don't even think the wives of sponsors have witnessed this rare incidence.

A potential falconer should attend a few meets and observe the various participates. There are certain personalities that some of us get along with and some we don't. The sponsor/apprentice relationship isn't just the dynamics of training and flying a bird, but the dynamics of human nature as well. Attending these meets will allow the apprentice to weed out a potential sponsor that is conducive to your personality and approach to falconry. It's just like weeding through those that talk and have a million and one excuses of why their birds aren't doing what they want them to and those that say nothing and have excellent flying birds. Talk the talk or walk the walk. While at the meet examine, ask questions, see who has been doing it for awhile. Think about it. An apprentice will learn a great deal more from a master falconer who has been practicing falconry for twenty years as opposed to a general level falconer with three or four years experience. In falconry, I am convinced that experience and longevity are worth millions. This isn't to say that years translate to a competent falconer. Some have it, some do not. I commercial fish for a living, and it's obvious within the fishing community that some find the fish and some do not. The same analogy can be applied to falconry. I notice how certain individuals handle and fly their birds. Some truly have an innate "feel" and understanding of their birds while others seem to be oblivious to the body language their birds are putting off.

The sponsor is the unsung hero. He, or she for that matter, is the one who takes on the responsibility to teach. Taking on the risk in hopes that his apprentice doesn't become a bird keeper or a half-willed individual. While others provide advice and opinion, I am biased to my sponsor. Not just biased because I have seen him walk on water, but because he took that risk that others did not. He agreed to sponsor me. In return, I hope to perform to his expectations and even better, become a successful falconer. I know if I do not perform accordingly, I will be subject to his verbal abuse. But that's the point, I need a kick in the a__ sometimes, and Dick provides the boot.

Finding the right sponsor, with the right stuff, is the most important aspect of falconry to the apprentice. One is desperately handicapped if one settles out of convenience or laziness. Put in the time and be a little patient, which I know is hard after going through all the hoops to get a falconry license. There is a variety of sponsors with a rich alchemy of personality, methods of training, philosophies, and strategies, all surrendering to falconry. It is the duty of the responsible apprentice to find which formula and sponsor can make your apprenticeship both rewarding and informative. What you will gain out of it is the sponsor's experience, knowledge, and friendship, lasting well after your tutelage is done. I am far from having the "perfect" bird. I still make a great many mistakes, but I try not to repeat them. I have many years of falconry ahead of me, and I hope to get better with age. Not only am I learning a great deal, but I'm also having a grand ole' time. It's safe to say I have fun, and part of the fun and laughter is directly attributed to my sponsor. Not only would I like to thank my sponsor, Dick Morrison, but I would like to thank all the other sponsors across the country who make it a genuine learning experience for their apprentice. Thanks.

back to home page