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A bird's-eye view

Imagine trekking through the woods on a snowy, winter day. A rabbit darts out of a tree stump as a hawk perched high in the treetops spots the prey and takes chase.

You run after the rabbit and watch the hawk in awe as it dives down and captures its target. And in that one fell swoop, months of hard work culminate in a successful hunt.

But instead of a gun as a weapon, you used a bird.

"You can't believe how great it is," said Daphne Karpan, an avid falconer. "It's just amazing. You get a front row seat to something no one else gets to see."

The sport of falconry dates back 4,000 years and involves team hunting between people and a wild creature. It is defined as "the taking of wild quarry in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained raptor."

"If you like birds of prey and you like to hunt it's pretty cool," said Karpan, an Alexandria resident. "It's the greatest thing ever. Ever. Ever. Ever. I'm always so grateful that I get to do it."

Karpan's interest in falconry took flight when she read My Side of the Mountain when she was a little girl. She was fascinated with the boy in the story who hunted with a perigrine falcon.

Several years later she was reading regulations that her husband, Chris, had from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The section on falconry piqued her interest. But it was the sight of a beautiful male kestrel resting on a phone line months later that made her want to try it.

"I decided I was going to do this," she said. "I was going to get a hawk and hunt with it."

Karpan studied the regulations, which included securing a mentor to work with for two years and passing a written test with flying colors.

This jill-of-all trades (she's been known to Sheetrock her own basement and do her own plumbing) then built indoor and outdoor facilities for her future hunting companion. The structures passed inspection by the DNR, she paid her fees, got her license and was officially an apprentice falconer. She also secured the necessary equipment, much of which she made herself.

In the fall of 2006, Karpan trapped her first bird, a red tail hawk. (Apprentice falconers are allowed to have either a red tail hawk or a kestrel.)

"It felt like when you have a baby and they send it home with you," she said with a laugh. "I thought, holy crap! I'm not ready. I don't know what to do with this bird."

Not one to let a challenge ruffle her feathers, she started by getting the hawk to eat raw meat out of her hand. As the bird got more comfortable, she trained it to go from its perch to her fist.

"You keep widening the margin," she explained. "Eventually it's flying across the yard to you."

After three weeks of intense training involving several hours a day, the pair was ready to hunt.

"I put the bird in the tree," she explained. "She follows behind me and stays close. When a rabbit flies out, she goes for the chase. I run and try to catch up."

When the raptor captures its target, Karpan does a bait and switch, feeding the bird meat from her pocket while grabbing the game. The cycle continues as Karpan uses the meat from the hunt to further train the bird and to hunt with next time.

"It's not about killing massive quantities of game," she said. "It's all going back to the bird."

There's another reason Karpan saves the meat solely for the bird - she's a vegetarian.

"I'm probably the only vegetarian falconer in Minnesota," she said, as she remunerated several reasons why a vegetarian would enjoy the thrill of a hunt.

"Because I get to be at the show - for the privilege of being able to do it," she said. "And the bird gets to eat it. Nothing goes to waste. I'm here so I can be amazed."

After two years of being an apprentice falconer, Karpan recently attained the rank of general class falconer. She is a member of the Minnesota Falconers Association and North American Falconers Association. After seven years in the sport, she will be a master falconer - a goal she has every intention of reaching.

But it won't be a walk in the woods. She stressed that being a falconer takes a huge time commitment and passion for the sport.

"If you have a bird you can't take a day off," she said. "You have to do something with her every day. You have to take the bird with you wherever you go. I can't leave her there with nothing to do.

"I have a responsibility to hunt this bird," she continued. "Even when I don't feel like hunting, I better hunt or I better not be in this sport. If you're a good falconer, you're hunting as much as you can."

Karpan has trained two birds so far, and has released both of them into the wild in the spring - a bittersweet moment.

"It was hard to let go, but it wasn't," she said. "Now it's able to provide for itself, I feel good from that perspective. She's good at her job now. It's a bird that might not have made it through the winter and it's better off for the experience. She's going to have a happy life and have babies." Another baby someday for me to trap and hunt with."

And with that baby, the circle of life continues to take flight.