From testing to training: Falconer Don Hervig has a knack for things that fly

Don Hervig, an Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) engineer in the Instrumentation & Diagnostics department of the Technology & Analysis branch, wraps a jessie around his Harris Hawk “Zena” while he explains characteristics of this particular bird. (Photo by Rick Goodfriend)

Don Hervig, an Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) engineer in the Instrumentation & Diagnostics department of the Technology & Analysis branch, wraps a jessie around his Harris Hawk “Zena” while he explains characteristics of this particular bird. (Photo by Rick Goodfriend)

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- Zena releases from her master's hand, flies to the nearest tree and starts surveying the landscape below, suddenly swooping down like a bolt of lightning, catching her dinner for the night. 

Zena is a bird of prey or more specifically a Harris hawk. Her master is Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) engineer Don Hervig. 

Hervig is one of 25 falconers in the state of Tennessee of only 2,500 in the entire United States. He has trapped more than 50 birds over a 20-year period of falconry. 

As an engineer at AEDC, Hervig works on the development of new measurement techniques and custom instrument systems to meet unique customer requirements. 

He has the opportunity to work with the latest equipment and techniques that can help AEDC produce the most accurate test data for its customers.  

"I have always been fascinated and interested in birds of prey," he said. "Then I found out you can be a falconer, a person who handles and trains hawks. When one of my children, Keith, expressed an interest, then I figured I could afford the time." 

Becoming a falconer is not an easy past time. A test must be taken and passed before beginning the falconry process. Each falconer has to have federal and state permits and the facility for the bird has to be inspected by a game warden before a permit is issued to trap a bird. 

There are three different levels in falconry - apprentice, general and master class. A person must have a sponsor (either a general or master) before the falconry license will be issued. 

Two years are required at the apprentice level and all birds (only Red Tail Hawks or Kestrels allowed) acquired must be trapped. At the general level, birds can be purchased from licensed breeders, trapped or taken from the nest. 

At this level, different species of birds can be acquired and total of two birds can be held. After seven years, the master class falconer level is obtained. Now a total of three birds can be held by the falconer. 

"I've tried two birds of different species, but it requires too much time to hunt them both since they can't be hunted at the same time," he said. "Now I usually just have one at a time." 

Talk about bringing your hobby to work, Hervig received a call about a bird stuck in one of AEDCs facilities. 

"Earlier this year I got a call from Brant Seay, our pest control engineer, that there was a bird of prey stuck in the C-Cell Test Building at ASTF. When I got there, it took us a while to find it, but it started making circles overhead and we finally identified it as a Coopers Hawk," he said. "At first, I tried one of my hawk traps that contain a mouse, but that did not work. The next day we used a pigeon harness trap which brought her down pretty quick and we got her out of the building. She had been in the building for approximately six days and wasn't going to survive much longer without food." 

One of the more interesting things that have happened to Hervig concerning falconry started with a phone call at work in the summer of 1996. 

"At that time I had done a lot of work with the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) and they knew I worked with hawks. They had given my name to a country music producer in Nashville and they were looking for a bird of prey to fly in a country music video," he said. "One of my falconry buddies in Manchester, Ken Mifsud, and I got our birds ready and headed to a state park along the Trail of Tears to be in a Billy Ray Cyrus video.

"Wildlife management (TWRA) considers these birds a resource.  So it's important for people to understand how to take care of them." 

Zena is kept in a mew--an 8-foot-by-8-foot-by-8-foot cage--behind Hervig's home. 

Hervig trapped Zena about a year ago in Texas. According to Hervig, Harris Hawks, like Zena, usually hunt squirrels and rabbits. 

"I just got back from a hunting trip to Indiana," he said. "Although, she didn't catch anything, she had some great flights and I was pleased with her response and efforts." 

Next summer, Hervig plans to travel to Wyoming to obtain a Goshawk from a nest. 

"The Goshawks are a different species than I've ever worked with, and I'd like to try to work with something different." 

In his spare time from hunting and work at AEDC, Hervig takes Zena on educational trips as well. 

"Earlier this year we did an educational program for Boy Scout Troop 402 and in January we'll be making a presentation to the local chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society." 

One of Hervig's favorite moments of this hobby is being outdoors. 

"I just love being out in the woods with the animals," he said. "And watch them do their thing. Most of the fun, I think, is watching the bird maneuver from tree to tree while searching for prey. About half the time we don't come home with something in the game bag, but we've both got a lot of exercise and had some fun." 

He also enjoys the complexity of the animal itself and the training which allows humans to be with them while they are hunting. 

"This is a really smart bird," he said. "This is a wild animal and once it's trapped it can take between 2-4 weeks for them to take food from you, fly free and return." 

Unlike with many animals, if Zena were to get injured Hervig would have a hard time finding a knowledgeable veterinarian to treat her. 

"That is one of the challenges of being a falconer," he said. "When they get injured you not only have to worry about treatment, but it takes them a long time to heal." 

At the same time Hervig sees the positive side of helping injured birds of prey. 

"One of the most enjoyable parts of being a falconer is being able to help with the rehabilitation of injured birds," he said.  "I work as the treasurer for the Tims Ford Environmental Education Association whose mission is to promote an understanding of our relationship with the natural world through environmental education, wildlife rehabilitation and conservation programs. It is very satisfying to work with an injured bird of prey, get it back healthy and release it back to the wild."