When Bob Martin hunts prairie chickens in Kansas, he uses a different weapon than most people do.
He uses either Salt or Pepper – the names of his trained peregrine falcons.
Martin, 72, travels 1,300 miles from his home in Hamilton, Mont., to the Kansas Flint Hills each fall to chase a falconer’s dream – watching one of his birds of prey knock down a greater prairie chicken.
It doesn’t happen often, he admits. He labels the prairie chicken “the most difficult gamebird there is to hunt with a falcon.” But it’s that giant challenge that lures him to Kansas.
“This is the classic way of game hawking,” said Martin, 72, who has been involved in falconry for almost 60 years. “Prairie chickens are tough birds.
“My peregrines will take down mallards that outweigh them by four or five pounds. But it isn’t that easy with a greater prairie chicken.
“A peregrine can hit them and they’ll still be tough to bring down.”
Martin is a true falconer, a rugged individual who lives for the hunt. He is proud to tell you about how he handcrafted a log home in the Montana wilderness and enjoys an independent lifestyle.
He is happy in the Montana mountains for much of the year. But when September arrives, he gets wanderlust. It’s time to travel to the prairies of Kansas.
He often stays in the campground at Acorns Resort on Milford Lake, spending life on the road in his Airstream trailer with his falcons and his English setter, Bud.
He hunts on private land and gets together with ranchers he has met over the years. He doesn’t even think about hunting prairie chickens the traditional way – with a shotgun. This is all about a handler and his falcons.
That’s a lifestyle for Martin. He discovered the wonders of falconry when he was a kid, and he has been at it ever since.
He has hunted other gamebirds such as pheasants, ducks and grouse with his falcons. But these days, he is on an almost single-minded quest – taking an elusive prairie chicken.
In an ideal situation, he will follow his setter into a patch of prairie with one of his falcons on his arm, a leather cape over its head to keep it calm.
When Bud goes on point, he releases the falcon, which immediately soars high above the scene. Martin then flushes the bird, which tries to make an escape.
When the falcon spots the prairie chicken, it is capable of screaming down on its prey at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, according to many sources.
Still, the prairie chicken often escapes.
“I’m really fascinated by prairie chickens,” Martin said. “I just love being out on the Kansas prairie, hunting them the old-fashioned way.”
Falconry is heavily regulated by both federal and state statutes. In Kansas, the season runs from Sept. 1 through March 31.
There is little fear that falconers will have a big impact on gamebird populations. Very few prairie chickens, for example, are taken each year by the trained birds of prey.
Martin keeps trying, though. It’s in his blood.
“This is what keeps me going,” he said. “This is what I do.”