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Cole Pliura, a 17-year-old licensed falconer, works with Aspen, a red-tailed hawk, at his home in rural Ellsworth, Ill., Monday, May 6, 2013. Pliura caught Aspen last November after finding a sponsor, passing a test, going through an inspection, then obtaining a capture permit. (AP Photo/The Pantagraph, Lori Ann Cook-Neisler)

Ellsworth teen a young falconer

June 10, 2013 at 06:45 AM

The Associated Press


ELLSWORTH, Ill. (AP) — Cole Pliura likes to fish and hunt. He gets good grades and plays basketball at LeRoy High School. Typical 17-year-old stuff.

He is also a licensed falconer with his own red-tailed hawk.

Pliura named her Aspen; he caught her last November after finding a sponsor, passing a test, going through an inspection, then obtaining a capture permit.

"We had some missed attempts and finally we hit gold," he said.

As he positions the bird on an outdoor perch, you can see the intensity of a serious falconer mixed with the excitement of a teenager in Pliura's eyes.

He walks about 30 yards away and holds up a gloved hand with what Pliura calls a "tidbit" of quail meat.

Aspen moves her head a bit from side to side and unfurls her wings. With a few flaps and a glide, she lands on Pliura's outstretched hand and reaps her reward.

For now, Aspen is on a special lightweight, long leash that prevents her from flying away.

During falcon hunting season, which runs roughly from Oct. 1 to March 31 in Illinois, she could fly free with a bell on one leg, a radio tracking transmitter and antenna on the other.

Pliura's mother, Pam, watches with approval as her son demonstrates what his hawk can do.

"The bird needs to be taken care of every day," she said. But unlike some parents who have to remind their children to feed or walk their dog, Pam Pliura said she has never had a problem. "He gets up early before school to take care of it.

Among his tasks as the hawk's caretaker are weighing the bird every day or so to make sure he is feeding her enough but not too much, ensuring her bath pan is full of water and checking her "poop" for worms or any other sign of problems.

He also has to keep an eye on the hawk's beak and talons, sometimes sanding them to keep them sharp and in good shape.

"The beak can get overgrown in captivity," Cole Pliura explained.

The Pliuras live in rural Ellsworth, across from Moraine View State Park. They raise the quail that Cole Pliura uses for most of Aspen's diet.

His father, Tom Pliura, an attorney and physician, said, "I'm amazed at his commitment to this."

Cole shrugs and says, "I've always kind of been fascinated by birds."

His father introduced him to a longtime friend, Louis Luksander, a master falconer who has been involved in falconry for more than 35 years.

"I was really pleased to work with Cole," said Luksander, who agreed to be his sponsor. "He shows maturity beyond his age. He's very conscious of doing the right thing."

Obtaining a sponsor willing to commit at least two years to training an apprentice is only one step in obtaining a falconer's license in Illinois.

Cole also had to pass a 100-question, multiple-choice test with a score of at least 80 percent and submit to an inspection from an Illinois conservation police officer to ensure he had the proper equipment to care for and train the bird.

Both the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are part of the process.

Brian Clark, the DNR's falconry coordinator, said there are about 180 to 190 licensed falconers in Illinois.

The minimum age is 14, but Clark didn't have figures readily available on whether Cole is among the state's younger falconers.

"We don't have too many who are young," Clark said.

After capturing Aspen, Cole said the first step was to gain the hawk's trust and show the bird he wasn't going to hurt her.

"It's not really based on affection, like a dog. With hawks, it's based on you giving them food," he said. "But it's cool to be around them."

Cole said, "A lot of my close friends have all been out to see it and some of my teachers."

The bird is going through its molt now, growing new feathers. By fall, she will have the characteristic rusty red tail feathers that give the bird its name.

Although the necessary equipment for falconry is available for purchase, Luksander had his apprentice make his own.

"I'm a little old school with that," Luksander said. This included such items as leashes, jesses and a harness for the pigeon used as bait to catch the hawk. Jesses are strips of leather that attach to the ankles of the bird.

Luksander believes making the gear is important because it makes a person better able to maintain and repair the gear and to monitor the quality of the leather.

Luksander has been a falconer since 1977 and has achieved the top classification of master.

"It's just one of those things that get in your blood. For me, it's been my life, pretty much," he said. In addition to engaging in falconry, he also runs a business that makes and sells radio tracking telemetry used in falconry.

"It's peaceful to go out in the quiet country and let your hawk go," Luksander said. And when a falcon or hawk spots its prey and swoops down to catch it, he said, "It's breathtaking to watch."

Pliura will be a high school senior this fall and has already started visiting campuses. He is not sure what university he will attend, but the knows about Aspen's future: "Right before I go to college, I'll let her go back to the wild."

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SOURCE: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, http://bit.ly/13WcdVp

___

Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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