The Story of How Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Became a Bird Rehabilitator

When Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. isn’t hunting down polluters for the environmental watchdog group Hudson Riverkeeper, he may be nursing an injured bird back to health or signaling his Harris hawks to soar high off his hand into the sky.

Deeply passionate about birds, Kennedy is both a master falconer and a New York State-licensed bird rehabilitator who has taken in many injured birds, releasing them after they’ve recuperated. “I get calls all the time. I’ve got, right now, one injured cormorant, a couple of starlings and a couple of crows,” he said.

Kennedy also keeps a place at Shawangunk Mountain in the Catskills, visiting every spring and autumn to band rare birds for the federal Fish & Wildlife Service – an aid in tracking their numbers and habits.

Kennedy Interested in Birds From Childhood

One of the lower-key members of his famous clan – Kennedy dates his interest in birds to his childhood. He particularly remembers being intrigued as an 11-year-old by a chapter on falconry in The Once and Future King, T.H. White’s book about the King Arthur legend.

“I just was born with the interest. I raised homing pigeons, ducks and pheasant since I was 11, and I started handling red-tailed hawks when I was 12 years old,” he said.

Kennedy, who grew up with his family on Cape Cod and at Hickory Hill in McLean, Va., said his famous father had an Arab friend, Alva Mai Nye, who occasionally squired bigwigs around Washington for the State Department. Nye piqued the young boy’s interest in the sport of falconry.
“When I was 14, I went to the Millbrook School in upstate New York because they had falconry programs,” said Kennedy, now 46. “We trained wild hawks and hunted and banded them.”

The term “falconry” actually refers to a sport that uses several types of birds in the raptor family: mostly falcons and hawks. Some birds of prey are protected by federal law or state law and can’t legally be captured from the wild, but many birds can be used. They include the popular red-tailed hawk, which is the most common bird in falconry.

Kennedy, who is also a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a professor of environmental law at Pace University, lives in Mount Kisco, Westchester County, just north of New York City. There he flies the female hawk he’s had for 15 years, and its male mate, hatched in captivity after a previous male died landing on a power line.

Kennedy a ‘Master’ Falconer

He’s a “master” falconer, a designation that takes at least seven years to achieve, and he’s written the falconer’s exam manual for the state of New York, which has 166 licensed falconers.

To modern eyes, the ancient sport may seem violent. Birds of prey are taught to lead their human masters to the kill – most often rabbits or other birds. The hawk or falcon is sometimes allowed to eat the kill, but at other times, the bird is held back so his master can enjoy that meal while the bird is given another piece of meat to consume.

The sport – in earlier times a life-sustaining method of hunting – dates from about 2000 B.C., when the first birds of prey are thought to have been trained for the hunt, probably in China or Mongolia, said Steve Jones, editor of American Falconry Magazine, a quarterly based in Dayton, Wyo.

These days, falconers can track their birds electronically. A miniature transmitter about the size of a cigar butt is attached to the bird’s body or tail and the human participant carries a receiver that beeps when the bird is within range, said Jones.

He said falconry is enjoying something of a rebirth: “It’s not dying at all. It’s actually growing at a steady pace.” Yet the heraldic pastime doesn’t seem likely to spread like wildfire, since it still demands painstaking care of wild birds and a heavy dose of patience in developing a trusting rapport with them.

Jones said there were 4,588 licensed falconers in the United States two years ago, a number that keeps growing. In Great Britain, the sport’s much more popular, drawing as many as 10,000 hobbyists.