Ho, ho, ho! Ho, ho, ho!” Jason Hausman’s deep in the Carolina woods, alerting his hunting partner to a squirrel high in a tree. Only his partner is not a human, but a red-tailed hawk crisscrossing the canopy above. “Here she goes! Here she goes! Come on girl! Get it girl!” Zen dives down in a blur and seizes the squirrel with her razor-sharp talons. The three-pound raptor abruptly breaks right, then helicopters down to land at Jason’s feet, clutching her 17th kill of the season. “She’s probably one of the best hawks I’ve ever had in my life,” shares the avid adventurer. “I can take one look at her and know if she wants to hunt or not, just by the way she looks at me. We have this understanding. She’s just that bird for me.”

Hausman’s love for birds of prey took flight as a young boy, growing up in Terre Haute, Indiana. After caring for a pet caiman, dozens of snakes, a turn of turtles, and flock of finches, his mom took him to a house full of hippies to see a hawk. “It was a quintessential moment,” the 50-year-old recalls. “I was a 10-year-old boy, starring at a hawk perched inside an attic dormer window. It captivated me. Like if somebody told me I could have a tiger and ride it, or a cheetah and hunt with it. It was like having a dragon. It was magical and wonderful and cool.” Then and there, he knew someday that he, too, would own a winged huntress.

Photography by Peter Taylor

Not long after, his interests shifted from biology to Beatles, and Hausman enrolled at UNC Greensboro to study music. By 2004, he’d settled in Charlotte and was scoring everything from films and commercials, to video games and children’s toys, out of his sound boutique. He’d labor in front of monitors and mixers for hours, surrounded by his Telly and Emmy awards.  Yet his schedule now included the freedom to explore his childhood dream. “The thing is for me, it’s not whether you want to do it or not,” he says, describing his passion.

“It’s that you have to do it. It’s like my music. Once I went to that workshop, no one was going to stop me.”

A steely attitude is needed to practice falconry; it’s not as simple as buying a bird. Laws vary from state to state, but all include years of apprenticeship, licensing, and monitoring, including aviary inspections by game officials. “I try to discourage people from taking it up,” explains the dedicated outdoorsman. “There’s a lot more to it. It’s not going to the Renaissance fair and showing people how a hawk flies. Falconry is a hunting sport; it’s killing and taking game. Training a wild animal to take game with you.”

And, oh, the majestic birds he’s trained. Nero. Seven. Arshia. X-ray. Strong names for strong birds, red-tailed and Harris’s hawks, aplomado and hybrid falcons. More than a dozen over time. Some purchased, others trapped, all trained to follow him and stalk prey from the sky. “The whole connection between me and that hawk . . . and me and nature, and understanding that these moments are gifts, is the most spectacular thing. That’s what falconry does for me on a daily basis. It reminds me of what matters.” What matters most is Hausman’s wife and sons. His youngest, Eli, earned his falconry license at age 12. “He’s been in the woods with me since he could keep up, about three,” reveals the proud dad. “He’s learned the power of nature. There’s this moment when I’m completely connected to these two animals, the squirrel and the hawk, and one of them is dying. There’s nothing like that. It’s not to be taken lightly. My son has grown up with the understanding that it’s a divine moment.”

IN THE WINGS: The Avian Conservation Center in Awendaw, SC, houses three divisions: the Center for Birds of Prey, the Avian Medical Center, and the South Carolina Oil Spill Treatment Facility. The public is encouraged to visit and view 120 birds of prey from around the world. The center’s medical staff has treated and released 100 Bald Eagles, more than half of South Carolina’s breeding population.

Father, son, and friends travel as far as North Dakota to hunt with Zen, and Lola, who is half gyrfalcon, half aplomado falcon. “Every time I fly my bird for the last time out there, I know I’m going home the next day, and I’m gonna start tearing up,” confesses the master falconer. “It’s become more than just a bond with the animal, obviously that’s incredible. But it’s become this reset button. My body changes. All the tension of modern life just falls away.”

Emotions also run deep when he releases a bird for good at the end of the hunting season. “It’s pretty rough. You have this bond with them. Nature is so brutal and so unforgiving. The smallest thing can kill these animals in the wild. It’s hard when I realize I’m no longer able to protect this creature. No longer in a relationship with this magnificent animal.” Hausman’s partnered with his beloved Zen for three seasons now. The longest he’s kept a bird is five. Whether Zen, or another, the animal-lover knows a raptor will always hunt above his head. “I will never stop. I will never stop striving to be the best falconer I can be. I’ll die with a bird in the air.”

Originally published February 2018.