Crafting raptors

Meet a world-class bird carver, falconer, and all-around lover of things that fly



Michael Hanlon

I expect a rural spread with an extra building dedicated to his craft. Knowing Al Jordan keeps falcons, I imagine they need a lot of land. What I drive up to instead is a humble white-paneled house, and it turns out Jordan’s studio is only about the size of a living room (filled, of course, with wooden tables, tools, and various bird-shaped blocks of wood, some more lifelike than others, at different stages of their evolution).

I’m surprised by how clean and orderly his shop is, though. There are no piles of wood dust, haphazardly thrown tools, or shelves of lumber. These are the first of several false preconceptions I’d held about Jordan’s work.

After introducing himself, Jordan gestures to his student, Vern. Vern is wearing a magnifying visor, and, though his back is turned to me, I can tell he’s working very minutely. Jordan shows me some of his other students’ work, and I ask him about his tutelage. He pulls his calendar seemingly out of nowhere. “Next week, I have a guy coming in from Tennessee. He’ll stay a week here, and then I have some kids coming down from Canada for a week.” After seeing a few months’ worth of booked weeks, he finally comes to a short run of open days.

In his backyard, Jordan shows me his falcons in a large “muse” (“cage” in falconer-speak). He’s just fed them, and Tycho, a Finnish goshawk, is standing over its meal. For the other two Harris’s hawks, all that remains of their lunch is the blood glistening on their talons. “They’re a weapon,” he says. “I hunt with them. The government considers them a weapon. They’re no different than having a handgun when I’m out in the woods, and I’ve got to follow the same laws and regulations as if I was out with a bow and arrow or a gun hunting.” He tells me if it were hunting season, I could hold them. I assure him that I’m content observing.

These are scary birds. Nonetheless, Jordan speaks to them with the affection of a cat or dog owner. He has specific commands that they will respond to from a mile away, the result of years of training. I can’t decipher whether the language in which they squawk back at Jordan is that of love, but one thing is for certain: These falcons are fiercely beautiful. The goshawk has vibrant yellow eyes, prompting me to ask Jordan if they can see in the dark (“No better than humans,” he tells me). He says the North American goshawk is physically identical except for blood red eyes. “They’re pretty cool,” he understates.

When I ask him how he initially got into bird carving almost thirty years ago, he rubs his chin and squints his eyes. “Let’s see, how did I…?” he ponders. He tells me that, in a previous life, he owned a restaurant/tavern with a partner. The partner was a duck hunter who made his own decoys. “He gave me a piece of wood and said I should give it a try, because I have a bit of an art background,” Jordan explains. “So I made a bird, the first bird I ever made, and it won every competition it was in.” Jordan smiles. “And it just exploded from that, because I’ve always been involved with birds. And I’ve always been a good painter, so a bunch of things came together, and this is what came out of it.”

Jordan only uses tupelo for his creations, a “swamp wood that grows in the wet moist bayous,” he tells me. “Aside from being light, it’s soft enough that you can actually cut it with your fingernail,” he says, demonstrating. Tupelo’s softness and coarse grain is due to its slow growth, making it a very expensive resource. “A lot of people down south who don’t know the quality it has, and the real value, they just burn it,” he laments.

Jordan competes in several tournaments around the country—but not local ones. “Years ago they had to ask me to step aside and let some other people win,” he recollects with a smile. “I guess it’s not fair. I don’t need any more ribbons than I have, anyway.” Instead, he judges both locally and all over the United States. “There’s a carving show almost every weekend out of the year somewhere in this country. They’re nowhere near as big as the world championships, but every show needs judges.”

As for the world championships, Jordan’s sculpture of a scorpion-munching elf owl perched on an agave plant won third place this year. I ask him to tell me about the event. “Well, it’s the world championships. They come from all over,” he says. “Canada, England, Japan, Wales, Puerto Rico, and Russia, to name some off the top of my head.” The competition is always held in Ocean City, Maryland, considered the birthplace of the art form. Contestants enter one of five divisions: novice, intermediate, advanced, master, and finally—Jordan’s division—world class. Each division is judged by five judges, this year including an ornithologist, a woodcarver/sculptor, a photographer, and a bronze sculptor. “Just people who know birds and know art,” he says. “Because at that level it’s more than just a bird. You’ve got to take into account the whole composition, design, quality of painting, craftsmanship, and accuracy of the bird.”

Jordan seems appalled when I ask if he’s ever recreated his pieces. “Everything I’ve made is a one-of-a-kind thing. There’s no way I can duplicate the same thing. As much as I would want to, or somebody else would want me to, it’s virtually impossible,” he emphasizes. “If I wanted to make them alike, I’d be into bronzes or something that’s actually cast.”

Jordan cares about each of his works individually. He doesn’t want there to be more than one of every creation. Like the long-eared owl that his falcons caught: “I got to ’em before they killed it, and I brought him back here to make sure he was healthy and releasable,” he reminisces. “I kept him for four or five days, and he was the inspiration for a sculpture I did.”

A decade after his introduction to carving, Jordan started training falcons, and it happened just as organically. “I used to volunteer and spend a lot of time at Braddock’s Bay,” he tells me, and explains that it’s the largest hawk migration spot in the country during springtime. “On a good day you can see 15,000 hawks coming through,” says Jordan, and he helped count, catch, and band them for reports to the federal government. “And having the birds, holding the birds, seeing the birds and how awesome they are,” he says, “it just never was enough for me.”

John Ernst is a passionate writer, hiker, and gamer born and raised in Rochester. He is currently developing his website, nerdofearth.com.

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