A red-footed booby waits for the command to hunt from a Blacktip Island Boobying Society boobier at Eagle Ray Cove resort Thursday. (photo courtesy of Charles J. Sharp)
A group of boobiers – Blacktip Island history buffs who have revived the traditional art of hunting with booby birds – will demonstrate their skills Saturday afternoon at Eagle Ray Cove resort to celebrate the nearly 400 years since the Caribbean Island’s discovery.
“Its our cultural heritage, Blacktip’s sport of kings” said Sula Beakins, president of the Blacktip Island Boobying Society. “It started as a lark by a member of the island’s Society for Creative Anachronism, and took off from there.
“The boobies can be tough to train,” Beakins said. “But they already go after fish, so it’s really just a matter of tweaking their instincts.”
Expert opinion on the sport’s historical accuracy is mixed.
“Our records indicate the first governors of Blacktip Island trained the native boobies to chase down fish, much like falcons were trained to hunt in the Old World,” island historian Smithson Altschul said.
“Of course, those records are in Middle English, so the translation may be a bit off,” Altschul added. “But, oh, the sight of a booby taking a blackfin mid-flight, it sends chills down your spine!”
Boobiers emphasize the sport’s ties to falconry.
“As with falcons, we start training our boobies when they’re young,” Beakins said. “As soon as they lose their baby down, really, and can fly reasonably well.
“It takes about a year to fully train them,” Beakins said. “We get them going after snapper at first, then work up to grouper and small mahi.”
Standard booby gear consists of bark-covered gauntlets for the boobies to perch on, as well as GPS trackers so hunters can find them.
“We all wear raincoats and goggles, too,” Beakins added. “Those birds poop up a storm, usually when you least expect it.”
The highlight of Saturday’s demonstration will be the competition between the island’s red-footed boobies and brown boobies from nearby Tiperon Island.
“It’s the great argument in the boobying community – which booby is the best hunter,” boobying aficionado Gage Hoase said. “Most serious boobiers see that as a false dichotomy, though.
“It’s a speed vs. agility thing,” Hoase said. “Like a pitting a peregrine versus a gyrfalcon. The brown boobies are better at mackerelly fish, the red-footed are best with tuna family.”
The boobying is not without critics.
“It’s inhumane, capturing wild birds, torturing them until they chase down fish, then taking the fish from them,” said Blacktip’s People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals president Harry Pickett. “And then there’s all the safety mishaps boobiers cover up. It’s a dirty, dirty sport.”
Booby enthusiasts insist they’re sensitive to those concerns.
“We’re not running around grabbing wild boobies willy-nilly,” Beakins said. “The first boobies we trained were injured chicks that wouldn’t have survived in the wild. And from that pair, we’ve started a captive breeding program. No wild boobies have ever been harmed or molested.
“Safety-wise, sure, there was an incident where a booby stooped on a small child with fish-shaped barrettes in her hair,” Beakins said. “That was unfortunate, but the booby was only following its instincts. And it let her go, eventually, which speaks to the excellence of our training. It’s a blood sport. You have to expect the occasional bloody nose.”