Friday, March 6, 2009

The Long Trail to Falconry

Dedicated to the Late Great Joe Hawk

I get lots of email asking how I got involved in Falconry and how the individual can get into Falconry. Falconry is a tremendous commitment to a living creature. It is not keeping a hawk or a falcon for a pet. An individual must study and learn a great deal about raptors and pass an extremely difficult test given by your state. Your facilities and equipment must be inspected and approved. A great deal of time and money is expended on the bird for food, health, equipment and travel to fly the bird in areas where it can take prey. Everything you do is about the bird and not about you. The following articles are on Falconry the first by me and the others by friends of mine. They will each give some insight into the life and thoughts of falconers. If after reading these you still want to get into Falconry you need to contact your State Fish and Game Departments for the Falconry regulations and also your state Falconry or Hawking club for their assistance. If at all possible find a falconer near you and visit with them.

The following article is about the straw that broke the camel’s back and made me follow the life long dream of becoming a falconer.

The Carrizo Springs Wolf Pack

This last year I traveled southwest of Carrizo Springs, Texas for a traditional bow hunt. My quarry was the Javelina otherwise known as the “Collared Peccary”. The Javelina is small but fierce desert pig that weighs 35 to 50 pounds. After a tour of the ranch we were hunting, I picked a windmill over a livestock-watering trough to hunt for the afternoon. With water being the key to life in the South Texas desert, I though I might get a shot by positioning myself over the water hole. The ranch foreman dropped me off with plans to pick me up after dark. As I climbed the windmill tower I could see the dust from the truck disappearing in the distance.From my perch I could see over miles and miles of the South Texas countryside. It was mostly flat, rocky ground with tons of cacti and brush interspersed with mesquite and yucca. There was a large, brushy-cactus flat that was maybe 200 yards wide by a mile long that had most of the trees dozed off years before. On the far side of the flat mesquite trees had grown a tall thick barrier that I could not see through. There were game trails worn through the flat from the tree line to the water hole showing heavy use as game came daily to water.From my vantage point on the windmill I watched a covey of bobwhite quail come to water, drink their fill and wander back into the brush. Several whitetail deer came into water but no pigs.As I sat in the South Texas sun and tried not to fall asleep, I noticed a single, dark-chocolate and rust-red colored hawk come out of the mesquites on the far side of the flat taking a perch in a lone mesquite tree. This hawk had long yellow legs with a white rump patch and a white band on the tail feather. It reminded me of a small Golden Eagle. Soon another joined it and then three more flew out of the thick brush. They grouped at the mesquite tree as if to have a social meeting or to form a plan and then launched into flight up the long flat. About a third of the way up the brushy flat a large jackrabbit burst from under a shady mesquite. The chase was on! It was like watching a pack of coyotes on a hunt, yet this pack was in the air. From my high vantage point on the windmill, I watched the attack unfold below me and in full view. The hawks were on that jackrabbit like fighter planes on a target in a war movie. I was surprised the rabbit lasted as long as he did. The hawks concentrated on the chase with no vocalizations yet each seemed to know their part in the pursuit. Just as one of the hawks would almost grasp the jackrabbit, it would flip one-way or the other continuing to flee with another hawk flying into position to resume the chase.The jackrabbit plunged into some brush and I thought he had made it to safety, but one of the smaller hawks plowed right into the brush hot on his trail. As the jackrabbit burst out the other side the largest hawk did a wingover, grabbed him and they tumbled about for a moment. Immediately one of the other hawks assisted the first with the jackrabbit. The screams were loud and shrieking but did not last long. The hawks kept footing the jackrabbit until there was no movement. The largest hawk then flapped its wings half flying and half jumping while dragging the rabbit to an area clear of brush. I then observed something that I had never seen; five hawks shared the kill. I decided right then and there that someday I would fly this hawk whatever kind it was. I later found out they were Harris Hawks native to this part of South Texas and Mexico.Although I did not take a Javelina that evening I will never forget the hunt I witnessed. The influence that experience had on me has changed my life. It was the final straw for me as I had been interested in Falconry all my life, but had not made the commitment to become involved. I now have a great sponsor and am a member of the Texas Hawking Association. At 50 years old I am on my way to becoming a Falconer. Some day I will fly a wild-caught Harris Hawk.

Post Script: I wrote this story over five years ago and have now flown a red tailed hawk for two seasons and released him back to the breeding population in the wilds of Texas. I now have my General Falconry Permit and have sponsored an apprentice for 3 seasons and helped him fly a couple of Red Tailed Hawks. I have flown a wild trapped Harris Hawk along with a Kestrel for a time. It has been a unique experience and quite a ride. I will be again trapping a passage Harris Hawk this fall.

The next story was written by a close friend of mine about his experience with his Red Tailed Hawk, Cash.

I got a late start last year so I'm in my second season but still in my first year. I trapped my passage male red tail in early December of 2006. His name is Cash and what a great first year we had! I would like to thank my sponsor Ed Thomas for putting up with the several thousand miles of driving to get this dream even started not to mention the months of questions that led to the driving. Ed was really there to help or answer question everyday at any time I needed him. He came to my house for my inspection as well as invited me on every trapping trip he went on. Trapping was slow last year and birds were hard to find. I drove nearly 4000 miles in my search for a healthy red tail. On December 10th I decided to drive down near Tilden, TX to have a look because my sponsor and I had been down there earlier in the year and I had spotted a few passage birds but I had not yet received my permits. As soon as the sun peeked from beneath the earth I saw a great looking bird high on a power pole. I tossed the bal chatri and the game was started. I parked down the road a little ways to look back and I could not see the hawk anywhere. I could not see the trap either. Soon I realized that the hawk got the trap and pulled it off the shoulder into some tall grass before I even got parked. I made my way back to the area and removed him from the bal chatri. It was clearly a passage red tailed hawk. I examined him closely because I have found several hawks that appear nice but then discovered bullets holes in them, holes in their crops, broken toes and or talons. This hawk looked healthy but had a large amount of lice and subsequently a lot of feathers eaten. His keel felt about 50% and he weighed 940 grams with a hood and sock on. I decided he was the right hawk for me and returned to Central Texas to start what has become the greatest of adventures.
Cash manned very quickly and always seemed to find something around the yard that scared him more than me. The strangest things would send him into a panic. My kids and dogs could run circles around him and he would never lower his foot, but if a car drove down the gravel road and he heard it coming he would go nuts. Not at the vehicle itself but the sound of it. The AC condenser running has the same affect. My sponsor Ed Thomas had a solution or sound advice for every stumbling block I hit and almost made this ancient art feel rather simple. He fed on the fist after the third day and was on the creance by the 5th day. On December 30th he flew free for the first time at 849 grams. Ed and I took Cash to a large field for a few last minute creance flights then Ed said, “Cut him Loose". He flew great and followed well. It was the proudest moment in my life since the last of my 3 children’s birth. We did not find any game that day but treated the time as extended training. Within a week Cash was killing squirrels and rabbits almost every outing. Cash will crash any brush from tall weeds to cedar piles and his feathers are still unbroken. I flew Cash on several species of captive bred fully feathered birds with success as well. I had heard of a few people hunting African Guinea Fowl so I had to give that a try as well. I must say that it truly a humbling experience. Every bird is an eager watchdog and any movement at all will cause an alarm to be set off. And if your hawk does get the opportunity to give a chase the most likely ending will be a hawk sitting on the ground with a fistful of tail feathers hoping he has a bird in the pile somewhere only to be disappointed. I will attempt Guinea Fowl again in the future. Cash learned a lot his first season and so did I. He learned that he had to work hard for his meals and that the days of sitting and waiting for food to run to him was over. I learned that weight control and hunger were not the same thing. I'm still working on the details though. Weight is my biggest challenge to this day and as I become more consistent so do my odds of success.
I can honestly say that my hunting days with Cash far exceeded any expectations I had. I have not touched any of my rifles or my many traditional bows since his first free flight. I put Cash up to molt in late March and began a quail, pheasant, chukar, rat, and button quail breeding project. Needless to say Cash ate very well this summer and it shows. Cash has his adult feathers now and only a few of the lice eaten feathers remain. His head has the most of the damaged feathers but I can see a few new feathers growing in so I think he will look stunning this year. I have already lowered his weight and have hunted him 3 times this season. He is flying in the 980 gram range now but still needs to be dropped some. In his first two hunts he got a fox and a ground squirrel but on the third hunt we did not find a single slip. I tossed a cock pheasant at the end of the hunt and Cash nailed it 30 foot in the air with no problems at all.
This looks like it will be a great year for Cash. With the nice rains we have had and some conservative hunting last year the game populations in my area seem to have improved quite a bit. I also put in some time this summer and acquired nearly ten times the hunting land I had last year allowing me to spread out my hunting to conserve game even more this year. I wish everyone a great hunt this year and look forward to seeing you all at the meet this January.
Dustin M.

I get a lot of requests from readers that ask how to get into Falconry. I want people to know what it takes to be a falconer and what kind of commitment to a raptor it takes. It is not like archery or gun hunting where you can take your gun or bow out of the closet once in while. It must become a way of life and the bird comes first.

The following is an article from the Texas Hawking Associations publication “On the Wing” It was written by a Licensed General Falconer and friend of mine, Noel Murphy. This article should give you some idea of what it will take. Here is a link to the Texas Hawking Associations site and more information.

Want to be a falconer?
Careful what you wish for!

“Falconry, by definition, is the taking of wild quarry in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained raptor. Of all sports in America, falconry is the only one that utilizes a trained wild creature. Falcons, hawks, eagles and owls are essential elements of our wildlife. The competent falconer takes care to follow sound conservation principles in the pursuit of the sport. Even though the federal government’s environmental assessment states falconry has “no impact” on wild raptor populations, a careless, uninformed individual, attempting to satisfy a passing fancy, can do great harm to one or more birds and cast a shadow of discredit on the sport of falconry itself. Most falconers, therefore, before they will agree to help anyone newly attracted to the sport, will require evidence of a serious, committed interest in falconry. They feel that anything less is not worth bothering with.” Quoted from the North American Falconers Association.
Express to any falconer your interest in becoming a falconer and he/she should give you a lengthy spill on why you shouldn’t. Believe it or not, the purpose of this is not to keep new people from entering the sport/art of falconry. It is only to ensure that interested persons really know what they are asking for. If for some reason, after hearing all of this, you still think the pros out weigh the cons….. then you’re just the right sort of person. There are few decisions in a person’s life that can change it so drastically. For example: proposing marriage, deciding to have a child and ranking right up there, FALCONRY.
If you contact the game department in your state, they should have an information packet they will mail to you. This should contain your federal and state regulations plus it will also contains a reading list of books that reference materials the questions on the falconry exam were drawn from. The books are not always available at a local library. Many people do quite a few inter library loans to get the ones that are available. The rest can be purchased and they are quite expensive.
I would suggest reading as much of this material as possible and then finding a falconer in your area to speak with. If all goes well, and that falconer can spare the time (a valuable commodity!), you may be able to hunt with him/her, giving you even more experience with the rewards of falconry. The hunting experience is the reward! Everything else is the work. If you are emotionally challenged, have more money and time than you know what to do with, and like to get cut to shreds in briar patches…..then my friend, falconry is for you! The rest of us have to carefully weigh the work vs. the reward.
A hawk is not a pet… It will not snuggle against you for warmth and affection. If it pecks your nose, it’s not an action of endearment…it merely wanted to know what you tasted like. If it follows you like a lost puppy, it is only because it knows you have pieces of cut up meat in your glove…if you run out of food, it will leave you for the nearest squirrel nest. If it latches onto you, it will be with eight very sharp talons and not the slightest hint of need for your existence, much less love. It will not terrorize the city to retrieve you a beer as seen in TV commercials, nor will it deliver you mail like the owls in Harry Potter.
As an apprentice you will be a subject to your sponsor. What that sponsor says is law and is only superseded by state or federal regulation. The sponsor is the first to decide if after two years you can advance to the general class. There isn’t a second test…. The only factor in your obtaining his/her approval is the impression you have given them over the past two years. Did your bird hunt well? .... Did you take care of the bird? …. Did you sacrifice what used to be your life to do what was best for the bird? If so, you are then still subject to the decision of the game department of the state and federal offices. If you like this type of control over your life, then falconry is for you!
You will need to build a mews (hawk house) and weathering yard for your bird at a size no smaller than 8’x8’ each. Every falconer you will meet will have an opinion on the design as the federal regulations are loosely constructed. You will spend a good deal of $$$ and try to satisfy your sponsor, the state inspector and yourself. No two of the aforementioned will ever agree that the final plan was appropriate. ….. Most will label it a death trap. Good luck!
You are, of course, responsible for the welfare of the bird. Squirrel bites and other accidents happen. You have a moral responsibility to the bird, and if that isn’t strong enough, this bird is protected by federal regulations. You don’t just tell your veterinarian you can’t afford the needed procedure and to put the bird to sleep. Also, veterinarians with the experience to treat raptors are often not found nearby…nor are they cheap!
Unless you’re hunting twice daily, seven days a week, you’re not going to catch enough game to feed your hawk for the entire year. You will soon be enlisting the help of friends and neighbors to pick up road kill squirrels, and ordering 50 pound boxes of frozen rats and quail for the off season.
Do you enjoy outdoor recreation like deer hunting, fishing, bicycling, etc… I can almost guarantee these activities be put on the back burner to falconry. If the weather is good enough for one of these and you have the time…you will be out with the hawk instead.
Do you work forty hours or more a week like most people? In the winter, is it dark when you leave the office? When are you going to hunt this bird? It needs to hunt several times a week and on unsuccessful hunts it may take several hours. Hawks do not see very well at night, so when it gets dark, you’re most likely done for the day.
Your initial contact with a falconer may be somewhat less than what you had hoped for. Think about this for a moment… this person has people who think they are interested approach him/her quite often. In the past, people have been loaned expensive books and sometimes not returned them… when invited to hunt with them, done things in the field that weren’t appropriate or that spooked the bird. I can almost guarantee that if the falconer you approach is a good falconer, he or she hardly has time to be bothered by another “wannabe” (harsh label, but true). Their time is better spent with the bird in the field. However, if you do your research and get a good understanding of what it is you’re trying to get into, you convey to them your understanding and appreciation for the time you’re taking from them and their bird… I am almost certain they will bend over backwards to help you.
There are thousands of other considerations… The more you research falconry, the more you will find that it is definitely not for everyone. Whether it is for you can only be answered by you…and only after you have a thorough understanding of the time and monetary commitments. Depending on your desire to precede with falconry you will prioritize your life. Quit taking the wife to dinner, leave work two hours early on a regular basis, stay in the field from dawn to dusk on weekends, etc… Basically, when your desire to hunt with the hawk overrides all the good sense and responsibility your parents instilled in you…then you are ready to be a falconer. So far as I know, there is no cure or group therapy for this illness. All you can do is continue to hunt and hope it doesn’t wreck your entire life.

This article includes information gathered from “The North American Falconers Association” and is based on an article from Marty Hawkins, a falconer from South Carolina. Information compiled by Noel Murphy, Member of the North American Falconry Association and the Texas Hawking Association.

Hopefully these articles will give those of you with the desire to get into Falconry a base of information to start your journey. The following pictures were taken by myself and some of my friends in Falconry and will give you a taste of what it is like to hunt with a raptor. Good hawking, Wild Ed


Doug said...

Good stories (makes me think of my early trapping days) and great pictures.


Harris' Hawk Blog

Albert A Rasch said...


Those are some INCREDIBLE photos!

Albert A Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
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