"Falconry is not a hobby or an amusement: it is a rage. You eat it and drink it, sleep it and think it. You tremble to write of it, even in recollection. It is, as King James the First remarked, an extreme stirrer of passions." T.H. White

The Godstone and Blackymor, 1959 (First American Edition) Van Rees Press, New York, page 18.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Week Two - Creance

Everything changed in week two.  For starters, Nameless got a name.  Maddox lobbied for Nimrod (he swears it means great hunter) and Jordan for Akita.  Seeing as how I dote upon my kids and give them everything they ask for, I decided to combine these two names and came up with the name Rebel.  Now at this point, I still think that this bird is male and I have yet to send in the feather for genetic proof of sex, so name changes are still onthe table (kids are still pushing me for their favorites...).

Now why exactly I chose to name my bird after my miserable failure of a football team is quite literally beyond me (if nyone leaves a comment suggesting I change the name to Black Bear I will be forced to wish serious bodily harm upon you).  Perhaps I was hoping to harness some positive association with the name that has been such a disappointment lately, but it came to me on the first day of creancing and it stuck in my head.  Now it is stuck on this bird, at least until the feather comes back and / or one of the kids prevail.

So the first day of week 2 training commenced with Rebel outside on a creance for the first time.  Rebel was a different bird when outside compared to his inside behavior.  He had already decided he was safe inside so his focus was clear and his responses sharp.  Outside, Rebel was an ADHD kid at Christmas, chugging Monster energy drinks while downing fistfuls of Sugar Babies and smoking methamphetamine.  The head was always moving, the smallest stimulation had him jumping, and he was constantly bating to find a better perch.  I was worried that this would mean difficulty with the creance.  Or at least that I would need to find a better hiding place for my Sugar Babies...

Wrong.  Once on the perch (the wooden fence out back), Rebel stayed pretty dialed in to me.  He did not bate away, much to  my surprise, but rather calmly (relative term in raptors) watched as I unrolled ten feet of creance line and garnished the glove.  Right on the whistle he was on the glove!  Amazing!  Most birds take a significant amount of time to get responses like this but clearly this bird was special.  We proceeded with ten more flighits for pinkies and small mice extending up to 40 feet on day one of creance.

The next day, we repeated this in a different part of the yard and had twenty flights up to 150 feet.  I had made a portable perch for rebel out of a pitchfork with a handle that I wrapped in astroturf.  He very quickly tuned in to the game and started to fly back to the perch on his own to speed the process up.  He was still responding very well even at higher weights.  My plan was to continue taking him higher until his responses dimmed and I found the weight where he was clearly healthy.  Then I planned to take him down slowly to find best response weight. 

On day three of creance, I decided to see if he would fly to the kids.  We had had an audience for just about every session outside thus far and Rebel did not seem affected by this at all.  Jordan was already a pretty familiar presence to Rebel so I put him on a perch, walked away with my back to him (hiding the food), garnished the glove, and slipped it on Jordan's hand.  We turned just as I blew the whistle and Rebel came instantly.  I don't think I will ever forget the look on her face when that bird landed on her glove.  Maddox was next and I think he was a little more startled to have Rebel pitch in on him.  He was not quite as used to the bird as Jordan, but the shock quickly turned into a big grin on his face as well.

The next day, Brynn got to try it and she was a natural.  No fear, cautious when walking the bird back to the perch, and very respectful.  I thought that the kids would shy away from the food (small mice and tiny baby mice, pinkies) but they did really well.  I couldn't believe how tolerant this bird was of so many people.  Al came over to watch and again remarked on how social this bird was compared to any that he had trained in the past. 

We began to get some good flight pictures outside now and Jordan quickly became my Chief Photographer.  Maddox got some inspired pics laying on his back with the bird flying over, but most were too blurry.  Need a better lens I suppose.  Hmmm.  Any advice on how exactly to ask the wife for this for a Christmas present is welcome.  She has already made it abundantly clear that she wants to rename the mews "The Rugs" and has just told me she feels she should put off ordering outdoor furniture due to various bird related expenses...  I suppose I should reconsider getting her a Kestrel for Christmas...

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The First Week

So passed the first week.  I would wake up early for some manning time, take weights and hang out in the basement with my new friend.  He would rouse up and preen on my fist while I sat in my grandfathers old Eames chair.  I would try to do a little afternoon manning if my schedule permitted and training and feeding was done at night.

I was pretty impressed with the fact that my eldest took such an early interest in the bird.  She was in the basement constantly with me and even helped me change the paper in the giant hood once.  If you have never experienced this particular joy in life, run don’t walk to your nearest falconer’s house and jump right in.  There is nothing to rival the smell of stool, uric acid, and urates soaked into paper.  Pungent does not describe.  While I was comfortable with my role in the waste management detail (as a father with three kids this was the only job in which I excelled), it was somewhat Challenging to learn how to do this one handed.  I could remove the paper no probs, and clean up that which had gotten into the crevices, but there was no way I could replace the paper with only one hand.  Thank goodness for Jordan those first few days.

As mentioned, I was an accomplished waste management engineer in a former incarnation, but I neglected to consider that some of the immunities I had built up during the years of changing diapers might not transfer to my eldest.  I actually watched her eyebrows curl as the lingering fumes assaulted her while she was replacing the paper.  I thought that she was going to pass out at one point, but she persevered.  I couldn’t decide if I was feeling pride for my daughter’s burgeoning determination, or smugness at the thought of payback for laying down on me some of the most noxious diapers ever to be changed by man.  It actually brought tears to my eyes.  Of course the tears might have been caused by the fumes…

Anyway, the first week was a learning one for both of us, more so for me than the hawk.  I was figuring out how to get him on and off the scales without freaking him out, learning ways to keep him safe when bating, and most importantly to Laura, learning those tell tale signs that suggest a mute in the making.  Nameless was learning to trust me and realize that I was his walking refrigerator and his golden ticket in regards free healthcare, room and board, and job security.  Hell, I almost named him Canada.

In all seriousness, this bird was consistently way ahead in regards to his training.  He actually jumped to the glove on day #2 which was somewhat amazing and by the end of the week, he was flying the full length of the basement with his leash trailing.  He continued to be calm and at peace with me around so after the first few days, I began manning outside with him.  This was a bit stressful for him as his natural instincts would kick in and he would want to seek a higher perch, leading to incessant bating.  I began to consider the name Norman at this time (come on, you got that right?  Norman Bates? Sheesh…).

The biggest concern was his weight.  With my sponsor’s blessing, we decided to go up on this birds weight, contrary to traditional thought.  We believed that the bird was somewhat sick when caught so we put him on a dewormer and followed the weight closely.  Even hooded in a warm safe environment, this bird was swinging 4 ounces of weight a day.  I gradually took him up to over 43 ounces (at full crop) at various times.  I did find that he was at his most responsive under 39 however.   I was amazed at what this bird would eat.  The earlier Denny’s analogy might have been a bit understated.  Mayhap his appetite was more akin to that of a starving cannibal who stumbles across said Denny’s patron on a deserted island.

Anyway, nameless was getting fatter and I was getting a little more comfortable hanging out with him (no one likes too many skinny friends… it makes one look unambitious).  Nothing left to do but press on to the creance...

The First Day

It was already dark when I got home with my new friend, and I am sure that the late hour of arrival combined with the kids’ insistence on staying up to see the bird played a huge role in Laura’s initial reaction to our newest family member.  That or the fact that he promptly pooped on Laura’s favorite chair pretty much the moment I got him out of the box.  It was my fault really.  I didn’t think he would eat at first because that, of course, is what all the books say.  Well my guy didn’t read the books because at the first offer of food, he bent right over and macked down a nice meal of mouse.  It was unexpected to say the least.

We hung out in the living room until Laura banished us to the basement (took all of five minutes) and I gave a few pinkies and mice from the glove.  One thing I can say.  This bird can EAT!  He has an appetite not unlike your typical Denny’s patron at all times.  I was worried about him though.  His keel was sharp, he was having a lot of mutes, and drinking a lot of water.  This combined with his appetite made me worried that this was a sick bird.  My scale was broken that first night so I was unable to get a weight on him that night or the following morning, but his trap weight was 36 oz. and with gear he had increased to 36.8 oz.

He really didn’t like his bling though.  He was constantly picking and pulling at his anklets and jesses.  I thought he was going to tear them off but they held up alright.  Turned out he liked the giant hood.  When I pulled him out he was all fluffed up and standing on one foot happy as a clam.  I only had one bulb on in the basement and that was fine.  No real bating even that first night.

The next morning I decided to introduce him to everyone and even walk him around outside a bit.  From what I have read, there are two schools of thought here.  Some folks swear that you should introduce everything to the bird at once so he can assimilate everything at one time and others think you should introduce new things slowly to these birds during the manning process, keeping them in a darkened room until they are ready to see new things.  He mantled up as expected with the dogs and once outside, it was bate central.  I walked him around the yard and showed him his mews and took him back inside.  Once back in the basement, he calmed right down and started to rouse and preen on the glove.  It was amazing how fast this bird was becoming comfortable with me.

That night I introduced him to his bow perch and tried to get him to step to the glove.  The quick little bugger snuck a few mice from me before I got used to him but he wouldn’t hop to the glove.  He did manage a sort of step and stretch thing, but I didn’t think it was elegant enough that any judges would count it as a true hop to the glove.

I, of course, went to bed worrying over things.  All things.  I wondered if his hood was ventilated appropriately.  I was concerned that he would bate in the box and mess up his train.  I was still really worried about him being malnourished and sick.  I listened for his bells all night and when i didn't hear them i was convinced he had keeled over in the box.  I have missed many of the things that I have lost in life, and I have been overjoyed when those things came back into my life at a later date.  Not so these neuroses...  Really.  If one has the fortune to survive raising an infant or three, those neurotic feelings are typically never spoken of, kind of like that in-law cousin with the funny teeth and bad hair who sits at the Thanksgiving table quoting Dr. Seuss.  Fortunately my neuroses found a relatively chilly reception upon their return and took off rather put out after a brief, if unwelcome, stay.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Road Trap

4:30 never came so early.  We headed out to try to be around the Greensboro airport around 8 or so.  I spent the morning alternating between stuffing the HugeAssCar full of our necessary crap (which had clearly been frolicking together while we were out, and had now multiplied into roughly 8 metric tons of God only knows what), and shouting words of encouragement to our little gerbils.  I explained that in this economy, no one gets a free ride and someone had to pay for that grass they were eating, so they better get out there and attract some serious birdage.  They were still a little sleepy but I am pretty sure they got it.

And we got to the airport around ten…  that weird NC time phenomenon was clearly back in full swing.  No hawks seen except one hag sitting on a billboard in downtown.  Al was sweating a little bit by now because, while I believe everyone was pretty comfortable with Rich’s fate, I must have said something else under my breath.  Maybe it was the fact I was quoting passages from the Shining… I don’t know but it was a little tense in there until we saw our first passage RT.

There he was sitting up on a pole and everyone in the car saw it at the same time.  Rich tossed the trap as we passed (with a few words to the gerbils to “remember the Alamo”) and he swooped down before the trap touched the ground and hit it like a runaway freight train.  He was snared immediately (damn fine trap!) and I am pretty sure that I beat Hussein Bolt’s best time in the hundred-yard dash getting back to him.  The bird was a little pissed, I’ll give you that.  I suppose being denied a nice late breakfast, shoved into panty hose that is way too tight, and locked in a closet can be a bit of a dampener on one’s day.  Al said something similar happened to him once but he didn’t want to elaborate.

Taking my new prize off of the trap revealed feet that would have made Shaq jealous.  A few little bites on these honking huge feet told me I had a hunter on my hands but the sharp keel made us all nervous.  Trap weight at the roadside was 36 ounces and the great debate over the bird’s sex was begun.  Great bird but most importantly Sweet Vidication of my trap making prowess!!!!!

The rest of the day was mostly a blur.  A lot of passage birds seen but only one more interested in our traps and the pigeon harness nooses failed to hold.  On the ride home, Laura’s question haunted me a bit.  I had caught my bird on the very first trap I had made =).

We stopped once at one of Rich’s friends houses (yes, I was surprised too) and Rebel got his new furniture.  Al helped me attach the anklets, bells, and jesses after I promised to sign the restraining order, and we got Rebel on the glove.  He baited a bit at first, but was able to regain the glove immediately, which was pretty impressive.  We also stopped at Fred’s house where Rebel was pronounced rather definitively a boy.

Back in the truck looking to trap more birds, found us instead trapped by Johnny Law outside Winston-Salem.  I am pretty sure that that ticket saved Rich’s life, as he was driving at the time, and my newly restored sense of Karmic justice, combined with the all-is-right-with-the-world sense of calm that comes from a mission accomplished, made the debacle of Monet’s Dump almost forgivable.

Trapping 2

The Dump.

What more needs to be said?  I learned many things that day not the least of which is that my friend Rich is completely delusional.  The dump was a surprisingly pastoral setting with verdant fields that contrasted with the deep blue sky like it bounced out of a Monet.  That is until you note the methane pipes jutting up from the earth and you realize that you are standing on six or eight hundred feet of human refuse, all shoveled lovingly into a nice valley between two nice mountains, and covered with a nice field of winter wheat.  From the point of view of one of my many “jobs”, I have to say I was slightly envious of the effectiveness of that particular cosmetic job.

So.  Again we set the table and no one wanted to come to dinner.  Felt like I was that kid in junior high school who tried to entice friends to hang by buying the tickets to the Van Halen concert, the tour T shirt, and dinner at Mr. Gatti’s for everyone and still not having anyone to sit with at lunch.  Not that that was me or anything…  Pretty sure it was a .38 Special concert anyway…

So we had a gorgeous setting, artisan quality traps (if I do say so myself) laid out everywhere, bright sunny skies perfect for soaring, and who were our only visitors?   Turkey vultures.  Tried like hell to paint a red tail on them with my eyes, but no dice.  Rich had sworn up and down that when he worked at this site with animal control, there were Red Tails and Kestrels everywhere he looked.  After a few hours, I had to ask him point blank if he used to sniff glue on the job.  Now before you think I am just poking fun at Rich’s expense, you have to realize that most people have raised their eyebrows and started looking for the glue tube the moment they met the guy.  I just try to give him the benefit of the doubt.

By five o’clock nothing had come our way and Al’s veiled threats of baiting the traps with various parts of Rich’s anatomy were starting to seem like a good idea so we packed it in.  A very nice dinner with Kimmy followed and the wine she ordered turned the sinister plots to do away with Rich into the camaraderie with which we had started the day.  Visions of Red Tails soared in our dreams that night.

But not so much in our reality the next day...  The wine had done its job a bit too well because insanely, we found ourselves back at Monet’s Dump the next morning.  This time Dad and I were parked inside an old rusty army truck complete with army ants and soldier wasps.  Rich and Al took the blind as I am pretty sure they had taken some of my threats from the night before quite literally.  I guess people are less apt to think it a joke when you make murderous jokes with a steak knife waving around in your right hand.  So what if some of the jokes showed a keen insight into ways to hide a body?  A joke’s a joke, right?

Four pm and Rich is trying to come up with his own eulogy when a flash of white hits the “trap”.  I say “trap” because this contraption was more a mish mash of chicken wire than a carefully constructed artistic beauty like the others.  It was the Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree of traps and would never have gotten into any respectable falconry circles.  Except for the fact that it was the only one of the traps that had caught a hawk.  Now I am a huge fan of the Peanuts, and I love the old block head for picking that scraggly little tree, but I can’t say that was rooting for that trap.  Damned if it wasn’t the only trap out there that I hadn’t made myself.

Anyway, we ran down there and there was a beautiful female passage Cooper’s Hawk in the trap, just what Rich had been wanting.  So, there I am, overjoyed for my friend who just hit the Bird of Prey jackpot for austringers, right?  Well kindof.  Let’s just say that I was no longer at all concerned with where to hide the body.

Well Rich survived the night only because neither Al nor I had the guts to try to man down a stark raving mad Cooper’s Hawk, and a good falconer has to put the birds first, right?  I mean I am pretty attached to my face.  I do not want a Coop’s attached to it as well…

FINALLY we decided to leave the dump to Mr. Monet and do a little road trapping the next morning.

To be continued.