Hawking Season 2011-2012
While I am certain that the blog world did not suffer in my absence, it is time to get things back up and running and explain a little about the topsy turvey season that marked my second season in falconry.
I purposefully avoided blogging about my adventures this year because I was allowed to do some exciting things outside the norm for a second year apprentice and I didn't want to give anyone the wrong impression. In short, I had the blessing of being allowed to work with many different birds this year in conjunction with my sponsor. At the same time I got to fly my own bird, Rebel, for her second season. This was due to a rare combination of luck and timing more than anything else.
During the second year an apprentice is still limited to a single bird. Many sponsors urge their apprentices to trap a new bird the second year so they have a new experience with a different bird during a time in the falconer's development when the sponsor is heavily involved with the apprentice. I had every intention of following this plan but as the spring passed into summer, I found myself extremely reluctant to part with Rebel. I think everyone probably feels this way about his or her first hawk, and I was no different. I talked to Al about this at length and he did not pressure me either way. Let's be honest here, Al and I will be hawking together years after I make general and I will always have his experience to fall back on, apprentice or not. I have no misconception that my learning will suddenly be complete the day that I get a certificate that says General Falconer on it. I ultimately decided to keep Rebel because she was such a gamey hawk and my first year exceeded everyone's expectations due to her skills alone. I was anxious to see what she could do in her second year.
Rebel moulted beautifully. I remember seeing her first red tail feather peeking out when I went in her mews to feed her. She actually turned on the fist and preened to show it off several times. It was amazing to watch how playful a fat RT can be during the moult. When she was out weathering on a homemade perch, her favorite game was to pick up a pinecone, toss it in the air and quickly grab it with the other foot before it landed. Reminded me of when my son would get up before dawn to practice his soccer juggling. I got a few funny videos of that.
Around the end of June, Al began to contemplate expanding his hawking repertoire by flying a cast of Harris Hawks the following season and was making plans. Harris Hawks are very social raptors that hunt cooperatively in the wild in family packs called casts led by an alpha female, a setup very similar to a wolf pack. Because of this social nature, which doesn’t really exist to this degree anywhere else in the raptor world, these birds react and behave differently and are much more receptive to falconry training. This has led to a surging popularity in their use in falconry. We saw casts of Harris hawks flown at previous meets and I always thought I would one day fly a cast after making general. Well, Al had decided that the following year was to be the year for him and started researching breeders and training strategies. We had heard that if you get a cast of hawks that were pen raised together, you had a much higher likelihood of those birds being able to hunt cooperatively in a cast, so he was planning to get the whole cast in one fell swoop from a reputable breeder in Georgia.
As he learned more about the training, he became concerned that he might not have the free time to train three raptors at once and realized that he would need some help. When he asked me if I would be willing to help man and train his cast with him, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I mean, if the man who had taught me so much had asked me to help paint his house I would have said yes as well, but this was like winning the lottery! I was going to get to keep and fly my favorite bird and still get the experience of manning and training another bird to help improve my falconry! Sweet! My nights were filled with reading everything Harris Hawk so I would be prepared. I am still shocked I actually passed both of my boards in September, as I was constantly setting aside my workbooks to learn a new way of lure training or a more effective trade off or one of a hundred other things I felt pressure to master. Besides my board exams, I had a lot to do to prepare Rebel for the season as well. I remember a lot of head shaking from my wife on some of those long nights… I was full on into the throes of my obsession.
In my never-ending quest to expand my falconry horizons, I had decided that year two would be a test of free lofting. During her first year, Rebel was tethered in a hybrid mews/weathering area. I felt like it would be nice to free loft and let her stretch her wings a bit more. As is typical of me, my simple free loft mews turned into something much bigger, incorporating two 10’ by 22’ mews on either side of a 12’ by 22” new workshop. I did everything but the roof myself, which is probably why I am still not done… I would work all day and come home to hang plywood or paint or hang perches. I didn’t think I would ever get it done. With a little help from my friends, I finally got it together and the unfinished place still looked a palace compared to the hybrid setup. Rebel was moved to the new mews right before hunting season started and loved the huge hemp rope swinging perch and all of the space.
I began trying to get her weight down prior to the move but it was tough. I really didn’t weigh her at all during the moult and just fed her large amounts every two days. I will not do this again. She started her training regimen at 54 oz. on a 36-hour empty crop! Big difference from the girl I trapped at 36 oz.. It did not help that she got her first squirrel kill of the season on 9/11 while still inside the mews! I had dropped her weight and was planning to start a quick creance regimen that afternoon when I found her munching happily on a young suicidal squirrel on the top of her box. I don’t know if he was playfully running across the wire roof or if he snuck in from the sides, but Rebel was waiting. Those squirrels had been torturing her all summer, playing with impunity right outside her mews… She had waited all summer for one to get close enough.
Needless to say, that set us back a little bit in the training process, but not too bad. The biggest problem was the weight loss. She was used to being a fat happy and playful bird and I began cutting her weight at the same time that I gave her much more freedom in her environment. That set the stage for an aggressive, hungry bird that was very unpredictable upon entering the mews. She would typically fly to the glove and mantle and scream a bit at me. The scream would transition to her whine for food for a few minutes more. It would take a little bit more time for her to slick back down and then I could secure her jesses. Even then she would occasionally try to foot me but fortunately was unsuccessful for the most part.
I was surprised to have to cut her weight all the way back to 39 oz. to get good whistle and glove response from her. She flew much higher than that last season. When we finally took to the field, she was as amazing a hunter as she ever was, taking a double on our first day out. The new problem became carrying. I really think it was a function of her huge weight variations. At the end of last year she would glide with her squirrels a bit away in hopes of getting to break in by herself, but now it became something different. She carried one young squirrel two miles through the swamp flying away from me every time I got close. I thought I was going to lose her that day because somehow she had pulled the antenna on her telemetry unit and my receiver was sporked as well.
This new habit of carrying put a severe crimp in our hunting plans and we went back to basic training for a bit. It helped some, but I found that the carrying habit was not too easily over come. During the last season, I had the freedom to fly Rebel at almost any weight and once in the field, she was the same fierce hunter that she always was. While that part was still the case, her following was poor as was her fist response when in the field now and that made for very frustrating hunting. She was successful by all accounts, but her head count was nowhere near what she got last year due to fewer hunts.
Of course, her hunts were also fewer because I was dividing my time in too many ways. In addition to trying to finish the mews, I was avidly trying to perfect a new Giant Hood complete with computer fans to ensure adequate ventilation and constant cooling on some of our hot and stuffy days. I made new perches and new paracord leashes and jesses. I fashioned numerous traps and read voraciously everything falcon. Oh, did I mention that I raised quail as well? Yeah, that brought me a lot of brownie points with the wife… Of course, right as I finished my board exams, Al came home with the new Harris Hawks.
The first bird I was going to help with was a young male who unfortunately died the day after he was pulled from the breeder. Autopsy never revealed the cause. I started working with one of the females that Rich, a former apprentice of Al’s, had been manning named Luna. She was an amazing bird and an extremely quick learner with strong hunting instincts. On her first free flight, she chased a doe halfway across the county, and had her first kill a few days later while doing some following practice in the yard. She was amazingly gentle in contrast to Rebel. She would frequently sit on the ungloved hand and often flew to my shoulder or head while in the woods. She was without question the smartest hawk with whom I have had the privilege to work.
I trained Luna on and of for about a month while Al was working on Luna’s sister Grace who was a bit more of a challenge but coming along. Grace was having a lot more difficulty bonding than Luna had and we had to try several different experiments with her weight to get her to a pint where she could be reliably free flown. Even then she was very skittish so we “switched” for a bit to give both birds more exposure to each other. My time with Grace alone was short. She didn’t trust me very much and we didn’t have time to build the bond that came so effortlessly with Luna. In order to build a better bond, I set up a quail in the launcher so she could get the confidence of a kill. I was planning to sit right beside her while she cropped up as much as she could stand and then put her on the fist for an hour or two so she could associate that happy full feeling with the glove and the bond with the falconer. The flight was beautifully acrobatic with Grace actually coming up from under the quail to catch it in a classically goshawk style grab. She brought it to ground, took one look at me, and took off like act with a firecracker on its tail. I chased that blasted bird through every yard in my neighborhood. Twice! Needless to say, when at last I did catch up to her, that peaceful bonding moment wasn’t even a remote possibility anymore. What did I learn? No two birds are alike, assuming they are makes you look like an ass, and until you know what the bird is going to do, tether the first damn quail…
Meanwhile, Al was having a blast with Luna. Luna had killed seven squirrels by this point and we decided it was time to fly the two of them together to start the cast bonding. We hoped that by putting them up together, Grace would overcome some of her reticence after seeing how comfortable Luna was with us. The first flight was a complete and total disaster. They immediately attacked each other trying to establish dominance but it quickly escalated from dominance behavior to intent to kill. After pulling Luna’s talons off of Grace’s head and neck for the third time, we called it quits. In retrospect, we did it wrong. We talked about it a lot and now feel that both birds needed to be well made to game before attempting to put them up together. That way, when you flush, they both know what the prey is and can find a common ground in the chase. Further, they should have been socialized much more together prior to any attempt at cast flying. In putting two sharp birds in the air, one of whom did not yet have a wild kill and neither of whom were solidly wed to game, we simply entered our Harris hawks on Harris hawks.
We were both somewhat dejected after that, but we analyzed it, talked about it, and came up with a new plan. We decided that the next step in the cast building was going to be to socialize the two birds while tethered to better establish their social order. Al came up with a divided perch where they had to sit right beside each other but could not actually touch. After bating at each other and finding they couldn’t reach, they resorted to screaming at each other. Fortunately fro my marriage, Al did this at his house! For about two weeks, the birds were tethered together until they finally settled down. The first successful cast flight was amazing, with Al about as giddy as a schoolgirl, grinning ear to ear. Oh they crabbed for a second or two, but they had already established which was the dominant one in a more safe environment so they got right on to hunting instead.
About this time, the replacement male Harris Hawk was ready to be pulled from his parents. Al brought Flick home after Thanksgiving as a late hatch male weighing 660 grams when Al pulled him. The plan was for me to start his socialization and training while Al worked further on the cast of females. I fell in love with this little guy from the very start. Totally different from Luna who was calm and gentle, this guy was skittish as all get out and bated constantly from the fist for the first two weeks. I manned him constantly even bringing him to work so I could offer him tidbits until he finally ate.
He was pulled so fat that it took him five days to eat and I was a mess the entire time. Rebel ate the first night. Luna’s initial manning was done by one of Al’s former apprentices and was eating and calm by the time she came to me. Flick on the other hand was a total basket case. I was totally paranoid that something would go wrong with this bird. When he finally ate on day five things really took off and he flew free just days later.
I began using the clicker for the first time in this bird’s training. The idea behind clicker training is to create an association with a secondary stimulus, the click, to the primary reinforcer of food. Over time, this is supposed to allow you to shape more complex behaviors by not having to positively reinforce with the primary reinforcer for every step of the behavior. It is almost a communication tool to allow the animal to complete a series of behaviors with reinforcement of the idea that the reward will come at the end. I have to say that the training portion proceeded much faster with Flick using these techniques than with either Rebel or Luna, but whether clicker training or more experience from the handler played a role, I do not know.
As quickly as the training was proceeding, however, I was still feeling a huge push to hunt. We were already into December with a new bird who had zero experience hunting but who was showing some very gamey behavior. Flick liked to investigate everything. When I say investigate, I really mean attack. He footed more pinecones, mushrooms, moss piles, and sticks than I could believe. Every time I saw him stoop down I thought he had found a luckless vole or field mouse but no, he was destroying another inanimate object.
He showed tremendous interest in squirrels, killing one despite my best efforts to not enter him on them. Compared to the girls, Flick’s talons were like toothpicks and I couldn’t imagine him taking some of the bites that Rebel had shrugged off. I vowed it wasn’t going to happen on my watch, so we focused mostly on ducks, rabbits, and crows in the beginning. Flick was tremendously interested in ducks but he was giving up too easily on the chase. I started working on teaching him to get a high perch to gain speed but right as he started to get this, the ducks literally disappeared. The hunting pressure from the gun hunters forced them out of my little honey hole and I couldn’t get close anywhere else.
We drove to Columbia to meet another friend’s sponsor who has been flying male Harris Hawks for years. He has a pair of male Harris’ and three rescue beagles that team up beautifully into a rabbit catching machine. After his boys had had a successful catch, he allowed flick to fly ahead of the dogs. It was amazing! Flick watched the dogs and immediately knew what it was they were doing! He watched the dogs work the heavy cover and flush rabbits out ahead. He took several stoops and wingovers that were breathtakingly beautiful and my heart was hammering the whole time. He would actually go back to check on the dogs before flying back up into position ahead of them like he had been doing this for years, almost like he was flying back to push them on or give them a pep talk. When he finally crashed into the briars and caught his first rabbit, I just looked at Al and grinned.
A few weeks later, we took Flick out to another place where a group of twenty hunters were coursing rabbits. There were 28 beagles running and rabbits scurrying all around. I was a little hesitant, but at their request, I put Flick up into the air. He was little afraid to commit with all of the dogs on the ground, but he hit a few rabbits, finally killing one. He did not bind to it though as the dogs were close. I let him fly for a while with several more near misses, but he was clearly a little skittish with all of the dogs and people around because he wanted to move further away on his own. We had several near misses and finally I called him to the lure.
The following week I began investigating falconry dogs. I went to a friend’s quail preserve and went out with his trainer to watch his German Short Haired pointers work. What beautiful dogs! The puppy was a little excitable, but the four-year-old female was just a working machine. Flick caught four quail that day and was full to bursting by the time I put him up. On one of his flights, the quail tried to make out between flick’s perch in a nearby pine and me. Flick hit it literally four feet in front of my face! For the next week, Flick was happy and calm, eager to be handled.
I kept waiting for Flick to turn on to the sparrows and grackles that are constantly flying into the rice fields near home. There is a gorgeous levee that we would walk frequently where Flick would chase scaup and cormorants and right as the sun would set, the grackles would pour in. So far he doesn’t seem to think he has the speed to fly these down. We got up several snipe that he wouldn’t chase either. I wish I could enter him on these as snipe and woodcock are incredibly elusive game birds and the flights would be outstanding. He did chase a few surprised woodcock but never got close. His aerial style through the woods on those flights was breathtaking and I would love to be able to see that kind of flight in the open.
Flick ended the season with a couple dozen quail kills, three rabbits, and a squirrel. Not great numbers, but a late start and a busy handler make them much more praiseworthy. This spring will see him start his socialization process with the cast. This will have to go very slowly as these dominant females will kill him in a split second if they are not all happy and fat. I am not sure if starting this now or waiting another couple of months is better. We felt that it should wait until after the girls were up from their keen hunting weight and would be more tolerable, but have no clue as to how the hormonal surges of mating behavior will affect bonding.
In the meantime, I will continue to work on fitness with Flick. I think the key to his success will be strength. He is already a more aerial flier than the females, but I want to see his endurance and sprint speed increase. As such, I have decided to start flying him to a kite this spring. The idea is twofold. I will introduce him to a lure hanging from the kite and after he understands the concept of the reward, I will serially elevate the height of the kite. Climbing to 2000’ in a headwind is a great way to build muscle and long wingers have been doing it forever. I do not know if you can even entice a Harris to go that high, but once he is climbing well to altitude, I plan to “serve” him slow flying bait birds at first and watch him learn the power of a stoop. Hopefully, he will see the advantage that height gives him when flying on birds. Maybe this will make him a great duck hawk for next year. Maybe I will be venturing into the “over-trained” spectrum of falconry, but I hope not. Regardless, I will be learning how to use one more tool in a falconer’s arsenal, albeit in a fashion and for a species for which it is rarely used.
So that was my season in a nutshell. I got to keep my beloved Red Tail and continue to learn from her without missing out on manning a new bird as an apprentice. In fact, I got to work extremely closely with three! I got to learn about new birds and gain more experience in one year than I would have expected in five. I got to learn about new techniques in training and housing. I gained some very valuable avian medicine experience as well. All in all it was a much bigger year than I can write about in a blog post, even one that is way too long, as this one clearly is. I owe this great year all to my sponsor who felt confidant enough in my abilities to allow me to play a role in the development of his cast, in addition to flying my own bird. I am blessed to call him a very close friend and I hope that he has found his trust well placed. So here’s looking to next season, where we can see what kind of success our efforts have earned.