Welcome to my world. What follows is a brief course in the sort of hawking I do. I'll add a little about my friends and hawking buddies, folks who are as much a part of my falconry as are my hawks. I hope you'll find it interesting and will feel free to let me know what you think.
I came to Louisiana for falconry years before living here. My sponsor Rick Schomburg and I took annual trips from our west Georgia hometown to the wet, subtropical fantasy world of New Orleans. There he introduced me to his friends Tom and Jennifer Coulson (more of them later) and to a rowdy, light-hearted crew of locals, most of them Harris hawkers like himself. Soon I met a few even wilder folks, citizens of the saltmarsh and hardwood forest, the open field and briar patch: the mightly Swamp Rabbits. We enjoyed fine hawking and plenty of of it: a mix of hard work, fast action, long days, high head counts and too many hawks in the air at once. At night there was the French Quarter, good food and live music...
A decade later and with no plan to do so, my wife and I settled in Louisiana. I found myself within driving distance of the places I knew from my early travels. Soon enough I had a Harris hawk of my own and felt right at home.
No account of my falconry would be possible without noting the influence of Tom and Jennifer Coulson. Most of the pivotal revelations I've had in falconry were provided either directly by them through instruction or indirectly by example. Together they have over 50 years of experience training, breeding and hunting with various hawks and falcons -- each of those years being equal to about four of the average falconer's.
Tom and Jenn bred my first two kestrels and my last two male Harris hawks. They produce some of the finest selectively-bred Harris hawks in the world, and at over 600 young produced, must be among the most prolific breeders of this species as well. With so much experience raising and flying Harris hawks at my disposal, when I decided to take up another one, I simply adopted wholesale the Coulsons' husbandry and hunting methods. Anything you see and read in these pages will be similar to what you might see in Tom and Jenn's backyard or in the field with their hawks. My imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, it is just common sense.
Left to right: Ken, Tom, Donada, Jenn, Rene, Stan at recent (Jan 19, 03) rabbit hunt. Took a dozen swampers...
I met Eric around 1992 while still at school in south Georgia. Eric lived in Waycross (about an hour from me in Valdosta) and when we met expressed his goal of becoming a falconer. I've learned since that few of Eric's goals go un-achieved. Over the last decade, Eric has become one of the best falconers I know and is a constant source of good advice and support for my own falconry. Because he has developed into something of a longwinger (an unfortunate turn, I'll admit), I've had the pleasure to learn a lot about this form of the sport and have seen some great duck hawking and merlin flying. Fortunately, Eric never strays far from his roots and could at any time return to hawking rabbits and squirrels like a proper southern gentleman.
The Georgia Boys
From left to right: Steve Hoddy, Joel Volpi and Rick Schomburg. These are a few of the folks who got me started in falconry. Rick was my sponsor; I met Steve (then in Florida) and Joel shortly thereafter as Rick and I attended various meets around the Southeast. In the years since, I've spent many happy hours in the field with these guys, drank more than a few beers with them, trapped and lost numerous hawks along the way, and watched their kids grow up and dogs grow old. This photo is from a recent hawking trip (Jan 2003), the first time I've had the pleasure to hunt with all of them again in almost a decade.
The Tiercel Harris Hawk
Most everything that will characterize the future can be seen in some form today: Digital television, Viagra, and the tiercel Harris hawk are just a few examples. Altho we (I mean falconers in general) have been flying these birds for more than 40 years, their potential is just now being explored. Some of the most experienced with these hawks are among their biggest fans, tho none can say when the tiercel's peak performance (does it exist?) might be realized. Educated guessing brings me to this conclusion: Everything now commonly caught with either sex of the goshawk, Cooper's hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, red-tailed or ferruginous hawks will be taken by tiercel Harris hawks (if this is not already being done). Likely, these feats will be accomplished by the same individual birds. The flights may be different, the circumstances of the catch more variable, but the bag will be as or more full.
Something else I believe about the Harris hawk: It is a bird best suited to the "mature falconer." By this I don't mean the "old, fat and lazy falconer," although many have made that observation about why some fly this species! Rather, this is a bird best appreciated by falconers who know what they like in a hawk and have a tried most of the rest beforehand. Few falconers early in their careers will get the most from a new Harris, and many move on in search of something else. Those who've searched enough will come around again and wonder why they ever left.
Husbandry and Equipment
Here I tow the Coulson line as faithfully as possible. The main artifacts of their system are: bowperches on the lawn (24/7 during the hawking season), short leash, open chainlink enclosure for molting (or in my case protected weathering), short leash with their unique "hook-up," and a lightweight, narrow transport box. To this we have both recently added the carry-pole (aka "T" perch) as essential equipment for open-country hawking, especially for the tiercels on birds.
NEW FEATURE: This jess diagram supplied by Ken Jennings follows along the Coulson pattern but with a wider bracelet. Ken thinks, as I do on the small hawks, that a wider bracelet may reduce leg scale damage. File in PDF.
In addition to this simple list of equipment, a few practical conventions: 100% whole small animal diet, weight control following Harry McElroy's "22 Hour" system and "1% Rule,"* a keen attention to avoiding heat and CO (the gas, not the state) during transport, multiples whenever possible and as close to daily hawking as possible. To this I would add "family group hawking," a system practiced extensively by the Coulsons, whereby related hawks are flown from year to year within the same group, with young birds being added each year on a rotating basis; my part in this takes place on weekends, when Charlie gets to fly with his brothers, sisters and cousins back on his home turf. It's just like a good crawfish boil bringing the family back together.
* 22-Hour Weight control in short: feeding the bird after each hunt only enough to have it back to hunting weight the next day at hawking time, or as it often works out, 22 hours later.
* 1% Rule: Making daily changes to the bird's weight (wether up or down) in increments around one percent of the bird's body mass: a sensible precaution that helps reduce training variables and avoid extreme swings in wieght.
Training in Brief (that's the best way)
Having trained a grand total of three Harris hawks, I'll pose these ideas as some low-cal food for thought.
- Perch inside for the first couple days
- Handle liberally and early
- Walk them around the block every night
- Avoid extended feeding on the glove (ie., few or no tirings)
- Try to get them hopping indoors soon as possible
- Go to the creance and to free flight soon as possible
- Spend a day training to follow and/or coming to the carry pole
- HUNT, HUNT, HUNT. NEVER STOP HUNTING.
- Read: T&J Coulson, Toby Bradshaw, Harry McElroy
Notes on Entering
Young Harris hawks lack every basic experience. It is a problem for which they provide their own neat solution: Boundless enthusiasm. Given enough slips at suitable quarry, they will quickly and eagerly gain the experience they need to reach their potential. But how many are "enough slips" and what is "suitable quarry?" I veer slightly off the beaten trail here, so hang on.
Young Harris hawks need hundreds and hundreds of slips to improve and develop fully. They will miss dozens of times for every early kill. Even experienced Harris hawks miss their targets regularly. They succeed most often through stamina and sheer perserverance -- two traits apparent from their first days in the field (great speed helps, but is not essential and is unevenly distributed among indivuduals). The best use of the Harris' natural determination is realized through daily hunting in game-rich habitat, no matter rain or shine, wind or calm, thick or thin, hot or cold (here it's mostly hot).
Suitable quarry, for starters, is anything small. I like cotton rats [Sigmodon hispidus]. They provide the dozens of daily slips you'll need and will soon engender a sort of hunting/feeding frenzy that will have a young Harris' wings drooping and tounge lolling in the late August heat. Small rodents do a number of important things for you: They cement a bird's love of the carry pole (aka, T-perch) and will further solidify his confidence in your ability to provide game; they allow (relatively) easy multiples, teaching a young hawk that one kill does not a hunt complete; and they encourage a bird to react fast (and they ARE fast) to anything that flushes in front of you. After a couple weeks of "pre-school" with fat August cotton rats, you'll have a few dozen kills and a made hawk, already taking multiples on a daily basis. This before most falconers have even started training their young birds...
About bagged game: Probably it is unneccesary. I gave one brown lab mouse to each of my last two Harris hawks the first day they were flown free. I called each to the carry pole, "flushed" the mice from grass tussocks and let the hawks catch and eat them on the ground. By the end of the next hunt, both hawks had taken wild cotton rats, and by the end of the first week in the field both had taken nearly a dozen more. Neither hawk was ever given bagged birds or rabbits, though were taking these quarries well by the end of October.
Pick Up Tips
Nothing makes for a good evening out like a successful pick up! A smooth transaction here is the mark of a seasoned pro… Unfortunately, few of us can claim to take game from our hawks with anything like the cool hand we ought to have. So in lieu of any counsel of perfection, here are the methods I use and the reasons why:
For the Harris Hawk: Group hunting and multiple kills require a special approach. The solitary falconer seeking a single kill per hunt has the option of a leisurely pick up, a substantial reward and any number of lure-transfer or tidbit-tossing techniques to get his hawk off quarry; for several good reasons, none of these are practical choices in the group situation.
First, speed is essential, as the hawks will shortly move on without you in search of more game. In my experience, a group of eager Harris hawks will give you about four minutes before resuming the hunt.
Second, safety is paramount: a lure or tidbit tossed beside a kill will immediately send numerous hawks crashing into the ground and into each other, large feet snatching wildly for a small target.
Finally, in the group hunt there is no chance to feed up on any single kill and call it day. The time factor is one reason for this, but note that any subsequent move toward the truck will draw everyone’s hawk in that direction, an often dangerous or at least annoying effect, depending on the circumstances. Even “discretely” lagging behind to allow your hawk a lazy feed is impossible, since it will doubtless cause at least one other hawk to stay behind hoping for scraps (missing hawks are cause for panic). So when you start a group hunt, you are in for the duration; if your hawk kills along the way, you have to mop up fast and get him back on the wing to finish the circuit as a team.
Any time there is a hawk or hawks on the ground with game, there is opportunity for disaster. Whatever happens, get there fast. The first order of business is to cover the hawk, shield it from the other birds and see what’s in its feet. If the quarry is a small “miscellaneous critter” (a mouse, rat, lizard, toad, etc.) I grab the hawk’s feet around the ankles and pinch away as much of the animal as I can while the hawk desperately tries to swallow the rest between my fingers. The less of anything they get in this situation, the better, as it only takes the edge off your hawk, and you may have miles to go before the hunt is over. My exception here is with sparrows: Generally these are caught in solo hunts, and I let the hawk eat them in peace on the ground. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know.
With rabbits (or any large game), again you need to get there fast. Control the struggle; make sure the hawk is safe, then kill the game. If two or more birds are on the quarry, grab as many feet as you can to secure them and call for help! Determine which hawk caught the game and remove all the others by pulling their toes from the kill and carrying them away under an arm. If two hawks were equally responsible for the kill and both are to be fed from it, allow them to feed at separate ends and hold their feet while doing so. If you want a third to feed from the carcass, wait until the other two have eaten and been removed first.
I let my male Harris have at least a few bites from every rabbit he catches (though I give him no reward for piling into others’ kills, which he does rarely). After controlling the struggle and killing the rabbit, I tear the skin above the bunny’s shoulder with my fingers and let the hawk start feeding there. If he’s only to get a small amount, I let him eat from the meat of the shoulder; but if he can stand to have a little more or needs to, I’ll poke a hole through the ribs and let him eat the heart and/or lungs and take some fresh blood. Never does he get more than a quarter crop, and often no more than a few good bites.
When I want to remove him, I kneel on the rabbit’s back legs to pin it to the ground. Then holding the hawk’s ankles with my thumbs, I wriggle my fingers between the rabbit and the bottom of the hawk’s feet and gently (but certainly) pry the rear and front toes from the carcass, taking care to prevent the hawk from puncturing his foot (or my hand, if possible). Usually a rocking motion is involved that helps ratchet the talons from the carcass. With practice and a cool head, it’s a piece of cake.
Once the hawk’s feet are free, I gather them into one hand and use the other to fumble the rabbit into my hunting vest (some help here is always welcome). Before standing, I release the hawk to the ground and get a tidbit ready to call him to the fist. He flies up, takes the tidbit, feaks or rouses (or not) and flaps toward the trees to join the group. Within minutes he could be down on another rabbit and the whole process repeated.
While any or all of the above may run counter to conventional or traditional wisdom, so does the Harris hawk! The key points of the technique are: control, safety, and speed. If done consistently, I have never known this regimen to engender resentment or cause a loss of confidence in a Harris.
With Kestrels: As a member of “the car hawking generation,” I have had plenty of opportunities to practice making in on small hawks as they struggle with European starlings. The lion’s share of my experience here has been with American kestrels, not too much larger than starlings themselves. In many ways, the situation is similar to assisting a redtail or Harris hawk with a rabbit.
My first concern is to get to the bird and control the struggle. This protects the kestrel from pirates and predators foremost, while reducing the falcon’s chance of getting discouraged by a good old-fashioned butt kicking from the starling. After pinning the starling down with my bare hand and noting the position of the kestrel’s feet, I break the starling’s neck quickly between thumb and forefinger. This ends the starling’s suffering and rewards the kestrel for allowing such a fast, rough approach. I generally pull the skull from the dead bird and let the kestrel eat from the exposed neck and upper breast. While she eats, I clip the lower mandible of the starling’s skull firmly to a short leash tied to my glove. Then I gather the kestrel and quarry up together and stand while she feeds. It is simple enough then to slip the starling’s skull beneath the kestrel’s beak and let her continue to feed on that. The carcass goes into the bag with a little sleight of hand. After the kestrel finishes the skull, she feaks and rouses, and (if on weight in the first place) should be ready for another slip.
The key points here are: A fast approach and protection of the kestrel; a quick end to the struggle and a quick reward with the fresh meat; a smooth transition from carcass to tiring.
The Fields Near Home
Where all the details get tested and fine-tuned is in the field. That everyone's climate and cover differ a bit (or a lot) is the reason falconry has such a wonderful local flair. Our local habitat is diverse, but since I'm after rabbits, rails and sparrows I tend to spend a lot of time in similar fields. Given a few months of unmolested growth, any 2 acres here can be a game paradise. The first thing to grow (and it grows fast) is the Johnson grass. I don't know it's taxonomy, but it's like a sort of crab grass gone wild. Put a briar patch in the middle of a grass field and there will be rabbits; put a freshwater swamp in the middle and there will be rails; put a few young willows in and there will be roosting blackbirds; sparrows are generally along the borders (in-town fields are good for this) and cotton rats are everywhere. A field of good size will have willows, fence rows, wet patches and briars, so a mixed bag is the rule rather than the exception.
Far and away from the humity and high grass of southeast Louisiana are the great plains of Texas. Even on an equal latitude, the country is more open in Texas and the horizon farther away. I try to go at least twice a year to our neighboring state (which bills itself accurately as a "whole other country"); mainly to Houston for hawking with friend Jim Ince, or far north to Amarillo for the same with Jimmy Walker and the Panhandle Boys.
Houston is a good mix of the local and the exotic -- the quarries are much the same as we have here, though found in lower cover and beneath a bigger sky. In Amarillo on the High Plains the situation is altogether "otherly." It is like hawking Mars, circa 1 billion BC: wide, windy, dry and flat, a country in two colors (blue and brown). Cottontails are my main goal there, and they are common as dirt clods. Jackrabbits (dog-sized tri-atheletes) add real excitement, but are too scary to risk Charlie solo (just try to stop him!); with a little air support we quickly find our courage. As yet, quail (bobwhites or scaled "blues") have escaped us (UPDATE: Charlie caught his first Bobwhite at the 2003 NAFA meet!), but we keep getting a few flights every trip, and I like to think Charlie is getter closer every time.
On Any Given Day
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Having stumbled into falconry (or at least an attempt at falconry) early in my teenage years, I have had an enviable amount of free time to devote to it. That happy state continued through high school, took a slight dip my first few semesters of college (but came bounding back when I got my priorities straight), and then exploded after graduation. My first "real" job was one which I studied wild hawks for a state agency and brought my own to the office each morning. Every weekday was a slip out the door and into the field; every weekend a 48 hour hawking meet.
All that's over now, and I have the kids to prove it. But I still get out 4-5 times a week for at least an hour and a half, which, if done right is just enough to make do. I hunt near home on a rotating list of small fields, none of which I own of course. I lose some each year to development, others to the mower, others to unexpected posting and a few to nasty notes scrawled across my windshield. No punctured tires yet, but I have been broken into...
On weekends (at least Sunday afternoons) I try to go a bit farther afield. There are spots I know in nearby towns -- anything within two hours' drive is doable and often the extra driving is just the escape I need, regardless of how productive the distant field might be. About once a month during the season I spend a day with Tom and Jennifer; if I can swing it, I'll meet them in the Quarter the night before for a meal at the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen and a few hours with the Irene Sage Band. It's a far cry from the Glory Days, but my life is no less rich.