Where to Start: The place any falconer should start before training a bird is either in the living room or on the phone with someone who has successfully trained that particular species. Although there is no way to ever get all the information, if you have many resources you will get enough information at some point. Training a Kestrel requires a lot and is different than training a Red-Tailed hawk, Merlin, or any other bird. Training each individual Kestrel will even differ slightly depending on so many variables it is pointless to list. The best way to learn how to train kestrels is with help of someone else guiding you with the proper hands on method.
The basics of training a kestrel remain the same and consist of some conditioning and positive reinforcement. Start by getting the bird to eat off the fist, stepping to you, hopping, flying across the room, and then outside for the same things. The goal is to get the bird coming to you instantaneously for free flight and then go hunting. The sooner you get the bird focused on hunting the better off you are.
I like to use a “T” pole set up for training because I fly my kestrel of the pole in the field. I begin pole training right away with lots of indirect conditioning. Look at the Pole Training link to read more detail about it. The link below is an example of how to start the new bird on grasshoppers. The reason I start by using grasshoppers is to build her confidence and reinforce the pole.
Once the bird is chasing stuff it will be a matter of time before she connects. Sometimes you will have to use other training tools to get them going on birds, and there are many out there to choose from. I will try to get some more methods on the site soon.
If you plan on getting a kestrel this year, find someone who can help you in the area. If there is no one in your area talk to any other falconer who knows the area and see what advice they have. Most likely they will suggest not flying one, especially if you are an apprentice. If you don’t really have anyone to ask about kestrels send an email to the email at the bottom of the Home Page and I will try to help as best I can. I have helped others and they were successful but it is much easier if you have someone to actually show you.
Good luck in your future endeavors.
Eating off the Fist: There are many “tricks” to get a freshly trapped bird to eat, and there are many more than I know about but I will discuss some of the methods. I try the easiest ways first because if it works you are off to the next step.
Before trying to any of these methods of feeding the bird keep her on the fist for about 30 minutes in a calm relaxed state. Also only offer the food for 5-10 minutes at a time. If she doesn’t eat in that amount of time, put the food up and try again in 30 minutes. Keep the bird on the fist to continue the manning process. Remember to begin using the call or whistle from the beginning so she will associate it with food.
The “easy” way to get her to eat is by putting a sparrow wing and breast on the fist, and the bird just bending down and tearing away. The easy way usually doesn’t work, especially not in the South because the birds are so fat. If that doesn’t work, the next step is to get the bird to bite into the breast meat. Take the wing and breast and slowly raise it to touch the Kestrels beak. She will see it as a threat and bite it in fear. If she bites and holds onto it let the wing go and very slowly lower you hand then freeze. She might lower her head and when it gets to the glove she will start eating. Neither of these methods have worked for me but it came close a few times.
Another way is to put a live or freshly killed sparrow on the fist. If it is alive, hold it so the sparrow doesn’t thrash around so much it scares the Kestrel, but enough to keep her attention. The goal is for the Kestrel to instinctively “catch” the sparrow and once it dies start plucking and eating. This is the method I used with Katrina at the beginning of the 2005/06 season. If the sparrow is fresh dead break it open so the inners are showing and peel some of the skin and feathers off to expose the meat. Rotate your fist back to cause the bird to step forward and up onto the sparrow. If the sparrow is still warm she will notice it right away and if she is hungry enough she will bend down and start eating.
Some other methods to try include the following: live or fresh dead mouse, use tidbits from the finger, or try to dim the lights or in a dark room. If using a mouse or sparrow make sure it doesn’t bite the kestrel. When using the tidbits offer them lower each time till the bird is taking them off the glove, then place the sparrow wing there with some tidbits on it. Feeding in dim or no light will work but it wont be as effective of a feeding because there is less manning that occurs.
As you will read multiple times throughout this site, if you are having problems with any step of training contact a more experienced falconer or send me an email and I will try to help as best I can.
Hopping or Jumping: Once the bird is eating off the fist and taking tidbits off the glove with no problems it is time to move on. There are also “tricks” for this, but what I have found works great is the slick back chair. When she is at the weight you think is right for training leash her up and place her on the back a chair that is slick so she is unable to keep traction. Use your call or blow the whistle and half a second later present the tidbit on the glove a few inches out then get her to step onto the fist. She should bend down and take the tidbit. Do that a few times so she is expecting it. Then call and present the tidbit a few inches out and she will bend down and stretch for it. If she does this with no problem try it again but with the tidbit or chunk of meat just outside her reach. She will bend down and stretch for it, lose her balance and then hop to the fist.
Do not offer the tidbit and pull it away as she stretches because it can cause her to stop trying to stretch for it, therefore slowing training down.
Flying to the Fist: Flying is just a few more feet than jumping so it shouldn’t take much to continue from this point. I usually call to fist with a fairly large tidbit for the first few sessions then reduce the size of the tidbit. For example, if I call her 3 feet I will use a 2 gram piece of meat for the first few times. After I have established her coming 3 feet I will reduce the size of the tidbit for that distance but increase the size for a further distance. I might call her 3 feet for a .5g tidbit two times but for the last call of that session I will call her 5 feet and give her a 5 gram piece. After she is coming to me with a good response I will vary the tidbit size randomly to keep her interested. Normally if the bird is coming 3 feet it will come 5 feet, next try 8 feet, then attempt 12. After 12 feet it almost doesn’t matter anymore, 12 feet might as well be 20 and once you hit 20 go for 50. I have had it happen where the bird will come 10 feet immediately but not 12 feet. I usually lower the weight a gram and she will then come 20 feet. The weight in the beginning is crucial and will sometimes get lower than the actual flight weight so monitor your bird carefully during this stage.