Hunting with Hawks

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Perhaps you'll never try falconry yourself. Katherine Browne once thought the same thing. But these days, the Prois pro-staff coordinator and licensed falconer does her small-game hunting with a raptor named Hades

Katherine Browne’s hunting partner, Hades, can be a little high strung and aggressive at times, but Browne overlooks it. Hades is pretty good at what he does, and that behavior is typical for his kind. A northern goshawk, Hades is a member of the raptor family, and his natural maneuverability and speed make him a top predator and excellent hunting companion.

When Browne, the dealer relations and pro-staff coordinator for Prois Hunting Apparel, is not working, you can often find the licensed falconer training Hades to hunt ducks, pheasant, grouse and quail in the woods and fields by her home.
How does a young woman, such as Browne, become a falconer?

“I have always been intrigued by raptors, and I love the idea of being a part of something wild and ancient,” Browne says. “When I’m working with my birds, I feel like I’m a part of the drama of nature that unfolds daily. I love working in a symbiotic relationship with a bird of prey, and I love that once the bird is trained, it has a choice to leave me while it’s flying free.”

After watching a TV show of two men hunting rabbits with red-tailed hawks, Browne decided “if they can do it, I can do it.” She devoured literature on the subject, and after moving to Oregon five years ago, found a sponsor, built a mews (hawk house) and took her test to become a falconer. After trapping and training her first red-tailed hawk, she became hopelessly addicted to falconry.

“Being a licensed falconer is a huge commitment,” she says. “You must train with a sponsor, take a test and have knowledge of raptor disease, health issues and care. Falconry is more of a lifestyle than a hobby, especially for someone like me who hunts with her bird five to six times a week. Not only does the bird require feeding and care, but you must weigh it daily, calculate how much to feed it so it will be at hunting weight when you fly it and constantly monitor its health and condition. You must provide your bird with whole-bodied animals, a bath pan filled with fresh water, and safe housing and equipment. It is unfair to try to keep a bird of prey if you don’t have the time to commit.”

TRAPPING THE BIRD

To trap her raptors, Browne often uses what is called a bal-chatri trap (BC), which is essentially a weighted-down wire cage with monofilament fishing line nooses along the outside. The bait animal is placed inside the trap. When the hawk lands on the trap, its feet become entangled in the nooses.

Browne drives the roads in search of a raptor to trap. When she spots a bird, she slows the vehicle down almost to a stop and drops the trap in the bird’s vicinity. Then she drives a couple hundred yards down the road and sits and watches the bird and the trap with binoculars.

BC traps need to be monitored constantly because after the bird is trapped, it can be injured or attacked by predators if left unattended. In fact, it is illegal to leave a BC unattended (it’s also highly illegal to trap birds of prey without the proper permit).

“Once the bird is snared, I run up and grab the hawk, preferably without getting footed or bitten,” Browne says. “Trapping is by far one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.”

Browne says once you trap a bird, you must determine if it’s a legal bird to keep and if you want to keep it. Passage (juvenile) birds that have left the nest but are still in their first year of life are legal to take. You can also take eyasses (chicks) after you become a general falconer. You’re limited to either trapping a juvenile red-tailed hawk or an American kestrel for the first two years of your falconry training. Check your state's falconry laws for additional rules and regulations.

“I am currently a general falconer, which requires at least two years of falconry experience,” Browne says. “My northern goshawk is a much more challenging species to train than a red-tailed hawk or kestrel.”

The longer you are a falconer, the more species are open to you. The most challenging birds are reserved for master falconers who have been at the sport for at least five years. 

TRAINING THE BIRD

Not only is each species different in terms of training, but so is each individual bird. And, even though there are many methods and schools of thought on training, she uses a few basic steps with the birds she’s trained.

“Perhaps the most important part of this process is weighing the bird daily on an accurate scale,” Browne says. “Falconry is all about weight management and figuring out the flying weight, which is the weight at which the bird is most responsive.”
Unless the bird is very thin when trapped, most falconers begin reducing their bird’s weight slowly and steadily during the training process and recording the bird’s responses in a log book along with the amount and type of food it’s eating.

When the falconer first arrives home with the bird, he or she begins a process called “manning.” During this time, the bird gets used to being indoors with the trainer. The trainer touches and carries the hawk around as much as possible.

“When I brought Ares, my last red-tail, home and removed the hood, he sat on my fist with his eyes wide, wings spread, feathers puffed out and his tongue sticking out,” Browne says. “He was terrified. This is pretty typical behavior for a freshly trapped hawk. Initially you want the room to be dimly lit and for things to be quiet and calm. After sitting for a moment, Ares bated (jumped from the fist) and hung upside-down by his jesses (the leather straps around a falconry bird’s feet). I call this stage the bat-bird stage. My red-tail Athena hung upside-down most of the time I worked with her for the first three days. Luckily, Ares caught on faster, and after gently helping him back on the glove a few times, he stopped hanging like a bat and started hopping back up to the fist on his own.”

Browne explains that the next step is getting the hawk to eat from her hands, which can be a difficult task. She’ll rub the meat on the side of a raptor’s beak causing it to bite reflexively. When hunger takes over, the bird will swallow the meat. Every time Browne offers her new bird a piece of meat, she whistles. By making the same noise each time, the bird will start to recognize the sound as an indicator for food. Like training any animal, consistency is incredibly important.

After the bird learns to eat from the trainer’s fingers, it is then trained to eat from a gloved hand. Next the bird learns how to hop to the glove, which is Browne’s favorite step.

“This is the leap of faith where your bird makes the jump to your fist,” Browne says. “I place the bird on a solid perch (I favor a saw horse) and hold my garnished glove (glove with a piece of meat on it) just out of reach so the hawk has to stretch out to get it.”

Next the bird learns how to fly to the trainer inside the home. Browne says this step is a lot of fun as well. She uses a long leash and calls the bird to her for longer and longer indoor flights. Once she accomplishes this step, she takes the bird outdoors.

“When I first take my bird outside after working with it indoors, it’ll often get what I call ‘blue sky syndrome’,” Browne says. It’ll see the sky and will try to fly off. At this stage I often have to reduce its weight and do some shorter flights than I was doing indoors. I’ll also introduce the lure, which is my safety net while flying the bird. I attach meat to a padded leather boomerang-shaped lure. Every time I feed the bird from the lure it should get a good meal so when it sees the lure, it will come readily, even if its weight is a little high.”

Browne explains that as she flies the bird outside, she increases the length of the creance (a long tether), and as she reduces the bird’s weight, she watches for an immediate response to her whistle. A quick response is a good indicator that the bird is approaching its flying or hunting weight. Once it comes without hesitation, it’s time to cut it loose and start hunting.

THE HUNTING

Since juvenile birds have already been out on their own, they know how to hunt, but Browne says she has to teach the bird that it will have more opportunities at game and more success if it hunts with her.

“I train my bird to see me as a partner, not a predator,” Browne says. “I have to be very careful not to give the impression that I will steal food from it. I have to develop a relationship with my bird so that I can approach it on prey and dispatch the prey without it carrying it away, hiding it from me or showing aggression toward me.”

Browne says falconers often have to train their birds to pursue the quarry of their choice and build their confidence that they can be successful catching this particular animal. Many juvenile birds have only caught mice and small ground quarry and do not necessarily see larger game as food. Trainers often set up a couple easier hunting scenarios to build the bird’s confidence at catching larger prey, such as rabbits. This is called “entering your bird.”

“There is so much work and dedication involved with training a falcon,” Browne says. “That’s why it is so important that you go through the proper channels to become a falconer. It’s hard work, but if you are passionate and committed, it’s more than worthwhile. During the first two years, beginner falconers are required to have a more experienced falconer as a sponsor. The knowledge you gain from your sponsor in your first two years (or more) as an apprentice falconer is irreplaceable. If you’re interested in pursuing this sport, start off by reading one of the many books on training and hunting with different birds of prey. My favorite is North American Falconry & Hunting Hawks by BeeBe and Webster, which many, including myself, consider the bible of North American falconry. Take the time and do it right. You won’t regret the effort and time you put into being a falconer. We get to see things that most people will never see in a lifetime. ”