It is getting close to that time of year again. That time when I haul out my equipment and head to the field to trap my new bird. That immature Red-Tailed hawk that I will train and use as a falconry bird. Some folks disagree with this sport without knowing much about it. Some folks have no idea what it is. I figured I would take the time to spread a little knowledge about this pastime that I have been practicing for 21 years.
Hopefully, this will educate and inspire everyone who wants to experience the magic of Falconry.
I should probably first explain that I am federally licensed and state registered to trap, handle and house certain raptors for the express use as a falconry bird. That is not a title that came easily or that I take lightly. I had to study, pursue, and pass a 100 question Federally developed test, administered by the MD. DNR, to get that license. I have been doing this long enough to earn the title of being a Master Falconer. Although I can legally have several birds, I only keep and fly one bird each season. That is all the time I feel I can properly devote to a bird to keep it healthy and active. And active is the primary objective. Why go to a gym when you can chase a bird through the brush, about every other day, for 1- 3 hours each trip? This is not the activity for those who wish to lead a sedentary lifestyle!
Falconry is defined as the use of a trained raptor to catch wild game in its natural state. Basically, keeping a raptor and throwing it a live lab rat or a domestic chicken to chase, isn’t considered falconry. Although vultures and ospreys are members of the raptor family, we don’t consider them for falconry use due to their either lack of hunting live quarry or of their hunting and eating behavior. Eagles, hawks and falcons are the birds we typically focus on.
In my case, I have chosen to work strictly with Bueto Jamaciensis, the Red-Tailed Hawk.
Most folks know them as the large brown birds with the brick red tails, seen sitting on top of telephone poles and street light posts. In the wild, this affords them 2 advantages; 1) a wide view of their hunting area, and 2) the ability to swoop down on their prey with little expenditure of energy from flapping their wings. When hunting with them in falconry, they mimic this behavior by perching high in the trees in front of the walking falconer. There is nothing quite like watching them drop out of a high tree after a running rabbit!
Another fact I would like to explain is how falconry is actually beneficial to the birds and their well being. As many as 80% of young red tails die by the time they are two years old. About 60% in their first year and as many as an additional 20% in their second year. These deaths can be caused by bad weather, injuries sustained while they are hunting, electrical and window mishaps, and let’s not forget well meaning but misinformed humans who shoot and poison them. By keeping an immature bird through its first winter then releasing it back to the wild in the spring, we increase its chance of survival to breeding age and adulthood. The famed Peregrine Falcon was removed from the endangered species list in August of 1999. That was, for a large part, due to the 4000 or so captive born then released birds. Most of them were hatched and raised by private falconers with no compensation other than a pat on the back. They were just proud to be involved. And that is just another reason to support a sport that is over 4000 years old! Now back to our story.
I usually start looking up to the skies in mid-October.
Being self-employed I have to make the best use of my time. That means when I take the time to go trapping I need to have a reasonable chance of catching a few birds from which to choose my new charge.That is usually the last week of October in my area. When I see plenty of young birds soaring through the skies around then, I load up the truck and head to the field.I use a bownet, most of the time , when hawk trapping. Feral pigeons are my usual bait and the city of Baltimore supplies us with all the fresh active ones we need. I will leave the rest of the trapping details out as they get tedious and detailed. If you would like to know more, get in touch with me. I like taking people out with me, but time and space is very limited.
Trapping the new bird is just the beginning.
Once the new bird is chosen, and all others released after a quick health check, the real fun begins. Training! It takes about 3 weeks from the day I choose my new bird until I am free flying it on game. I don’t have a preference for one sex or the other, when it comes to hunting. females are about 20% larger than males and some falconers believe size matters. Not me. I have noticed that females can be a drop slower on the uptake, in training, but I don’t want any bird that is too big or too small. I’m a middle of the road sized guy. A bird flying around 40 oz makes Eric a happy camper!
As I stated, it takes about 3 weeks to get a Red Tail out and hunting. The first time that I free fly a new bird I’m a little nervous. I don’t know why. I have trained and free flown about 30 birds over the years. I have never had a single one-act funny or not return after the first flight. Matter of fact, I have never lost a bird. I have had 2 stay out overnight due to gunshots on the property from hunters who had not followed the rules about notifying the owners. They weren’t shooting at my bird (a federal offense punishable by a big fine and a jail sentence). Just the loud noise in close proximity to the bird scared them off. Got both birds back after a day or two and continued to hunt with them til the end of the season.
I usually release my birds back to the wild, no worse for the wear, at the end of the hunting season (around late March). They are healthy, well fed, dewormed and debugged when I send them out on their own again. Many falconers keep their wild-caught birds for years. I just get mine through their tough time as a youngster. Remember, I have a business to run and in the summer I don’t have time to properly devote to a bird to keep it healthy and active. For a falconer, it’s all about the bird. And there is another one to train next year. It will be just another Eastern Shore Experience!