First Rabbit!

WARNING: This post may contain graphic language/imagery.

Today was another milestone in my life as a falconer: first rabbit! I went back to the field near the Hayground School in Bridgehampton with my dad and we brought along my grandmother and a friend of mine. We got out of the car and I put Atlas up in a small tree before heading out into the field. Within three minutes, my friend had flushed a huge rabbit, but it quickly darted under a dumpster and we knew then that we wouldn’t be able to get him out unless we had a Jack Russel or a Dachsund. Not to be discouraged, we continued walking through the field, beating the briar patches and scanning the field for rabbits. After about another ten minutes of this, Atlas left the tree he was in and started moseying along in the direction of another clump of large bushes about 10-15 yards ahead of me. I thought for sure that he was just changing his perch and moving forward to get closer to us. After he got about halfway between me and the bushes, he took a sharp dive into the brush and I heard a short but loud sound that was somewhere between a scream and a yelp.

Lunch

Lunch

I rushed over to find Atlas with both of his feet securely around the head of a nice sized rabbit; it weighed just about as much as he did. My sponsor had told me that if he were to catch a rabbit, the first thing I should do should be to put my gloved hand around the rabbit’s head, grab its hind legs, and pull in opposite directions quickly and firmly to separate the spine and kill the rabbit in a more humane way than the hawk would – by eating the flesh around the neck until either the rabbit died from pain, bleeding out, or a broken neck. Unfortunately, because of the way Atlas had his talons dug into the rabbit’s head, I wasn’t able to access the head and I had to wait for him to get finished off nature’s way. I then took the rabbit home and dressed it. I also thought that I had to skin it, so I went ahead and did it, but I found out from my sponsor later that it isn’t necessary to skin the rabbit unless the rabbit is for human consumption. Oh well.

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Yikes.

It is important to let your bird gorge on his first several kills. If I were to steal his hard-earned meal right out from under him on our first few hunting expeditions together, he would learn to associate a successful hunt with his prize being stolen from him, and he would be much more reluctant to perform well during the hunt. The New York State Falconry Examination Manual recommended allowing your bird to gorge on at least its first ten kills. However, unless you are planning on using the meat yourself, it is ok to allow the bird to gorge, no matter how many times it has taken game. Atlas ate through the rabbit’s neck until the head was almost completely detached from the body and then pulled the head away from the shoulders. He proceeded to eat all the meat off of the skull and upper neck, leaving a bloody cranium behind. He then moved onto some of the shoulder and chest meat and the front legs before stopping. He wasn’t incredibly hungry and it was surprisingly easy to lift him off the kill. I took some quail in my fist and held it under him. As he started eating the quail out of my fist, I grabbed his jesses and lifted up into his chest, bringing him off the rabbit. I then grabbed the rabbit and stuffed it into my hunting vest before returning to the car.

Check out that full crop! Raptors eat every part of their prey and the food goes into their primary stomach, called a crop, where the digestible material is separated from bone, fur, and feather. The indigestible stuff is then compressed into a pellet and then cast up by the bird later.

Check out that full crop! Raptors eat every part of their prey and the food goes into their primary stomach, called a crop, where the digestible material is separated from bone, fur, and feather. The indigestible stuff is then compressed into a pellet and then cast up by the bird later. In the wild, raptors can go several days without catching anything, so when they do, they stuff themselves completely full and their crops fill up to enormous sizes, as you can tell by the picture.

I was really proud of Atlas on a job well done and I was, in large part, relieved. It is not a completely rare occurrence for a falconer to have a “mouser” – a bird that is somewhat smaller than typical members of its species or is a particularly lazy hunter, preferring to perch by roadsides and take small rodents, such as mice or voles. This term typically applies to Red-Tailed Hawks, as far as I know; falcons do not rely on rodents as the main part of their diet and the most common accipiter in falconry is the Goshawk (don’t quote me on that). Falconer’s typically avoid Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-Shinned Hawks because of their small size, which makes them more likely to go after small rodents. Falconers try and avoid having mousers and catching a rabbit is almost like a badge of honor. It tells other falconers that you are a “serious falconer” and you go after serious game, and it makes them more impressed with your bird than if it were to only catch mice. I was glad that Atlas wasn’t a mouser and I wouldn’t have to be embarrassed when other falconers asked me what type of game my little male Red-Tail was taking. Hopefully this wasn’t the last rabbit I’ll get, and there’s a whole three months left in the season, so I’m feeling optimistic.

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First Hunting Trips

The day after my first free flight with Atlas, I took him over to a nursery owned by my father’s friend with my family and we spent a couple hours beating the brush for some rabbits. Hunting with Red-tails is a lot of fun but very different from hunting with an accipiter or with a falcon. When my sponsor hunts with his Goshawk, he typically walks through the field with his bird on his fist. Since Goshawks are so powerful and are great at having quick bursts of speed, when he flushes a rabbit, his bird is able to take off directly from his fist with incredible power and speed and make a kill. Falcons are trained to circle hundreds of feet above the falconer until he flushes a bird and the falcon stoops at incredible speeds, driving into their prey and knocking it to the ground. With Red-tails, the bird is put up into a tree because they are not as strong as accipiters and need gravity to help them gain speed, but do not need to accelerate to speeds as dramatic as falcon’s. The bird follows the falconer along the tree-line and waits until game is flushed. We ended up flushing a couple rabbits, but Atlas didn’t see them or had no desire to give chase. Towards the end of the trip, I was walking through a field to flush game when I heard Atlas’ bells clanging and I turned around to see him drop straight down out of the tree and crash into the brush. When I got to him, he had his foot around a vole. He swallowed the thing whole in about 2 minutes and that was the end of our hunting trip. I was a little disappointed he didn’t grab a rabbit, but at least he had gotten something.

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Walking into the field with Atlas

Atlas atop a high perch, scanning the fields for game

Atlas atop a high perch, scanning the fields for game

Hello handsome

Hello handsome

During the week, it’s hard to go out hunting with him since I’m in school most of the day, but I try and go out a couple weekdays after school behind my house and take a walk with him flying with me to get him some exercise. Weekends are a good opportunity to go hunting. The weekend after his first free flight I took him to a field near the Hayground School in Bridgehampton with my sponsor. It was raining lightly when I left my house, but I didn’t mind too much. By the time I got there, the rain had gotten a bit heavier but we decided to fly Atlas anyway. We flushed one rabbit but he quickly darted under a fence and Atlas grabbed another mouse instead. Never going out in the rain again.

Day 35 – First Free Flight!

Today was the big day! My first free flight with Atlas was simply amazing. Dennis, my sponsor, came over to my house and we hooked up his telemetry onto my bird’s jess, which is the strap of leather that goes around his ankle, just in case something were to go wrong. My father, Dennis, and I hopped the fence at the back of my property and walked out into the woods, bringing a big bag of tidbits and all my other field equipment with me, mainly consisting of my lure, whistle, knife, and hunting vest. Once we got out into a semi-open area, it was time to let the bird go. As you’ll see in the video, he was a little reluctant at first, but eventually we got him up in a tree. As nervous as I had been all the previous times I had thought about what this experience would be like – imagining putting Atlas up in the tree like that, having to rest the fate of my falconry career on the shoulders of this handsome little Red-tailed Hawk, and giving him the ability to take it all away in the blink of an eye – I found myself being relatively calm and far from worried as I watched him glide up into a tree.

We walked about 80 or so feet away from the tree he was perched in and turned around. Dennis and my dad stood behind me, I took a tidbit out of my vest pocket and put it on my hand, turned to face the general direction in which we had left Atlas, and I yelled out “come on, bud!” It wasn’t more than a second or two before I heard the beautiful and oh-so-relieving sound of his bells clanging and ringing and I saw Atlas darting between branches like the world’s best fighter pilot before landing gently on my fist and devouring the tidbit. Success!

I put Atlas back up in the trees and for the next half hour or so we tooled around the woods behind my house. I practiced calling Atlas to my fist and turning away just before he landed, forcing him to go up in the trees closer to me. I also called him using the lure a few times, just to make sure he could recognize it and was still responsive to it. By the end of the afternoon, Atlas was even following us a few yards behind, which Dennis told me was really great. I really can’t believe that I did it. Being at this point, it feels like it took hardly any work to get here, but when I really think about it, this has been a long time coming and I had to work really hard to achieve it. I’m looking forward to our first hunting trip together.

Days 25-32: Longer Creance and Lure Training

I talked to my sponsor and I was able to borrow his spare giant hood to transport the bird over to a larger space to train him over some longer distances. I brought the pitchback perch that I built over to Ross and put it at midfield and I took the bal-chatri trap that I built earlier and filled it with some weights, tied the creance onto it, and put it about 50 feet away from the pitchback. I started off standing right next to the bal-chatri and got Atlas to fly about 50 feet to my fist. Over the next couple days, I was able to stand 50 feet away from the bal-chatri, opposite the pitchback, and Atlas was flying to me from around 100 feet away.

Photo by Wil Weiss

Photo by Wil Weiss

 

Photo by Wil Weiss

Photo by Wil Weiss

Photo by Wil Weiss

Photo by Wil Weiss

Photo by Wil Weiss

Photo by Wil Weiss

Luckily, the lure I had ordered online finally came in the mail and I was able to start training him to the lure on day 27. At first, I had to sort of place the lure on the ground right in front of him with the tidbit in plain view so he could realize what the point of the lure was. I did this a few times a few feet away from him until he learned to associate the lure with food. Once he learned that, the rest was easy; a couple more days and he was flying 100 feet to the lure. I think it’s time to talk to Dennis and see if it’s time for a free flight.

Day 15-24: More Creance Training

First thing on Day 15 I set up the creance the way my sponsor originally suggested; after the fiasco on the first night of creance training, I wasn’t taking any more chances. I brought the pitchback to one end of my yard, ran paracord from the pitchback to a tree on the other side of the yard, and slipped a metal ring over the paracord. I attached some more cord to this ring so that Atlas would be able to stand on the ground while attached to the creance. Training went really well. Originally, I was trying to randomize whether or not I would give him food if he came to my glove, because I had read about conditioning animals and I thought that this would be a more effective method, but my sponsor warned me against this. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice, so I listened to him. By day 21 or 22, Atlas was flying the entire length of the creance to my fist and had learned to figure out when I was taking quail meat out of my bag and putting it on my fist, and before I could even turn around to show it to him, he was halfway to me. It’s time to move him to a larger field, I think. Hopefully I’ll get a giant hood soon and I’ll be able to bring him over to Ross.

Day 14 – First Day of Creance Training

Today was an exciting day on many levels. I woke up and looked outside my kitchen window to find that I had accidentally left Atlas in the weathering station the whole night. I beat myself up over it a little bit, but I realized that this wasn’t so much different from him spending a night in the wild and I trusted the safety of my weathering station, so I knew that nothing bad would happen to him in all likelihood. I spent the morning setting up what is known as the creance so that I would be able to train him in the afternoon. A creance is simply an extra-long leash that gets attached to the bird on one end and to some sort of heavy weight on the other; this allows the falconer to train the bird to return the fist over a long distance without the bird actually being completely free.

The traditional setup for the creance is to take the bird into an open space with a perch, attach the creance to the bird and to a weight, and start calling the bird from increasingly far distances. However, my backyard is fairly narrow surrounded by many trees, and since I lacked the capabilities to move the bird to a field, my sponsor recommended that I run some paracord through a welded ring and tie it between two trees, almost like a clothesline, and tie more paracord onto the ring and put a clip on the end, so that the bird could be attached to this and would still have enough slack to stand on the ground, just in case he refused to land on my fist. His concern was that if I let out enough slack in the creance, the bird would be able to get up into one of the trees in my backyard and get tangled, possibly hanging upside down, and become stuck or seriously injured.

I didn’t have enough material to complete this at the time, so I decided that I would set up the creance the standard way and I would make sure not to let out too much slack. I had come up with a new perch design for use during creance training, which involved taking an old pitch-back I had lying around, wrapping some astroturf around the top, and securing it with duct tape. I ended up tying one end of the creance to this perch and securing the other to Atlas’ leg.

The training went incredibly well. I would cut a small piece of quail meat and put it on my fist, turn to him, and call him both verbally and with a whistle. Just like Pavlov’s dogs, calling him at this point in the training means nothing to him, but eventually he would learn to associate my calls with food, and then later on I would be able to call him verbally. The only reason he was coming to me now was because he could see the food on my glove. This was reason enough for him, though, and after 20 minutes or so he was flying about 50 feet across my yard to my fist.

I didn’t have enough quail meat to continue training, so I ran up on my deck to grab some more. 30 seconds after I got up onto my deck, I heard his bells and I turned around to find that he had flown up into a tree. I grabbed the quail and ran down into the yard, calling him and waving the quail in the air. My sponsor had warned me that if a bird gets a little bit high up and they start to feel the wind and the sun, they get euphoric and refuse to come down, especially when they are not trained. He kept climbing higher in the tree, wrapping the creance around as he went. I was starting to get nervous and I was trying to call him back down the way he had come. At one point he tried to move higher and ran out of slack, causing him to dangle upside down over a branch. I went into a complete panic and started screaming and trying to scramble up the tree, which conveniently had no branches low enough for me to grab onto. Atlas was able to get back up and stay standing, which was incredibly lucky; if he hadn’t he would have been dead in a few minutes.

My family started calling everyone they knew to see if anyone had a ladder tall enough to get the bird out of the tree. One friend had a 40 foot ladder, so my dad sped over to their house to get it. I had already called my sponsor and he was on the way from Southampton, but we were losing light by the minute. It was already about 12 minutes away from dark. My sponsor arrived and we got the ladder set up, but it didn’t quite reach the bird. My sponsor went right up the ladder and climbed the extra 15 or 20 feet up the tree, I cut the creance from the ground, he grabbed the bird and wrapped his feet up with the extra creance, put the bird into his jacket, and climbed back down. He got down with the bird all in one piece and we put Atlas away in the mews.

Needless to say, I was beyond ashamed and embarrassed about the whole mess. My sponsor had specifically warned me about the potential dangers I faced and gave me a perfect solution to the problem, but I had chosen to ignore him out of laziness and eagerness to start training. The most important lesson I learned from this whole experience is ALWAYS listen to your sponsor. ALWAYS. Falconry is one of those subtle arts where there are 100 ways do do the same thing, and no matter what you’ve read of heard from someone else, or if you think you’ve come up with a foolproof way to do something, your sponsor knows just as well, if not better, and he will be able to explain things to you better than a book. Especially if your sponsor is like mine and has been a falconer for over 20 years. I would never make the mistake of not taking his advice and ever again.