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.
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.
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.
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.