Today my newest hunting companion proved that he has what it takes to be a successful falconry bird. This morning, about 10:15 AM in a brushy field not too far from where I am living, he caught his first rabbit while under my care. This "enters" him to rabbits. Chasing rabbits may have been something familiar to him from his previous wild life, or he may have simply been going after something that he recognizes as potential food because the opportunity presented itself. Either way, bunny #1 is in the bag today.
I've been flying him mostly in the late afternoons. I was planning to do that yesterday, but late in the day while returning from doing some errands, I noticed a juvie RT sitting on a pole very close to the house. The dilemma was to either gear up, and try to find someplace to hunt with the dark coming quick, or go chase that juvie, and give my bird a little snack, and take him hunting in the morning, when I had a lot more time to find a better hunting spot. I chose to chase the juvie . . . . which turned out to be a bust, as it was gone when I returned. Of course, I saw it again this morning, but I was now busy going about the other activity.
I'm in new territory, so I have to find new spots to hunt. With time, I should be able to find many places that I can rotate, so as not to place too hard an impact on the bunny population in one spot. However this does require driving around sometimes, looking. I did just that this AM.
A couple towns down the major County Hwy that I live on, I found just such a spot. It is on the edges of a village, and appears to be an old tree nursery. In fact, I had to walk carefully, because there were lots of big holes left where trees had been dug up in years gone by. The trees now are all very large, and look as if they are in the spot they are in for good. It is brushy and overgrown, and appears abandoned. Some short distance behind it all there is also the remains of a greenhouse frame, but I never made it that far.
As I was getting my gear on, and putting telemetry on the bird, I saw someone drive by slowly and eye me. They drove by again a short time later, eying me again. I had parked across the street in what appeared to be a fairly abandoned ball park. I was concerned while there that I might have the local law show up and question my behavior. Apparently it is also pheasant season, and there were some cars lined up along the road down the way working some open fields. The place I was at had no signs saying to keep out, looked abandoned, so as far as I'm concerned, is open for walking and 'exercising my bird'. Thankfully, no one came to challenge me.
Bailey took a perch as we entered the field, and moved along with some encouragement following me as I moved. After about 5 minutes in the field I did flush a bunny, and he did react to it, but crashed down too late. Well, at least he did respond to the rabbit, which is a good sign. It was one of the unknowns about my bird . . . would he chase bunnies? Well, the answer was Yes!
I worked down the field, then followed him over to a small island of trees across a harvested field. Finding nothing over there I brought him back over to the place I was before. We then moved to the other side of a line of coniferous trees. As I cleared the hedge I threw Bailey off, and he wheeled around and flew to the front of the field, landing in a very large tree. OK . . . good location! From there he could see the action. I then worked my way back to the front of the field. Just as I was about to the front I must have flushed another bunny, which I neither saw nor heard. Bailey did! He took off from his perch, pumped his wings fast to get some speed, then did a wing over and crashed into the grass. The effort was rewarded by the cries of my first bunny back up in the Midwest. I raced over as fast as my stubby legs could get me there, hoping he had a good grip and would not lose his prize. He clearly had control of the situation when I got there.
This being his first bunny caught as a falconry bird, I wanted to reward his efforts. I dispatched the bunny, secured his leash to me, then opened it up and let him enjoy the fresh, warm innards. I then allowed him to consume a far greater meal than I normally would give him. As he stuffed himself I cut away and removed portions, to make the meal just that much less without his noticing. Even still, afterwards weighing him, he was 160 grams heavier. A normal healthy meal for this guy is about 90 to 100 grams, so it was a generous meal.
Once I had allowed him to eat everything that I left on the ground for him . . . it being important that he not see me as a competitor for his food, and seeming to him that he ate the whole rabbit, though portions of it had been snuck into my game bag, I had him jump up to my fist for another small treat, then exited the field. He let me hood him without any problem.
When I got him home I put him up his tall perch so he could settle down after the hunt, do a little preening, and digest. His tail was all jammed against the ground while he ate, so needed some re-zipping. I also sprayed his feet to get rid of the blood. Sorry, no pictures with the first bunny. Rich, my primary 'dog' and photographer is at work today, and what was left is not much to look at! Above he has his wings out, drying, though mostly I had just sprayed his feet and his tail. Even now as I watch him through the window, he is relaxing, putting over his crop, and occasionally working through some of his feathers, putting them back in order.
Bunny #1 in the bag!
It has been quite dry in our county for some time now . . . which the farmers have liked as it allowed the crops to dry out and to be brought in early. This morning I awoke to the sound of a gentle rain . . . and it rained most of the morning. In the early afternoon my brother-in-law Brian brought in the following critter which he found out and about in the moisture, looking for some bugs. It is a really nice and healthy looking salamander. It sat quietly in his hand, until I started to take pictures of it. Apparently it's shy of the paparazzi, so tried to get away. We let my little dog have a sniff, then took it back to where it was found, to pursue those bugs.
A quick search indicates that most likely it is a Tiger Salamander, a very common species for this area.
I recently put up the 'Tall Perch', which is placed upon the top of a 6' pole. It took a few tries to teach Bailey to return to the top after a bate, but he caught on after a few assists. Currently, at this writing, he is out on top of the perch in the light rain. It is raining for the first time in weeks. The moisture is good to wash his feathers, and I'd like his toes to sit in the wet for a bit, as that assists with the sluffing of scales on the talons, to bring back the needle points.
He was flown yesterday in a little patch of green behind where Rich works, showing him off to the co-workers for a bit. He followed well, and we did flush a single bunny, but he was not in position so did not see it. He did make a dive at a mouse, which he missed. We then re-whacked the area, and the mouse did pop out, and even ran over his feet, but at that very moment he was looking up into the trees, and subsequently launched to return there . . . missing a nice little meal.
It is times like this that I feel a bit of anxiety about the coming year. I do not know where to find the bunnies in this region. I have to search out some hunting spots. I am living in very rural areas where what game is available disburses out into the countryside, and can be hard to find, and is pursued by the coyotes and all the feral cats. City lots are a lot better . . . but I don't live by any sizable city . . . just a few small villages. I also hope Bailey is not just a mouse hawk.
Well, thus far things have gone well . . . so I need to just relax, and keep going out each day searching for possibilities.
Today, Monday October 18, just three weeks out of the trap, I took Bailey out for his first real test flying free, with the hope we might flush a bunny underneath him. We went to a location which is reported to me has being 'bunny-rich' . . . but we just didn't flush any. Bailey kept near me pretty well, and was very responsive to the lure at the end of our hunt. He did crash down a couple times on what I think may have been mouse sitings, but no mouse was found after each crash, unless he gulped them down quick. It was a good first full free flight, and I returned home with my bird at the end of it all. We have been doing free flying creance flights the last two days, but those were in an open field. Today I walked among trees, and he took good high perches, as you can see above.
We were followed into the field by Rich's cousin, Adam, and one of his three boys, Morgan. They enjoyed crashing through the brush with us trying to find bunnies.
Where we walked today was full of burdock. I hate burdock! Usually its presence means bunnies . . . though that did not prove true today. Instead, Rich and I just got coated in them. Adam and Morgan didn't push through the burdock with us. Above is my Burdock Man!
Here I am after the hunt, with my bird safely returned to me, and filled up with a good meal. I too have lots of burdock on me, but I had pulled most of the burrs prior to the picture.
I look forward to good times this winter with this little guy. He's flying at 865 grams, though he was just a little heavier than that today. Now I just have to find the bunnies. I hope they are not as hard to find as they were down in Texas.
At the end of tonight's training session Bailey jumped to the glove. It was a small jump, as the first one usually is, but it is a threshold in the training that must be overcome to continue the training. The bird is learning that the glove is a safe place to perch, and that doing so gives him a food reward. One week post trapping (today is Day 6) and he is jumping to the fist . . . albeit a hesitant first hop . . . but it is a start. We can now communicate to each other . . . the basic vocabulary is established. He says "I'm hungry" . . . and with a whistle, I'm telling him, "I know you are hungry . . . I have food for you . . . come to me and I'll give it to you!"
Above is a picture in his mews, looking out the window. Hopefully soon I can get to a point that I can house him in his mews and not have to tether him to the perch. It's called 'free lofting' and is best for the bird, as long as they are not throwing themselves against the window to get out.
We are making slow progress with the training of Bailey. I got spoiled last year with Cimarron, my passage Harris Hawk. They are such wonderful birds . . . so trainable. Because of this I am in full support that apprentices should not be allowed to have them. Red Tails are so much more aloof . . . and have an incredible stubborn streak that you have to work around.
Bailey sits my fist calmly now, even with many people standing around and looking at him, and is taking tidbits off my fist. I've also been hooding him from Day 1, and he is accepting that with no fuss. Next we need to get him to make the most important step in the training process . . . leaping to the fist. I'm very certain, based on his behavior, this is not going to happen until I strip a bit more weight off of him. Even now I am thawing the heart of the pig that we slaughtered for our Pork Roast Picnic . . . I specifically asked to have it back. I'll cut some of it up tonight into little strips and soak it to make 'washed meat' . . . which is strips of meat that the blood has been soaked out of. The bird eats it, and gets a full feeling in the crop, but gets little nutrition from it, so loses weight. This can be some of the hardest part of training . . . getting the bird's attention. This can only be done by lowering their condition . . . . that is, lowering their weight. Once I have his attention, through food, I can instill the lessons of reward for preferred behavior (operant conditioning).
As you can see above, I am letting him spend time out in his weathering yard. He has accepted it very well, and learned to return to the bow perch fairly quickly. He is bating occasionally, but not continually. I'm going to let this behavior work towards my benefit, as he'll burn more calories that way during the daytime, and be ready to eat and be trained in the evening. I need to place a mat where he's mostly bating towards, to protect those needle-sharp talons. I'd like to preserve those!
I've not trained a Red Tail for 5 years! My last one was Nina, and I had her for three years/three seasons. I released her to the wild in the spring of 2008, then took a year off during the second year of my education . . . when I had NO time to fly a bird. It's easy to forget some of the emotional turmoil I feel while training a difficult bird. As an animal lover, you want to feed them . . . but in order to begin the training in earnest with a hawk such as the red tail, you must lower their condition first to be effective. All this time, you must also be patient, and calm, and soothing. You are convincing the bird that you are not going to harm them. Yesterday I spent quite a bit of time in his mews, with him tethered in there, just reading a book, and occasionally picking him up and placing him back onto his perch.
I'm somewhat sorry to say that I sometimes regret having let Cimarron go. He trained in two weeks, and was such a sweet bird. However, I did do what was best for him, as I did not have plans for an insulated mews here in Minnesota . . . and when I arrived here, very shortly we took a trip to Norway. Perhaps in my future I can build a much more sturdy and warm mews, and maybe make plans to go down to Texas and get an out-of-state permit, and try to trap another Harris Hawk. There are also plenty of people that breed them. Such a bird could be flown during the warmer days up here in the Upper Midwest.
For now . . . I have a fairly normal, stubborn blank slate sitting out in the weathering yard, at this time currently fussing with his jesses . . . a good activity for him to occupy his time out there. He's already bit off one of his bells. He's preening too . . . also a good activity. I can watch him through the window from the desk where my laptop is positioned.
It take time to get through this process, and patience. Time and Patience are hallmarks of this activity!
Falconry! Or more appropriately for me, Hawking! It is a passion, and a way of life. I happily pursue this sport, with the loving assistance of my husband. Come along with me for our adventures with the birds. Primarily we actively pursue it in the colder months . . . the rest of the time I try to make this blog as interesting as possible. Come let me share my stories, and feel free to contact me. I always enjoy talking about my obsession with this sport.