Dirt Hawkin' Part 1
When you hunt with hawks, you are more like children being babysat by a raptor. You do start by walking into a forest or field but soon as the hunt starts the hawk is sent up into the sky or a tree branch, and the humans do the work of a good hunting dog. We use sticks and our voices and we thrash about in the high brush hoping to scare the wits out of a cottontail. As we make our way through thorn and briar the hawk simply follows along, watching us, and waiting for our exclamations of quarry. When a rabbit is flushed we all shout, "HO HOOOO HO HOO" like a frat house of Santas rolling on ecstasy, and the bird dives after the prey.
That is what I did today. I was a beater, a dog really, and it was wonderful. I learned what a real hunt is like here in the east. Out west it is very different, with big open spaces and high-flying falcons that dive-bomb 4-5 jackrabbits a hunt. Here a good season is enough rabbits to count on one hand. In the lingo of Falconers' this scrappy version of the sport is called dirt hawking. Because the people get dirty and the cover is tight and the chances you are going to get cut and scratched and fall down in the mud is pretty darn high. I managed all three today and all I was doing was scaring rabbits and taking pictures!
We started on the side of a farmer's woody field in Vermont. In the back of their jeep two wooden boxes that did not allow in any light (very important in bird transportation), were waiting for us. Dawn put on her well-worn black gauntlet and opened the wooden door. INside was her beautiful female red tail, a big girl named Enola Gay. She offered her the gauntlet and Nola hopped right up like she just hailed a cab. Inside the box was a soft ground of fabric and a perch, and it looked a lot more comfortable than my heatless, busted up truck. I snapped photos and asked a thousand questions. I was excited, really excited, and trying to keep cool.
I have never been out on a rabbit hunt with a hawk. I wasn't scared of the bird or the hike, but I wasn't sure how the hell Nola went from a wild creature to this nearly-domesticated looking pet bird? I would find out in the course of the hunt that Nola is far from a pet and not at all domesticated. She simply got a decent paying job helping a human being catch rabbits, and like most people in this economy was just happy for the steady pay. Most hawks in the wild die in the first year, few mature to that soaring red tail you see out along the roadsides. These birds care about one thing: survival. The ones who are trapped and trained to associate humans with a free meal quickly oblige because the alternative is nearly certain death in a bird-eat-bird world. We have this notion of hawks as spirit animals, and they are, but that hawk you see soaring about the sun isn't meditating on the Great Spirit's war drum. It's trying to find some semblance of a meal so it doesn't die. Spiritual interpretation is a luxury of those who know where their next meal is coming from…
With Nola ready and Dawn's falconry game back slung over her shoulder (It looks a lot like a bike messenger bag, but for dead things and quail parts), we headed out to the field. Dawn sent the bird off and it landed in a high branch about 30 yards ahead of us. Mark walked into the field with their Beagle Shiloh and started thumping into the brush with his beater. Between dog and man, a lot of rabbits were getting nervous….
More tomorrow! Part 2!