Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dirt Hawkin' Part 1

Hunting with hawks was not what I was expecting. In my mind the falconer walks out into the forest or field with a bird on her arm and enjoys a leisurely stroll while the bird's better eyes and instinct scout for game. I imagined the animal tensing up and focusing like it was casting a spell on some random bit of earth or brush and then the human releasing it like a gunshot in the direction of the kill. This is exactly what does not happen.

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!

11 Comments:

Blogger Fernleaf said...

Beautiful Photographs! Cant' wait to hear the rest of the story...

February 14, 2013 at 9:34 PM  
Blogger Karen Talamantez said...

How does one go about trapping a wild bird to train?

February 15, 2013 at 10:10 AM  
OpenID rawketstarling said...

Why can't you let light in during bird transportation? Also this is FASCINATING! There is something unbelievably majestic about these animals :)

February 15, 2013 at 11:21 AM  
Blogger Kaat at MamaStories said...

"like a frat house of Santas rolling on ecstasy"... that put my day into perspective. Also, of course, you observation about the wild bird, the Spirit, a meal. Wish I was out there in the field with you, for real.

February 15, 2013 at 2:39 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

My first boyfriend was a 1st year falconer with a gorgeous red tailed hawk. Lovely birds.

It was amazing watching them hunt. The big girl only stayed around because hey, easy food! Safe roosting! After keeping her for 8ish months he and his mentor released her back to the wild. They had to drive a huge distance to a nice area so she wouldn't find her way back to his house.

February 15, 2013 at 6:24 PM  
OpenID T. Crockett said...

This sounds incredible. I once got to serve as a perch (arm outstretched in a gauntlet with a tiny piece of meat between thumb and forefinger) for a hawk as part of a falconry exhibition and thought that was pretty breathtaking, but seeing them actually hunt must be something else.

When I was a human perch, I was amazed at just how gently this giant and fast moving bird landed on me. It was was light as a baby's touch. Keep the descriptions coming.

February 15, 2013 at 10:13 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

What a beautiful creature.

February 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

what a beautiful creature. So majestic.

February 16, 2013 at 12:01 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I think the dark just keeps them calm. Imagine being a wild animal with windows looking out at the world from a backseat of a pickup truck zooming past you at 50 MPH....without you moving a wing? It freaks them out. So a dark spot with a perch is just for peace of mind.

February 16, 2013 at 10:18 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

To trap a hawk:

You can only do this after you have passed your written test, got a sponsor to sign off on you, and had a DEC official sign off on your mews (hawk house), weathering area (outdoor playground), and equipment. I need to buy a gauntlet, scale, jesses, leash, lure, etc....

Then you and an experienced falconer set a trap on a field or roadside edge. I'll post a video of this so you know what I mean. The traps are not violent, they are baited with a live mouse or pigeon and when a hawk swoops in it snags them in some loops. This freezes the bird and you can go to it, pick it up, hood it, and take it home.

I asked if they freak out while you go to pick them up and was told plainly that we are 200X their size and they are way to scared to so much as scratch at you. They practically accept death at this point, and when you end up taking them to a suite with their own diet and safe perch....they go from hawks to partners darn fast. It's not a gig to pass up.

February 16, 2013 at 10:22 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Here is a video of a common trapping method

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FFnasjs5jI

February 16, 2013 at 10:43 AM  

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