Thursday, December 5, 2013

Now, The Hunger Games

So I have the bird, the gear, the energy and the will. But what happens first in the training of a hawk has nothing to do with hunting or flying to gloved fists. What happens first is a timeless stand off between falconer and bird. I am calling it The Hunger Games (homage, of course).

When you trap a migrating bird it is already hungry. It has been moving hundreds of miles a day at times, eating just what it needs to keep on the move. My bird was no exception and when it was trapped you could tell he had a mostly empty crop and was on the thin side. He wasn't in the kind of shape where you instantly release him back to the wild, but he wasn't the star quarterback of his high school either. He could use a few meals in him.

But a captured bird, brand new to a human partner does not realize he isn't in danger. He still sees us as big monsters, possibly confused as to why he isn't dead yet. When trapped most birds go into shock, exposing their underside. This is a kind of raptor suicide - it means they give up and want it over with quick. They expect to be eviscerated. But instead they are scooped up, given a new outfit, and brought to their new abode. It's like being kidnapped and put in a hotel suite. You're clad you haven't been BTKed but aren't exactly trustworthy of your abductor. (I know fellow falconers cringe at my comparing raptor capture to kidnapping, but let's be honest hereā€¦)

So that is what Italics is in the middle of. He is in this new place, unharmed, and confused. He has been through a lot this Monday and honestly, eating isn't really on his mind. But feeding him is ALL that is on my mind because the first hurdle in training a bird is getting him to eat. And not just eat, but eat from my hands. This sounds simple enough but some of these birds would rather starve to death then let us feed them. They have never shared food in the wild, never ate so close to other predators, and asking them to take some meat from our hands is a huge request. Some birds take up to a week of being on hunger strike to accept a meal and that scared me. Italics wasn't in that kind of shape. He wasn't a fat bird with a big crop full of squirrel meat. Ed said he had about two days in him before we would have to resort to other feeding methods. Some birds never allow you to feed them and they released back to their stubborn lives. The falconer traps again, I assume.

Anyway. I started trying to feed Italics that same day. He wasn't interested. On the second morning, he also wasn't interested and had lost 18g of weight. I started to worry. He wasn't in danger but I wanted to know it would be okay, that he would be okay. That night I went into the mews after dark, lit a candle, and had rich and red meat from a pigeon breast. It was the tastiest thing I could offer, in 2-inch strips. I removed the hood and instead of freaking out or acting up, Italics just regarded me. In the flickering light he saw the food I had to offer him and wouldn't eat it, but he didn't try to bite or foot me. So I took a strip and set it near his beak in an annoying way, and he opened his mouth to snap at it. Some caught in his mouth and he flicked it away.

So this progressed for another hour or so. He accidentally biting into the meat, then flicking it away until I realized the pieces were too big. So I put a pencil-eraser sized bit of meat on my fingertip and rubbed his beak - which he snapped at enough to take part of my finger with it, but it was small enough to taste. He swallowed it! Relief washed over me. This was great. And through that second night he would eat anything that happened into his mount, but would not take food from me. Still, my hungry bird ate a fine meal and was no longer in danger or too stubborn to train. This was great news.

And even better, he didn't object to the hood at all. He let me place it back on his head. This downright surprised Ed. Most birds pitch a fit over a hood, but not Italics. At least not yet in the dark. Daylight may be a whole different story!

Last night I fed him again, and this time he took meat offered next to the beak, actually chose to take it and eat it. I didn't have to trick him. He accepted food from me. The next goal is to get him to take food I set on my gauntlet, right from the fist. To do this Italics has to bend over and show me the top of his head which is a huge act of compliance on his part. It shows that he trusts me enough to put his most fragile part of his body in danger, and feels safe enough to eat from food offered - not dangling near his beak. We will get there, and when we do we can start training in more light, outdoors, and I can start training him to come when called. When I have a bird that returns to my fist when called I can start hunting with him. But there is a lot of chances, plenty of risk of the bird flying off, and other hurdles to cross first. But so far things are going well. We are still in the Hunger Games phase of the story but little by little, we are learning to trust each other. That's enough for me just three days after capture from the wild!