Master Falconer, Bob Raymond, shares his story and insights on falconry.
Falconry has been in existence for thousands of years, pre-BCE, and is still practiced today around the world. Back in medieval times, the falconer supplied most of the food for the village that he lived in with the assistance of the bird of prey. Also depending on your social status back then dictated what Bird of Prey (BOP) you could own and fly. Interesting that owls were not used then as they were associated with witchcraft. That is enough of the history, there is lots of information on the web if you wish to pursue.
Preamble, how I got started.
Fast forward to 20 years ago. Some of you may wonder why I am doing these articles as hopefully there will be many. I normally am standing up and teaching this subject with the aid of strong visual power points so sitting down in front of a keyboard is new to me, but I think it will work. The answer to why, is my strong love of BOP and to educate people in their part in conservation.
The question that I am asked most often when people find out that I fly BOP is: How did I get involved in it? The answer is kind of long, but it goes like this.
My employment involved helicopters in various places around the world. I always carried at least 2 cameras everywhere that I went, finding that I had a knack for animal photography, in particular BOP. A few decades went by selling pictures freelance to wildlife magazines, and no I did not get rich selling the pictures, but I learned a lot watching various BOP in the wild. I read books, yes books, pre the web. I thought long and hard about leaving my career in helicopters to go to university and become an ornithologist but bird watching has a slim paycheck.
Another decade went by with a high stress job and while sitting in front of a computer a random thought occurred, I need something to do and blow off some steam. I like to be in the bush by myself, I like BOP. The answer was to become a falconer, one of my best decisions in my life. Some time on the web had all my answers, find a master falconer, apprentice for 2 years and away you go, easy right?
2 decades ago, I decided that I wanted to fly Birds of Prey (BOP). I like to hunt, be by myself in the bush and enjoy BOP, seemed like a good fit at the time and it still is.
To be a falconer in Ontario you must complete a 2-year apprenticeship under a licensed falconer. Other requirements as well, but that will come later.
I should point out now that when I use the term falconer, I mean a person that flies a BOP, hawk, eagle, owl, falcon. Some people use the term Austinger for anyone not flying a falcon.
Anyway, I selected a guy off the web that seemed like a good place. 20 years later we are still best friends, we hunt together, talk every week, a lifetime friendship as a bonus.
Part of the reg to become a falconer in Ontario is 40 hours of instruction. My mentor thought that should be done outdoors, bless him, and he still has the same chairs that I sat in with a bird on the glove 20 years ago.
On the glove? That is a new term and there will be more as you keep going. Basically, a glove that you put on your left hand, made from cow hide or kangaroo hide depending on what you are flying.
How sharp are the talons? Why the left hand?
When falconry came to be, 3000 years ago or so, a horse was the common means of transport. Reins in the right hand, falcon on the left hand.
I was lucky enough that my mentor had a falconry school, and I was the only student at that time, and it was early fall. (I should mention here that my mentor was a falconer in Germany and immigrated to Canada. His knowledge and high standards have made me the falconer that I am today.) There were game birds to train the falcons and hawks on, pheasants, grouse, chuckers, rabbits. Everything needs to be fed and watered. Part of the apprenticeship job - feed, water, scrap poop.
Early mornings and late nights were the norm for a long time. Birds had to be blocked, perched, fed, fresh water, exercised, flown and on and on. I am not talking about a couple of birds here that required attention, 50-60 at that time. No better place to be an apprentice and my mentor is an awesome cook.
The classroom portion, as I mentioned earlier, was done outdoors at a table under a big tree, both of which are still there today.
I can’t start to detail what my mentor taught me under that tree way back then, and I still learn, to this day, under the same tree. I guess I am a slow learner as my apprenticeship continues, 20 years later.
I made the cut and my mentor sold me a hawk, a male Harris hawk. Hatched that summer, about 4 months old. Conversations were had about building a chamber, more on that later, I had most of the equipment required, again later. My mentor said, “come down tomorrow and get your bird”.
Easy right? I did not have a real grasp on what to expect when I got there but I could not have thought up what was to ensue. Let us go get your hawk says my mentor. From where says I. Out of the chamber says he. New word, chamber. A chamber is where BOP are kept, more details later.
2 adult birds, 4 youngsters, in a chamber with 8 sides and 4 feet per side. A net in one hand and a glove on the other, in walks my mentor into this chamber. I am watching through a crack in the door and seeing birds flying everywhere. The youngsters have never seen a person before, the adults are upset as they see a threat to their young. A male was netted and removed without anyone getting hurt.
Some may ask “how did your mentor know it was a male”. Later.
So now we have a hawk in our hands with no way to control it and normally they are unhappy. The bird is casted, not like when you break an arm but in this sense held by the ankles in your chest while someone puts on the anklets and jesses, 2 new more words.
Getting a BOP Home
Welcome to the third article on falconry. In the previous article a male Harris hawk was removed from the chamber, age 16 weeks or so and equipment was installed, anklets and jesses. More details on equipment later as it is an article by itself.
So, you have your first BOP, it might be standing on the glove or hanging upside down. Depends on the species of bird and the nature of that bird, and the weight on what it is going to do after the equipment is installed. I have some that stand on the glove straight away like it was normal, where others cannot try to get away fast enough. This is not a dog, kitten or budgie.
You will need to transport your bird home to its new chamber/mews, new words, later. There are a couple of ways to transport BOP, depends on the species and how it was raised and which one you will use.
A parent reared bird, species dependent will normally do well with transport in a giant hood or box. Not a cardboard box but I have used one in an emergency, but rather a box with a door on the front painted dark inside with holes at the bottom only for ventilation. More detail on a giant hood when we get to equipment.
Some BOP can be hooded, a small leather hood that goes over their head and covers both eyes. Both methods have the same goal, keep the bird calm.
With my first hawk, I used a giant hood. In the box he goes, and we head home. On the way home I had gone over the plan to get the hawk out of the box in my mind a hundred times. Part of the apprenticeship is handling BOP and getting them in and out of giant hood so nothing new there, except they were all trained birds and used to a giant hood not like my guy in the back, two rookies.
Everything was set at home, an indoor perch built, round on the top for the hawk to stand on as hawks stand on branches, water bowl to drink from or bathe in, food in the freezer. Food, what does a hawk eat? Not steak and potatoes unless you want a dead bird.
Dim the lights and open the door to the box, glove on the hand short leash in the right hand. There are usually 3 scenarios that follow, the first is the bird cowers in the corner as it is terrified, second is the bird stands there and you offer up the glove and it steps up onto the glove and the third is the bird becomes a missile out of the box at Mach speed. My guy was the second, he stepped up to the glove.
The manning process has officially begun. You will likely find new muscles as a new bird would like to stand as far away from the falconer as they can, the end of your arm.
Some birds will settle in quickly while others will open their wings and beak to look intimidating, jump off the glove and hang upside down, bite or any combination that they can come up with to try and get away. Patience as a falconer is a must as the BOP never make a mistake, only the falconer does.
Transfer the falcon to the indoor perch/block and move away. No outside stimuli are needed here, like the rest of the family, the dog, etc. Just you and the falcon. Sit back and enjoy the moment. You have a new hunting companion as a BOP is not a pet and you just started a new lifestyle, not a hobby. If you wanted a hobby, flying BOP is not it.
Manning a BOP
Article 4, if you are still reading these, thanks and enjoy.
In the previous article I had brought my new Harris hawk male home.
How did I know if it was a male?
BOP are different than songbirds and ducks in that the coloration of the female and male is the same. In BOP the female is larger and called a hen, the male is called a tierciel, a Latin word meaning 1/3 smaller. The hen sits on the nest as she is more aggressive due to size and the tierciel hunts as he is smaller and faster. An indicator of sex once you have experience.
Manning is one of the most important steps with a BOP, slow and steady wins the race. BOP see in two dimensions, so you are as long as you are tall - the BOP sees a giant. When you approach the BOP, the best way is to get on your knees, slowly move forward with a big piece of food on the glove being shown to the bird. Talk calmly, in a nice voice. The BOP may show interest in that it leans as far forward as it can to get the food or it bates off the block/perch trying to get away. If it bates, tomorrow is another day. A BOP does not need to eat every day, so it will not starve to death. Some BOP on approach may extend their wings and open their beaks to look intimidating. Trying to get them to eat is rarely an option.
I repeated this process for 7 days with my guy before he finally committed to the glove. Once the BOP jumps to the glove that is the only place where they eat. The falconer approaches the BOP with a tidbit of food on the glove, kneeling, show the tidbit and the BOP should step to the glove. If they will not step up put the glove low and as they reach down to take the food, slowly put the glove under their keel/breast and lift up.
Previously mentioned this is a BOP, not a pet. Most do not like humans, but if you feed them, they can be trained to come to the glove.
They learn to associate the glove with food or getting into the giant hood and flying which means more food.
After 7 days, my guy was standing on the glove, stepping up for food and eating off the glove - all was good.
Usually at the start of training the food is in real big pieces to get the BOP to commit and slowly the pieces get smaller. If you feed a big piece of food, the BOP puts on weight. The more weight they put on the less they need the falconer, no performance. So, you feed a ½ a quail on the glove the night before and all is good, the BOP is eating off the glove. Put the BOP on the perch/block for the night.
The next morning when you approach the BOP, it bates off the block away from you, wings are out, beak is open.
So, what happened?
The ½ quail that you fed last night was too much, temperature overnight was high, the BOP has not casted yet. (There is that cast word again but with a new meaning.)
Depending on the BOP, they eat differently. Hawks seem to break into the chest cavity and get at it, leaving the unchoice parts behind, while falcons will pluck feathers first to expose the chest cavity and then start to eat everything. All this food and feathers and bone is stored in their crop. The crop, which is acidic to digest what they have eaten as they really do not have a digestive system, breaks the food down. The good stuff goes through the system the rest forms a pellet or cast which the BOP throws up when ready. Usually 12 hours after they ate last, but each species and each individual bird is different.
The crop is located on the BOP chest and shows itself as a bump. Falconers will say for example “that bird needs to be cropped”, which for the non-falconer means that it needs a full meal.
As previously mentioned, the relationship between falconer and falcon is food primarily. There are exceptions but in this scenario the bird was fed to much the night before and will not step to the glove.
So, while about casting, how do you know if your BOP has or has not casted? The falconer needs to pay close attention to their BOP always. Are any predators trying to break into the chamber at night if the BOP is housed outside, broken feathers, bites from prey while hunting, etc.
Looks like another article on manning, but it is super important to get it right the first time as you cannot go back.
Manning a BOP, continued
Manning correctly is paramount if you are going to have any kind of chance with your new BOP. You must build trust, or a relationship be it based upon food. Making a mistake during the manning process will leave the falconer and falcon alike uneasy. Trying to rush the manning process to get too flying to quickly will end up with a falcon that is not solid on the glove, it will jump off the glove at the first chance to get away and likewise manning the bird excessively due to the new falconer’s lack of experience and reluctance to let their new bird fly usually ends up with a falcon that is frustrated and usually forms that frustration in aggression.
In this case, my male Harris that I brought home was freshly removed from the chamber, equipment was installed, transported home in a giant hood, and put on a indoor perch in a dark room for the night.
Manning began the next morning, just him and I. Talk to your BOP, tell it your life story in a calming voice, move around do your normal stuff as best you can, vacuuming near a new BOP is not advised, so a change in your daily routine maybe required. Maybe you had to go to work, the BOP will be fine if it is safe from predators, the household dog or cat. It will likely bait a lot the first day as it is not used to being on a perch nor used to the new environment and a BOP cannot be manned in a day. The new falconer will likely be stressed out more than the BOP and the BOP will pick up on that, so the new falconer’s mentor is invaluable at this point. Make a call.
My guy stood on the perch right away and would jump to the ground and back up but not step to the glove; fine tomorrow is another day. There is no value gained at trying to get the falcon to step up for several reasons, not in a specific order:
- A BOP freshly removed from a chamber will normally be high in weight, they have eaten as much as they wanted for 12-16 weeks. This condition is referred to as being "high", hence why they have no interest in food.
- They are scared. Remember I mentioned that they see in 2 dimensions.
- Some birds have long skinny legs, read Harris hawk and jumping off the perch while tied to it can result in muscle damage to the legs on the BOP.
Sometimes the falconer must pick up the BOP. This is not the same as the BOP stepping up on the glove, but the bird has jumped off the perch away from the falconer, (a usual sign that the BOP is indeed too high in condition or not manned properly) and has ended up on it’s back with the wings wide open, beak wide open and the talons looking for a target. 2 choices, walk away and try again tomorrow or pick up the short leash in the gloved hand and untie the short leash from the perch with one hand, (falconers' knot, later). So now you have the BOP hanging upside down via the leash in the gloved hand. BOP are not a parrot, they cannot right themselves onto the glove, so they need help. The falconer takes the right hand and puts it under the tail feathers and lifts the bird up onto the glove while steadying the BOP until they get a grip on the glove. This process may need to be repeated a few times but if the BOP continually jumps off the glove nothing positive is being learned here IMO, tie the BOP back on the perch using the falconers' knot, lay the BOP on its back as it is likely hanging down upside down anyway and walk away.
Tomorrow is another day and the next article.
A Few Notes and Pictures
Not really an article but a few notes and pictures to explain some of the manning articles, transport etc.
I received a call from my mentor asking if I had time to man and train a hawk for him, sure. My falcon is in the molt and not flyable and I enjoy training and manning a new bird.
The hawk is a male Harlan's red tailed hawk, freshly removed from the chamber, equipment installed and put in a giant hood on July 9, 2021, for a 1.5 hour drive home.
The same hawk as above and just finishing off eating. Notice how the wings are still a bit out spread, called mantling. This hawk has already been secured so he cannot fly away.
A first year female Harris hawk on a hen pheasant, her first time being entered or her first kill. Note the wings extended. Getting to close to the hawk now will normally teach them to carry their food away from the falconer, very bad. She can’t fly off with the pheasant.
In the previous article I had transported a male Harris hawk home, a new falconer, a new hawk, a new lifestyle. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
I could occasionally convince him to stand on the glove for a little while, just him and I, no outside stimuli. Each occasion he would stand a little longer before jumping off the glove and hang upside down, put him back on the perch and try again later. I introduced food on the glove, but he would not commit until day 7 and then the training really began.
Eating off the glove is a very big step for the foundation for the rest off the training. I mentioned previously that the first feeding off the glove should be as much as the bird can eat, a full crop hopefully and they will let you know they have had enough. A parent reared bird will likely mantle, cover their food with their wings so always keep your right hand away. If you don’t the BOP thinks that you are trying to steal their food and they will either grab you with their talons or jump off the glove trying to carry the food away. Both scenarios are too be avoided at all costs as it is teaching bad habits right off the start. There will be a time during the training when you are going to have to put your right hand near the BOP while it is eating but that comes later in the process.
An imprinted bird will usually not mantle and could care less if your bare hand is near their food but imprinting a BOP is a different level and I will describe it in detail later.
So, the first full crop has been fed on the glove, perfect. During the 7 days previous the BOP has dropped in weight as it has had nothing to eat, and fresh water must always be available. The drop it weight has made the BOP hungry and more willing to do what the falconer wants. A hawk will eat feather and meat, bone while a falcon not as much feather as they pluck their food, but both will have a cast that they must bring up out of their crop within 24 hours after being fed. The cast that I am referring to here is a pellet formed by the feather and bone that the BOP can not digest and must be brought up before the BOP is fed or flown. Trying to train a new BOP that has just been fed up fully and has not cast is usually a waste of time the following day.
The training continues with less food and usually goes like this:
The falconer preps the food for training, I use quail that I have breasted and sliced into small pieces or rabbit or beef heart this food is put into the falconer’s bag or vest. The glove goes on the left hand. The BOP is tied to its perch.
A piece of food is put on top off the glove at the thumb junction and is clearly shown to the BOP. The best way to do this is on your knees moving slowly and referred to as “making in”. Two scenarios normally follow, the first being the BOP turns away from the falconer and jumps off the perch an indication that the BOP is still to high in weight still or is not solid enough to the glove yet and requires more time on the glove or the second is the BOP stays on the perch.
The BOP may turn around and think about jumping. If this happens stop moving. The BOP will turn around and face the falconer, move again slowly with the arm extended as far out as you can, showing the BOP the food on the glove, talk to the BOP telling them “Hop”. The BOP will usually try to stretch out as far as it can and grab the food with it’s beak vs jumping to the glove, not committed enough. You may get cheated a few times but that is okay, the BOP is learning that the falconer brings food.
So, the BOP does indeed jump to the glove, now what? The falconer has very limited control over the BOP at this point, relax. Enjoy the moment and keep your right hand away.
The falconer will normally have to show the BOP the perch and try and get the BOP back on it. Hold the BOP lower than the top of the perch and say “HOP”. The BOP may or may not jump back to the perch if not there are a couple of different ways to get the BOP back on the perch.
One way is to put the BOP facing the perch and put its chest level with perch and lower your hand slowly down, the BOP will normally step up. This is the same technique used to pick a bird up off the ground. The other way is to have the BOP facing the falconer, put its tail over the top of the perch and lower the BOP, grabbing the jesses in the right and slowly pulling them backwards while lowering the bird works as well.
Repeat the process, slow and steady wins. If the bird stole food off the glove the first time this should not be encouraged as it leads to the BOP doing during flights to the glove. If indeed the first piece was robbed the falconer will need to hold the glove further away and anticipate when the BOP is going to grab the food.
Every time the falconer picks up the BOP for the next while there will be food on the glove. The length of time that the BOP stands on the glove can be lengthened before it is put back on the perch.