Falconry for beginners
Falconry for Beginners
By Dick Knight
In 2009 Jan and I had a half day’s introductory experience of falconry which we were given as a Christmas present. We enjoyed it so much that this year we were given a day’s hunting with hawks.
David Hughes runs Hawkwalk from his home near Didcot where he keeps birds of prey from a Little Owl to an Eagle Owl in size. Having booked a date in September we arrived at Dave’s house at 1000 for a welcoming coffee at the large garden shed that he uses for his equipment, taken while watching the 3 Kestrels and the Peregrine Falcon on their perches in front of us. Because we’d previously done the half day with him we agreed that we didn’t need to have the equipment explained again but we did want a refresher on the correct way to hold a bird on the glove. Gloves on, we were introduced to a selection of his birds. The Peregrine was first. He’s called Wiggins because you could imagine his moustachial stripes as sideburns and he’s one of very few pure-bred Peregrines in British falconry today. He was quiet on the glove but very alert to a Red Kite that drifted over the garden. Next was a male Sparrowhawk called Spindle. I’m used to seeing Sparrowhawks in the garden, usually females, but I was surprised how small this bird was close up. He was also a bit scruffy, apparently even after moulting into fresh plumage. Bob is an elegant looking Peregrine saker cross, named for his habit of bobbing his head. The Goshawk was an angry-looking bird, glaring at you with his large orange eyes and frequently stretching his wings in the gusty breeze. Reg is the Little Owl, named after a friend of Dave’s. The Long-eared Owl was named Leo by Dave’s daughter – Long-Eared Owl – I didn’t get it until it was explained. The Common Buzzard was another angry-looking bird which kept exercising his wings in the wind. His size on the glove was imposing although the weight didn’t feel as much as I expected: his hunting weight is 2lb 4oz. Boo, the Eagle Owl was another matter. On the glove he looks down on you and after a while you are aware of his weight. Flint is a Tawny Owl. You or I can stroke his feathers safely but Dave admits that he has upset Flint somehow in the past, he doesn’t know how, but Flint clacks his beak at Dave if he’s close and Dave is very careful about his ungloved arm. Throughout we were talking about all aspects of the birds, from the practical, like breeding and feeding, to the history of falconry via the esoteric, like birds in mythology.
Dave has a field behind his house, grazed by sheep and chickens, with a roped-off area about 100 feet square in the centre. We took the Peregrine out first. Dave hasn’t had Wiggins long and is still training him. Jan and I stood at the entrance to the square while Dave launched Wiggens and swung the lure, pulling it out of reach on each pass. Wiggins was getting the idea of flying into the wind to get height but diving downwind for speed in the attack and using the hedgerow for cover at times. At one point he looked like landing on the house roof until Dave called and gave the lure more vigorous swings as he doesn’t want a bird to think it can take a rest during a public demonstration. I have no idea of the time we spent marvelling at the speed and agility but it was probably after about 10 minutes when Dave could see Wiggins starting to pant so he was allowed to “kill” the lure. It’s a balance in giving the bird a good workout but not exhausting it. We walked back to the garden and got Primrose, the Kestrel. This time Jan and I stood at opposite sides of the square. Dave put Primrose on my glove, walked to Jan, put a bit of food on her glove and Primrose launched herself for it. Food is bits of one day old male chicks, the waste from a local poultry breeder. Jan was at the upwind end of the square so she had the bird take off into wind and do an immediate turnabout whereas I saw the turnabout as the bird landed on my glove. We flew Primrose glove to glove about 4 times – Dave must walk miles. Again, it’s a balance of exercising the bird without it getting much above optimum flying weight from the bits of food. The last bird we flew in the morning was Boo, the Eagle Owl. Seeing a bird that size flying low towards you is intimidating and I instinctively held my arm at full stretch as it landed but still got brushed by one wing in the process!
Having made sure the birds were settled on their perches in the garden or in their cages we went down to the pub for lunch. The current owners of his local took over at about the same time as Dave started Hawkwalk as a business so they support each other. That’s how villages work. It also helps that it’s a good pub.
Back at the house after a splendid light lunch Dave loaded up his car with 2 Harris Hawks and a Spaniel and we set off for some fields about a mile away. Apparently he has permission to hunt over about 2000 acres in the area. Having parked inside the gate to the field Omar and Taffie were fitted with radio transmitters to their tails then transferred to our gloves and we walked to the boundary between 2 fields. The wind had got stronger and more gusty and Omar kept spreading his wings and falling off my wrist. Dave picked him up and repositioned him on my glove a couple of times then decided that the birds would be happier flying free in the conditions. The field boundary comprised a water-filled ditch with Willow trees and thick undergrowth, mainly nettles and brambles. We started walking beside the edge of the ploughed area on the upwind side of the trees. Dobbie the Spaniel worked the undergrowth while the hawks flew from branch to branch watching for any prey, bird or mammal, which might be flushed. The theory is that the birds fly a leapfrog pattern so one is watching while the other repositions, but it took a while for them to get into the routine. Dobbie wasn’t flushing anything despite frenetic searching of the undergrowth but after a while Taffie dropped onto something on the other side of the ditch. Dave managed to get over the water and through the brushwood with some effort to discover the “kill” was the very rotten carcase of a rat. He’d just about got Taffie separated from her “kill” and back into hunting mode when Omar dropped onto something. This time it was a kill – a vole. As we walked the field edge, as well as watching the hawks work we had views of Buzzards and a Peregrine, the latter perhaps from Didcot power station. At the end of the field we took the track over the ditch to the downwind side and walked slowly back to the car. The difference in the wind strength was noticeable despite the thin cover from the trees. Rather than fly from branch to branch all the time the hawks were happy occasionally to land on the ground and walk beside us. I don’t know what I did to upset it but one of them flew from behind me and clouted me on the head with a wing: I didn’t hear a thing until it was too late. We had much discussion about hunting and the law. Each of his birds is licensed to take only certain prey, but how do you tell the bird that? And a bird you could legally shoot but isn’t on the license can’t be taken. The law is a ass, to quote Dickens.
Dave was apologetic that we didn’t get to see the birds catch anything interesting, partly due to the wind, but we considered it a privilege and fascinating just to be out with the birds and to see them working and you can’t change the weather if it doesn’t suit. We were about 100 yards from the car when the blue sky disappeared behind an enormous Cumulo-nimbus which tried to break the local rainfall record. The Willows provided no cover despite our attempt to find shelter so we tried to be the shelter for the birds and Dave fed them to take their minds off the rain as they sat on our gloves. Checking them over he discovered that one of them had managed to lose the battery from their radio transmitter. What a good job they hadn’t decided to go independent. The storm blew through fairly quickly but we were drenched and we agreed there was no point in trying to continue hunting as the wind hadn’t moderated and it was 1630. In the short walk back to the car we managed to get a bucketful of mud on each boot while the hawks rode in style on the glove.
I have to declare an interest. In his other job (which pays the mortgage) Dave is a work colleague of our daughter’s partner. Dave is passionate and very knowledgeable about his birds and we found the day with him educational and, at times, thought provoking. He tells it as he sees it rather than necessarily keeping to the party line. As important, it was fun. Since our kids gave us the half day experience in the first place, we returned the favour and gave them and their partners a half day which they took about a month before our day’s hunting. They are not birders and were sceptical about it (eg I don’t like flappy things), but the grins on their faces when we met them afterwards and the animated conversation over lunch at the pub made it worthwhile. If you’d never thought of trying falconry, give it a go.
Hawkwalk – www.Hawkwalk.org