Flying A Cast Of Harris Hawks
Background of the hawks
My initial pair of Harris hawks' Judy and Victor hunted and bred together for more than a decade. Sadly Judy died egg bound and was replaced with "The Grump". This new pairing have hunted together for the past two seasons. They are far from the finished product as a team but many of the mistakes I made with my original cast did not arise with this new one, despite the female being a passed along bird with some basic issues (hence the name)!
I often fly a cast along with two pointers and two ferrets, so routine, control and practice is essential. I've also flown many individual Harris hawks in the company of other falconers.
When I was asked to write this article I was under no illusions that many falconers will have different methods and experiences. And of course there is a danger that it may be construed as an instruction on the way to do things. I can assure the reader it is nothing of the sort, but hopefully will perhaps offer to someone an idea or give an insight into a method that has worked for me and my hawks. Ultimately all roads lead to Rome!
This article relates primarily to hunting with a bonded cast - as opposed to flying two single birds separately managed together or gang hawking with individual birds together, which although it can be exciting and often a way of giving everyone in the group a chance to fly, it can on occasions be a little unsporting and often with a little risk. There are far more Harris hawks injured and killed by random gang hawking than is often appreciated.
The beauty of flying a cast is of course that you can easily exercise two birds at once and it allows you to witness the intelligence and skill of Harris hawks working as a team, as they would in the wild.
A key factor I've observed in having a successful working couple is the introduction and demeanour of the participants. I've found the best approach is to make sure that both birds are flown for at least a season (and a successful one at that) as individuals. It allows the bird to develop its own skills first, and also allows the falconer the chance to understand the idiosyncrasies of the birds - ensuring that they are dog and ferret safe, and also understanding their hunting weight and their response weight. When being flown together it's one thing less to worry about. A dominant aggressive male is best if flying with a mature female. Males with a lack of confidence can be overfaced by the female and end up sitting or keeping a respectful distance away from the scene of the hunting - missing out on the team work ethic.
Harris's are of course excellent as they can be flown well above their true hunting weight and will still be responsive enough to be under control. Its important in the early days not to fly the birds too sharply as it can lead to aggressive food driven crabbing, and should they kill; selfish actions and protection on the quarry. Habits that will become ingrained if allowed to do so. If flown at a response weight the birds can be conditioned together and encouraged to share their kill with good manners.
I begin the introductions with ever closer bowing out together on the weathering ground. I then move onto shared feeding on a paunched rabbit carcass (opened at the shoulder and rear leg). This is no guarantee that the birds will repeat this in the field at first, so don't be complacent. Both birds should be encouraged to take a good half crop simultaneously, then moving on to the trade off.
At this point there are a number of options if you have a suitable assistant to help. At this early stage you can trade one bird off and hand it to your helper, then repeat with the second bird. I prefer to get my arm and shoulder between the birds, secure the carcass by leaning on it, then throw a favourite titbit just out of reach of the first bird. Hopefully the bird will leave the carcass for it. Experienced birds have little difficulty in detaching themselves from quarry, where as eyasses will be a little clingy even if they try to get away, so it's important to make sure the carcass can't be dragged. If the bird won't move to thrown food you can also use a chick leg so the bird can take hold with its beak then gently move the leg away from the carcass. The bird will then follow. The whole process needs a little patience at this stage but persevere.
Once one bird is removed it's critical to immediately hide its route back to the carcass with your body. Turn you back on the bird and make sure the carcass is not in sight of the bird. If you're a little slow the bird may grab hold again and you will have to repeat the process.
Assuming all has gone well you then repeat the process with the other bird. This is the sleight of hand part where once the second bird is removed you need to quickly whip the carcass from view. I tend to stand and turn my back on both birds. Once completed I then call each bird up in turn to the fist to a small reward. The technique for this is to give the titbit to the bird then tip it off the fist with a quick turn. Move your body towards the second bird and call that one up.
I use legs from turkey poults which are more substantial than from day old chicks. They also allow you to feed amounts of the leg up through the fingers so you can adjust the amount of reward as needed. If the birds are responsive to this then repeat a few times before ending the session. Later when the birds are free flying this process will become routine to such a degree that the birds will wait expectantly once the quarry has been removed.
In the early days this will not always go smoothly and folk may find themselves a little slow in hiding the quarry - ending up with a bird coming back to it, or one of them jumping on the quarry as it's half away from view. Don't panic, steady the situation and repeat the process. It is important never to get into a tug of war with either bird, or at any time give the impression your stealing from them. Calmly and planned out is the best approach.
There is a failsafe emergency technique for removing the birds from quarry which I will cover later. Some people like to use cover cloths which are generally fine when dealing with an individual bird but can be more of a distraction for the falconer when dealing with two birds. Routine and sleight of hand is much more suent, however its always useful to have one in your vest.
A question I'm often asked is how you manage the administration of starting and finishing the hunting expedition. A lot of this aspect is a natural move on from dealing with the individual birds. For flying a cast, I take out three turkey poults and around eight legs for two birds. Generally I use around 8 turkey poult legs to recall the two birds for a few hours hawking - whenever a bird is called into the fist it randomly receives either nothing or a a couple of bites of a poult leg. If the birds are holding back a bit or there is a situation when you need to get instant control - such a calling away from a hazard - then a wave of a poult will usually prove effective.
My birds either singly or as a cast never get fed up anywhere other than at the vehicle. As a result of this routine they will finish off the hunt by flying back to the vehicle and wait for me. A drawback of this is they can fly back whilst you may wish to carry on near to the vehicle. A wave of the 'yellow ticket' soon brings them back to the scene though!
I'll give you a brief idea of how I managed a typical outing with an experienced cast:
The birds have been weighed and boxed at home. On arriving at the location I make sure I park in a place where the birds can safely come in to the vehicle at the end of the day. I will prepare their transmitters and choose the most responsive bird to be released first. For me, this is always my male who will quite happily hang around in a suitable tree whilst I prepare the female. If it's done the other way around the female may well have gone off to see something interesting whilst I'm preparing him. This is a pain in the early days - a key point here however is if the birds are flying loose together for the first time, or in very early days are crabbing, then make sure the other bird is not at height above the second bird, or it may well strike it off the fist.
I remove Victor from his box, fit his transmitter, remove his jesses and place a single flying jess on him. Then I release him. I then remove Judy, fit her transmitter (the frequencies are at opposite ends of the bands so there's no bleed through on the signal) and place two flying jesses on her. This allows me to identify who is who in the air from distance. A flying jess on hunting hawks can often be of use. Both birds are now loose so I pick up my ferrets/dogs and move off in the direction I wish to go. Providing the birds are on weight they will pre-empt this and will have flown ahead.
The term 'following on' for me is a misnomer with harris-hawking. I like to call it following ahead - birds will soon learn to move ahead of the advancing falconer like sentinels, or stay up with the dogs. An experienced cast will often place themselves one in front of the falconer and one slightly behind.
We move along and at this time I will usually call each bird in for a titbit, just to remind them I'm there and have goodies. Often they will mark a hole or cover they've observed quarry in (Judy would actually call me over). At this point you can place a ferret in, beat the cover, or send the dog into the cover, depending on the situation. The birds will normally position themselves as best suits but if one is not in attendance I simply call them over, or cast them to where I want them. Let's assume we've bolted a rabbit - Victor is quicker off the mark. He also tends to pay more attention! The rabbit breaks into the open, blocked off from a hedgeline run by myself and the dogs. He tends to tap the ankles of a running rabbit unless he's sharp set. He closes fast, Judy is on his tail and slightly above. He knocks the rear leg of the fast moving rabbit which tumbles over. He then peels off, letting Judy power through and in to bind.
I move over and dispatch the rabbit being held by the head by Judy. Meanwhile Victor is stood to the side of her. I let her feed on the eye and throw Victor a leg. I return and pick up the ferret. Within a minute or two Judy will be looking for her trade off so I secure the rabbit, turn my back on Victor - moving him aside with my arm - and take a leg out to give to Judy who grasps it in her beak. I gently pull my arm away from her and she stretches and moves off the rabbit. I move the rabbit into the back of my vest which I've already opened, stand up and zip up the vest. I call Victor up to the fist for a leg, turn off the fist and he goes back to the ground. Judy jumps up for her leg, then I cast her off and we move on - if the ferret hasn't resurfaced then we wait. If it's laid up then I can continue with her sister.
I only use albino jills so I can look back over the ground and see if she's resurfaced whilst continuing to hawk. Time is running out so I head back to the vehicle. As it comes into sight the birds will fly to the roof and wait for me. I open the back of the truck and put the ferrets and my stick away. The birds will be at my feet by now so I quickly throw two poults out - one left, one right. They each eat their reward. I call Judy up first to a leg, remove her tag, change her jesses and place her in the box. Victor will be close by and he knows the drill. He jumps up and I repeat the process, dogs in and home we go. It sounds easy, and it is in time, but many things can and do go wrong before we reach this stage.
Here are some common problems and how I've overcome them. The critical factor at the early stages is weight management of both birds. The birds must be at flying weight, not hunting weight. The idea is to practice the routine of hunting and of course you may well succeed in a flush/catch and need to react accordingly. Often with a confident aggressive male they may well be crabbing as soon as the birds are loose. This isn't to be assumed as handbags at dawn - it can be dangerous, resulting in injury or death so be reactive and prepared for such a situation. Luckily it usually happens within reach of the falconer. I move in quickly sometimes getting in-between the birds before they've made contact. If however its gone beyond that, a gloved hand may be enough. But if they've bound tight then I will try to move them apart by hand, obviously taking care not to get footed in the process. This also may not be enough especially in the early days. A simple and safe technique I've found that works is to pick both birds up to shoulder height and drop them. Their instinct to fly takes over and they separate. Assuming they don't, ensure you pick your ground appropriately!
This crabbing may go one on for a few weeks with varying levels of severity. It can be frustrating and concerning, and it is during this stage the falconer has to make the difficult decision as to whether to persevere or not. If you can keep them apart long enough to move quarry this certainly helps focus their attention elsewhere. Calling in needs to be worked at. This is where the weight control is critical the response must be good but not so that one bird is sharper than the other, or it will attempt to dominate the call to the fist. A number of movements you are carrying out are the opposite of what you would want to do with a single eyass - i.e. turning your back or tipping off the fist, hence the benefits of using seasoned birds. Call the birds in - I whistle short and sharply - the first to the fist gets a small bite of leg which is pinched tight between finger and thumb. It is turned off the fist to the floor or preferably cast to a perch, then turn your back on the bird or reposition yourself. Call in the other bird, reward, and move on. Also, when I say 'called to a leg' I rarely give them a whole leg unless after a kill - they just get a nip, so a leg will last 3 or 4 calls in this manner.
Often you may find that birds go in two different directions. The main thing is to get one of them back with you. If they are some distance I may resort to a wave of the 'yellow ticket'. The routine of end of day feeding tends to make their response to this very good. My male is a lot more biddable so he will always come back first. Once he expresses an interest in potential quarry the female usually soon joins him. You can choose to wait for this or just carry on with a single bird until the other wakes up to proceedings. There may be no perches available for the birds to position themselves for a slip. They can of course fly off the floor but if it's wet then you want to avoid birds on the ground. Generally my routine is that I take the female on the fist and then the male chooses to goes atop my head ( I've a hat on of course!). Obviously if you've an assistant so much better, but I primarily hawk alone with Harris hawks.
I've had situations where both birds have killed simultaneously. Dispatch the nearest quarry quickly and secure it. Leave the bird feeding, and dispatch the second. Secure it and return to the first bire. Pick up first bird, hood and secure them, then deal with second bird. Pop your quarrt away in your bag, hoods off and move on. The use of hoods in a cast can be a lifesaver, although the time they both killed a mallard each in different ponds was a rather more demanding situation. Wet birds need to be carried back to the vehicle on the fist so again hoods come into their own because cast flown birds are used to making their own way back and will bate to find a place to dry out first - which is going to mean a long wait if you let them do so. If one is dry so much better, as it can make its own way back. This is also where the feed up at the vehicle routine can pay dividends. The birds soon come to realise when the day is done and will often fly well in advance and await your arrival.
The Final Feed Routine
Initially the keenest bird is fed secondly. The other is called to the fist and given a full chick, and whilst eating the jesses are changed, equipment fitted and telemetry removed. The bird is then placed in the box, and it may well take a small remainder of food in with it if it is easy to do so. The second bird is then called up and the process repeated. Later once you know your birds well enough, you can feed each one on the floor - calling up the first to finish to a chick leg and placing away, then repeating. Be aware a sudden spooking by an unexpected walker, random dog or suchlike that can result in the birds flying off with their meal. So care must be taken, upon arriving home the birds are called out of the box in turn for the remainder of their ration as you see fit to maintain or achieve the weight you want next day. Place them in their mews - mine live free lofted and usually go in with this last bit of food.
Over many seasons the birds learn to work as a team. I've often observed Victor moving on the ground in cover to flush unseen game with the female waiting above for her chance, or he will push rabbits through hedgelines with her waiting on the opposite side. The only items he is totally selfish about are mice which he will guard vociferously!
You will require a good degree of patience in your approach to cast hawking in this manner. It's certainly not always going to work like clockwork, especially in poor weather, and will take many attempts to find and maintain the optimum weights throughout the season. A gradual build up approach will allow you to slowly gain confidence and control - enabling you to work with your team. When you are confident in the control you can move forward into introducing the ferrets and dog/dogs. There will be times when it will frustrate you with laid up ferrets, or wayward birds that require you to think on your feet and make decisions as to how to maintain control. But the rewards are immense there is nothing quite so nice as a pair of hunting birds soaring overhead on a mountain, watching you and the dogs work the bracken or calling you over to marked quarry and it is extremely satisfying to have them responsive to your every movement.
Administration and basics are critical. Slick drills and skills will allow you to get both birds up and hunting quickly from the outset. There have been a number of occasions where I have been distracted - such as by an approach from the landowner or stranger, and by the time I've got the second bird up, the first is nowhere to be seen! Usually sitting tightly on a kill. There will be times when you have to return one bird to the vehicle and go recover the other, often finding the errant one will show up as you reach the vehicle!
Many people can fly an individual Harris hawk. Many can fly them well - that is the strength of the species and sadly often their failing. They flatter the most inept, or provide great enjoyable sport to those who have a more relaxed approach, but if you want a little more of a challenge - to condition, manage and maintain a successful hunting cast alone in the field, then this will give you a genuine measure of your skills - weight control, administration and understanding of these sublime birds of prey.