May 15, 2016

Photo Essay: Walking with a Hawk

I wonder, is there any activity I could want to do that I couldn't find some way of doing in Southern California? (That is, aside from factors like poverty and disability.)

Sometimes I think the limit isn't even the sky.

But the sky has been certainly good enough for me so far, whether it's for taking flight in a paraglider or a warbird or a sailplane.

And for a recent adventure, I took to the skies in a completely different way: by hoisting a hawk on my arm.

In the East County area of San Diego, where the mountain town of Alpine gives way to the Cuyamaca Mountains in the Cleveland National Forest, and where the Barona Group of Capitan Grande Band of Mission Indians and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians still control some land...

...there's a private ranch that doubles as a training ground for would-be falconers and hawkers, Sky Falconry.

With permission from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, it's one of the only places that a regular person like me—that is, without training or certification—can actually have a hands-on interaction with a hawk.

The key, of course, is wearing the proper trigger (the leather glove, on the left hand) outfitted with the proper bait (a tidbit of quail meat).

The hawks are tagged and rigged with bells so they can be tracked—because once they go flying, they really go.

Our bird for the day was a Harris's Hawk named Hayduke. (Or was it Haiduk? I could argue for either side, though most of us just said something that sounded like, "Hey! Duke!")

They're not really solo hunters—preferring to do it in packs—but because they're smart and cooperative, they're relatively easy to train. The trainer becomes part of the pack.

In our training session (which was kind of a hike, dubbed a "Hawk Walk"), we found out first-hand how one of these hawks hunts, soars long distances (including downhill), and gets distracted by some other movement in the bushes that might indicate a tasty snack.

Still, if you call his name ("Hey! Duke!") and make eye contact with him, he'll come right for you.

If you stand the wrong way and don't look him square in the eyes, however, you'll lose him to a nearby perch and will have to try to call him off of it. And that's not always easy, since being up high makes it easy to just sit on the lookout until something scurries below.

Harris's hawks are smaller than red-tailed hawks; and at only 1.5 pounds, they're surprisingly light for their size.

Although they're slower than falcons, they can likewise be trained to dive-bomb a target, like a piece of leather tied to the end of a rope...

...or some chicken feed thrown in the air, which they catch with their talons.

They save their hooked beaks for tearing apart flesh, which we, to our horror, witnessed when one of the falconers pulled two dead mice out of his pocket as a reward for all of Hayduke's hard work.

I think all of us tried bonding somehow with the raptor, but as a bird of prey, he does not want to be pet or cuddled or kissed. He'll tolerate the handling if it gets him food without having to work too hard at it, but he is all down to business. He does not want to be friends.

Harris's hawks are common in the American Southwest, and they can thrive in desert landscapes as long as there are places to stay on the lookout and stay safe from their predators (like bigger hawks and eagles—although they also do not get along with crows).

Quite frankly, the real threat to their existence is man. Although hawks are illegal to hunt, capture, and sell as per the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, they get zapped by power lines, hit by cars, and poisoned by lead bullets that they happen to find and pick up.

And since they eat rodents, rat poison is a problem, too.

Maybe if people could create an environment that was hospitable to hawks, they wouldn't have too many rats. And the hawks would have plenty to eat.

Like falcons, trained hawks have been used in poison-free pest abatement—perhaps most famously having shooed away the pesky pigeons of London's Trafalgar Square.

Early on in our lesson, one of my fellow students turned to me and mouthed the words, "Oh. My God." I responded in kind with a silent, "I know!"

Moving 3000 miles from New York to California five years ago wasn't just a change in geography and meteorology. It was a change that was entirely existential.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Falcon Flight
Photo Essay: Hiking with Baby Goats
Photo Essay: A Bird in the Hand

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