Sunday, January 29, 2006

happy lunar new year

To friends, family, and anyone else who enjoys this blog: may the new year bring you happiness, peace, and prosperity.

Friday, January 27, 2006

P in his new groove

Something I never expected to happen – P missed S. He's gotten over it now, but his frequent peeks over the barrier in the car and his middling performance in the field give me that impression. Since giving S away twelve days ago, we've flown five times and today he caught his first game. I'd been doing jump-ups with him – so much easier with one bird because the other one always knows what's going on – 75 - 100 daily. (According to Steve Layman who popularized jump-ups here, I should be doing 120 to see a dramatic increase in performance, but I do see it in longer, stronger flights already.)

However, P just doesn't stay as close to me as he did when S was around. Before, he followed better. He's been finding sitters a quarter-mile (or more) away, which is hard on both of us because I can't be there when he needs assistance. Today he kept heading at about eight-o'clock to where I wanted to go. I didn't know what he was seeing there, which was apparently nothing. After a half-hour of nothing he caught a sitter. This was along a levee next to a field of milk cows and calves. I had an audience of about fifteen cows curious about what was not having anything to do with them, and instead screaming (the rabbit) and cursing (me, because P wouldn't let go of the rabbit).

If I don't give in and follow him, he should eventually start to follow me.

Annoyance side note. Two months ago I became acquainted with an energetic woman who was completely taken with the hawks, S in particular because of his friendly nature. She loves them to death, and is devastated that I've given S to another falconer. Efforts to explain my reasoning haven't registered with her. She's so upset, one would think I'd put half her puppy in the disposal unit or something. And she's blabbing some kind of self-blame, as if I should have taken her feelings into account first. Hence, I'm annoyed. I don't need that. She's not a falconer; S is not hers to put a claim on.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

setting myself up for conflagration

First things first: I don't think men are better than women, merely different. The sexes excel in different things, which is why I listen to what the mate has to say if it's about falconry. There could be an angle I haven't considered because I don't think along certain lines. I know several women falconers who are more talented and more driven than good male falconers. Most of them can probably out-hawk me. Nonetheless, if there's anyone who actually reads this blog besides myself and Christy, someone's going to call me misogynistic sexist scum for the following statement: Most women falconers aren't great falconers. A fair number of men aren't any good either, but the proportion is smaller.

A lot of women come from the rehab end; they are nursemaids and doctors and comforters. Their hearts are large, and they give admirably generous pieces of it to the animals in their care (scrumptious metaphor, huh?) However, when they decide to become falconers, they tend to continue that practice of babying the hawk. They fear trimming back its weight because 'it might starve to death.' It's understandable: cutting back a bird's weight goes against all their urges as caretakers, and against what they have learned with sick birds, which grow weak and unable to eat with alarming speed.

However, when it comes to training, this attitude only leads to failure. A healthy hawk will be responsive and show strong interest in the intended quarry long before it gets to a starvation point. Cutting a bird's weight is done slowly and carefully, keeping close watch on response versus energy. Fear of starvation has no place with hawks over 18 ounces. (With micro-hawks, however, there is a genuine need for caution.)

Women falconers tend more to project behaviors as positive rather than negative: encouraging rather than cold-blooded evaluation. Here's how. The bird is learning patterns of behavior. (Come to the glove. Follow. When the falconer is yelling "ho," there's game. We go out every other morning at dawn. Plastic bag crackle and his hand dips to his pocket = incoming tidbit). The woman is more likely to interpret behaviors as those she wants to see, and to her the behaviors are nearly as important as the results. They're more satisfied with the bird simply trying for game, or simply following the falconer. The more mechanistic man, for good or bad, tends to ignore behaviors in favor of actual results. The male falconer and the serious woman falconer are not satisfied until s/he actually catches game.

The combined result of these tendencies is that women falconers are more likely to derive enjoyment from flying their bird and coming home without anything caught. Their hawks are too fat to be seriously interested in quarry, and it's okay with them. In short, mediocre falconry. Mediocre male falconers certainly exist, but they are acutely aware that catching game is the goal, feel the pressure more strongly. They will tend to keep trying until they get real results, or drop out entirely.

This post is not intended to discourage women from getting into falconry. It is, however, a recommendation (to both men and women) that they should understand their motives, what drives them to falconry, and to take the goals of the sport seriously.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

why I'm a falconry elitist

A falconry elitist is someone who wants it to be difficult to get into the sport. I like to see hawks served well by their owners. A raptor that is not being flown even once a week is a neglected bird. A raptor that is not hunting or taking game with its falconer has not been trained correctly.

All too often I see apprentices with no feel for the raptor at all. Admittedly, this does take time to develop. But any apprentice worth his/her salt will start to get an idea of what their bird is thinking, and be able to react accordingly, within a few months. If this hasn't happened by the second bird or the second year, there's a person who should not be a falconer.

To be friends with a hawk or falcon is a privilege -- you know it when they look you in the eye. Falconry is not a sport for physically lazy or thoughtless people. It's physically and emotionally demanding, and you have to love it in order to be any good at it. If you're not naturally talented (and I am not) you have to work hard to make up for it.

I have friends who oppose elitism, and I understand their point as a political position. As the laws are now, we purchase or trap our birds, pay the vet bills, feed and house them, think nothing of spending a dozen hours a week driving and hawking, buy the books and videos and equipment for their upkeep, and do all the thinking and worrying. Yet, we do not own them in the way dogs and cats are owned -- we possess them. Raptors are formally the property of the United States, and under that provision, they can be taken away from us at any time. And they have, for the flimsiest of reasons. However, if the laws were changed so that anyone can possess a raptor without going through the hoops of apprenticeship, test-taking, and mews inspection, they will demand more rights and change possession into ownership.

Perhaps, as an elitist, my focus is too small. I am sad for the hawk that is not being given sufficient opportunity to do the things that hawks do -- fly and hunt. I think that if anyone can have one, there will be lots of hawks sitting on perches (or cages -- shudder) being fed badly, and being released to the wild, unable to hunt on their own, when they're no longer fun or interesting.

Obviously, I'm torn as to which way is better.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Falconry meet (part 2)

(part 1)
Saturday, not the 13th.

At dinner we ran into another falconer who's starting a new female Harris and was looking for tiercel to hunt with her. He has that calm demeanor with a rich undercurrent of enthusiasm. Every year for the past six meets, I'd run into him and chatted a bit, checked out his first redtail. He spent a couple years hanging around before getting licensed. That kind of patience impresses me, because it's some assurance that he knows falconry is a commitment. Most people hear about the sport and immediately dive in, all impatient for trapping season, and only find out later just how time- and emotion-consuming this sport is. The bird is flown barely once a week, and does lousy. Not so with this guy.

Now, I love S. I've had him since he was fifty days old, caught hundreds of jackrabbits, well over a hundred cottontail, about a dozen ducks and a few pheasants with him. He's been my buddy for 9 years minus one in a breeding project. He works with P in the cast, is smart and cautious, is so well-manned he can ride the car without a hood, yet still hoods well, and loves hunting. Last season and this season I just haven't being flying as often as I should. It's hard to acknowledge that one isn't doing as well for a hawk as one could, but I had to. Two birds is a lot of work, and there are some things you should but can't do with two that you can with one. I also wanted to concentrate on doing more birdy things with P – crows and pheasant. So I offered him S, and the falconer said yes, he was very interested.

The next morning, at the pigeon derby, we talked it about it some more, and at the end of it I said, "If you want him, you can take him today. I think he'll be in good hands." I could feel my voice waver, the kind where it's better to disengage your brain from what you're doing. So I kept blabbing advice until we put S in his truck and he drove away. I would catch him at the end of the day, anyway. We spent the afternoon driving around with a longwinger and talking club politics.

We hooked up in the early evening and got the report: apparently S did fine, as he always does. When my friend went over a bump, he stopped and checked to see that the cloth hiding the dog kennel was still up. It had fallen, and, suddenly confronted by two dogs 8 inches away, S had his wings out defensively. But he wasn't bating frantically. That was good, and it was conscientious of the falconer to check, so I was pretty pleased and felt further assured what I'd said this morning was true.

So I drove home with just one bird in the car. P kept looking over the barrier to where S is usually perched. It's a strange step – P is my first candidate for giveaway, but he wants to kill dogs – but hopefully a good one for all of us. I think S will have fun with his new owner, learning to work with dogs and spending more time hunting. I'll be able to work more closely with P, who is a good hunter too, but a little too accipiter-like in personality. And I'll be able to shift focus from jackrabbits to a new kind of game, which will refresh my enthusiasm for the sport.

Falconry meet (part 1)

[part 2]
I attended the California Hawking Club meet in Sacramento Friday and Saturday. It was something of a rollercoaster trip – fun, scary, sad, boring, interesting, and finally not too bad.

The mechanical bunny track was very cool. It's basically a long string looped around a bunch of rollers, creating a horizontal track. Rollers can be placed pretty much anywhere, though the track should not cross over itself. The demo setup was about 50 feet square, with a V shape chunked out of one side. Powered by a wheel attached to a car battery, it slings your lure around the track at variable speed, and the zigzags imitate a bunny's turns adequately. About 7 or 8 people tried their redtails, goshawks and Harris hawks. We saw some good flights and some mediocre ones.

After that came the lure-flying contest. Lure flying is better than the pigeon derby because the former never takes as much time. There were 10 birds in all, though I only stayed for 8. A couple birds took off to check out something else, but eventually came back. The kestrel was quite interesting to see: she was honestly hunting the lure, and doing the classic kestrel hover in places.

By three I was ready to do some hawking myself. We re-found a field I'd flown once a couple years ago, where P caught a pheasant. Recent heavy rain had turned the field into mush. Fortunately the mud firmed up about 8" down, but it still didn't make it any easier. P grabbed something, hopefully a pheasant, but he ended up in the water on the other side of a creek 8 feet wide and 4+ feet deep. (Three feet I will do, but I don't like getting my crotch wet when I don't have an extra pair of pants.) The prey's back looked like a largish owl, and I was freaking out how to get to them, and worrying about what the owl might do to P – they looked about the same size. I heard a growling call, though, the kind that water birds make: like an adult imitating a kid going 'blaaahhh.'

A snag went all the way across the creek, fortunately, and I was able to retrieve them and only soak one foot. The prey, I learned later, was a bittern, but trying hide it from both birds and getting P off with a tidbit, I had no chance to really look at it. It seemed dead, so I bagged it (the birds would keep coming back to it if I left it there.) P was soaked, and in no mood to keep hunting.

Nonetheless I tried to keep both birds with me and kept on. S went to a nearby power tower overlooking the tules – excellent position. P reluctantly stayed on the T-perch, flapping to dry himself, and we slushed through the tules. The mud was firmer but the reeds thick, and I'd been averaging 6 hours of sleep, so I was wearing down fast. Two hens and a rooster pheasant flushed, and we had one adequate chase, but nothing caught. Finally, S dropped down onto a hen that was freezing. P followed, but landed beside them and didn't assist, the dipshit. A few moments later the hen broke away and S was left with a double handful of feathers. That was pretty disappointing, but I gave him a decent reward for trying. S went back up to the pole, I kept flushing, but the pheasants were all gone. Then S dropped onto something small, lost it, then darted forward and caught it – a Virginia rail.

Two illegal birds was simply bad, and the light was starting to fade. I was at the beginning of a creek which gets deep where the car was, and I didn't want to come out on the wrong side. Going up was obvious, but going down – there were several spots that looked like the creek's bank, and I couldn't tell which was the real one. Everything was mushy. Every step sucked my boot, and I had to take about 600 – if I knew where I was going. I dithered back and forth, prodding for firmer ground with the T and searching for the correct bank, lost sight of the car, and got disoriented. And, honestly, a little freaked because of my distrust of Bay Area mud, which just goes down and down. I know a falconer who sunk chest-deep in it once.

I think I must have walked twice as far as I should have, but finally I found the right bank and spotted the car. Staggered down about halfway, to where the firmer ground was, and practically collapsed on a conveniently dry pallet. I was so tired I was dragging the T-perch, having run out of energy to use it as a staff. S had mostly followed, but P was still wet. It took ten minutes to recover enough to lure in P and get them snapped into the car.

Then I felt the bittern move. It was still alive. I got it out of the bag and set it on the ground, but it was definitely in shock. It didn't get up, just swayed a little. I hate killing things, but I couldn't leave it in that half-state either. I squeezed it in the chest, which usually kills a pheasant in about a minute. Its eyes rolled up, and I took it to the creek. When I got there, it gaped a few times, its neck stiffened, and the bottom dropped out of my heart. Crap, it was still alive. I squeezed it again. Words can't describe how horrible I felt for making it suffer so long. Finally it was really and truly dead, and I put it in the creek.

End of a lousy day. It really was Friday the 13th.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

picture perfect hawking

I was wooed by a slender Nordic ice princess. No, not that way. She's a filmmaking student making a documentary on falconry, since one of her friends is one of mine. He flew his falcon, got interviewed, and forwarded her to me as a representative of dirthawking as opposed to longwinging.

She chose one of the hardest subjects to film. Falcons are a bit easier because the falconer has to find the quarry first and keep it there. The bird goes up and holds position until the falconer flushes the duck. Then the falcon goes down in a relatively straight line, and strikes or misses. In short, it's organized, and thus more conducive to being filmed than hawking.

Hawking is all about surprises. Quarry is by nature hidden, and needs to be kicked out of hiding places. Eighty percent of the time you have no idea where it is, or where it'll go, since the next line of ground-quarry defense is to run unpredictably.

For a couple of seasons I carried a video camera around. It was only after a lot of practice that I was able to catch some catches. And I already knew the signs of when to start shooting: the way the birds stand and move tell you if they've seen game and are serious about it. For someone unfamiliar with these signs, it's a free-for-all: you have to be filming constantly and react quickly. If you want to film a hawk catching quarry, the best way, really, is to set up the shot. Find a good clear space so the rabbit will be out in the open long enough for a good chase, and a better chance of being caught.

We did one session before Christmas, with the interview part. That day the birds were too high, and had some nice chases, but didn't connect. It turned out she'd left the autofocus off, and the flight shots were blurry, so we got together again today.

Surprises and unpredictability, I said. S went up to a light pole – good position, and P took the T-perch. I had not walked sixty feet into the field when P spotted a sitter almost between me and the woman. P landed it and stopped it in a puddle. I grabbed the back legs, got S off with a take-off chickie, and got P off with a chunk of jack. Less than 2 minutes in the field and it was all over. I got the rabbit away live and uninjured, and released it before the camera.

After a jackrabbit catch I would normally call it a day. She wanted more flight shots, and we did our best to accommodate. The field was still full of rabbits, but both birds had the edge taken off their appetites and were less interested. However, there was a smallish rabbit that was moving very slowly – really slowly, just keeping ahead of me. Doubly tempting. With a little cajoling with the lure I brought both birds to the T-perch, and continued to move forward.

The rabbit had tucked itself into a clump of dry grass. By now I knew there had to be something wrong with it. P took a lazy 25-foot flight, landed on it, and the thing didn't even cry out or struggle. Both birds received their take-off pieces and I picked up the rabbit. Not a single mark made by the hawks, but one of its back feet had a wound about a centimeter long and several millimeters wide. It seemed to be a little off in the joint, and just above it the leg was badly swollen, three times its normal thickness. The rabbit's spine, normally imbedded in muscle, was jutting out. I explained the catch was easy because the rabbit was weak and suffering, and it was likely to die even if the birds hadn't caught it. I broke its neck then, and bagged the body.

So for a half-hour of trying to get flight shots, it pretty much sucked. For catching game and doing the morally right things, it was great.