The Vizsla Newzsletter (Feb / March 99)
Introduction to Falconry in the USA

Introduction to Falconry in the USA

By Diane J. Blackwood

Before the the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed in the 1960s, hawks and falcons were often considered vermin, with bounties even offered at times, and falconry was completely unregulated. Now, in the US, falconry is allowed only under a joint State/Federal permit/license system. To obtain a permit, a person must pass a written exam, find a sponsor for their two year apprenticeship and have facilities inspected. An apprentice is strongly encouraged to start with a passage (trapped in the fall of the birds first year) red-tailed hawk (RTH). This is because a RTH is a good game hawk, has healthy wild populations all over the country, is fairly tolerant of beginner errors and the passage bird is fully capable of taking care of itself if lost in the field. In addition, a regular hunting license, duck stamps, etc. must be obtained for hunting.

Image: "Throw the BALL!!!!" say three eager Vizslas.
Photo by Susan Straughan

Harris Hawks:
I fly two Harris Hawks, both passage birds. Harris Hawks are one of the few/only species of raptors that actively cooperate in hunting. This, their mellow disposition toward each other, and aggressive nature on prey have led to their popularity in falconry. The female, Rusty, trapped in Dec 1991, flies best around 910g. She taught me a lot of what I know about hunting rabbits, upland birds and ducks. My prior birds, Kestrels and a Red-shouldered hawk, hunted mice, rats, herps and sparrows. In the 1991-92 season Rusty convinced me of the need of a pointin g dog to help find pheas ant and other upland birds. I started resear ching dog breeds and lines within breeds to choose our hunting companion. I finally settled on a 9 week old female Vizsla, Farli, in Sept 1993.

Unfortunately, I also moved away from prime upland bird hunting areas to SE TX were upland birds are few and far between. She has hunted more rabbits than anything else. I trapped my other Harris, a male I named Pablo, at 580 g, in Nov of 1997.

First Pheasant Hunt of 1998 in October:
This fall we went hunting several times at San Jacinto Wildlife Area. (phone 909-654-0580, Directions: I-15N, I-215N, exit Ramona Expwy E, follow several miles, L on Davis Rd (a dirt road that goes through Wildlife area to 60 in Moreno Valley).

We started hunting where the canal crosses Davis road just S. of the office area. Farli had to wait in her kennel while I put telemetry on Pablo and prepared other gear. Farli whined and shook in anticipation of the coming hunt. I sent the birds out to get adjusted to the area, finished cutting up food for tidbits and changing boots and started out with dog and hawks. Pablo flies high and used the trees for perches. Rusty flies hugging the ground and used a telephone pole and the backpack I wore for perches. Farli ran ahead and into the stands of tall weeds on each side of the dirt road. She quickly disappeared, but could be followed by watching the weed tips move and listening for her bell. As the weeds were above head level and quite thick, I stayed on the road.

Image: Ziggy (Tailer Made of Szep-Allat) with Yvonne Barton.
Photo by Susan Straughan

Not too long after we started along a tree/mini-canal line Rusty (female Harris trapped Dec 91, 900g) went after something on the ground, but missed, perhaps a mouse. We could not get her attention. Farli (Vizsla) was interested in something on the other side of the water, but not on point or real sure. It had been almost a year since she had smelled a pheasant. Then a pheasant flushed across the water. Rusty was still intent on ground prey. Pablo (male Harris trapped Nov 97, 550g) was up and watching, but did not chase. These were probably the first pheasant Pablo had seen. He was quite unsure of what to do with the pen raised quail when first introduced last March. Farli, Wesley and I went around to the other side (upwind and the direction the birds were). Farli went back to the tree line to hunt. Wesley and I walked parallel to the trees a little bit out. Behind us, Pablo flew out from the trees and dove in the grass. A pheasant flushed. This was pretty neat that Pablo made an attempt on a bird many times his size on the first day he had seen one. I know that serious gun hunters don't shoot birds on the ground, but hawks are more interested in dinner than rules, besides they seldom hit as the talon hit pattern is very small. Actually, a Harris or Red-tail has the best opportunity when attacking the pheasant on the rise when cooperating with a flushing packmate (conspecifics, dogs or humans). In this case, Rusty fell down on the job as she was still after mouse or rabbit on the ground.

We went back and finally got Rusty's attention. One more pheasant flushed wide which Rusty did tail-chase over the field. Wesley, Farli and I tried to follow. The cover was thick with many plants over my head.

On the way Pablo followed and soared/flapped nicely about 50 to 100 feet overhead. This survey-flying overhead is another characteristic that is nice to see in Pablo and I need to encourage. I wish I could have flushed something while he was up there in perfect position to start a prey-catching flight.

We finally found Rusty, it was clear that even if she had marked where the pheasant had put in, there was too much cover for hiding a running bird. Pheasants can fly faster than Harris Hawks in straight and level flight, so we have often caught pheasants on a re-flush. But with the quantity (several hundred acres) and quality (thick and tall) of cover, there was little chance of finding and following a running pheasant. So we returned to the ditch and trees to hunt the field's edge.

The birds flew up to power poles and sat while Farli and I hunted on. They followed pretty well as long as Farli was actively hunting. When Farli overheated and started sticking to the road, they lagged pretty far back. When we got to some trees, Farli perked up as a pheasant flew out of a tree. I think I flushed that one as I was closest. Rusty came on up to join us. I ended up making Farli rest in the shade for 5 minutes. Then we moved on. At the next group of trees, we again tried to rest the dog as she was overheated. That area had old foundations and may have been an old farm yard. I saw some water that had pooled from leaking irrigation pipes. We went down and sent Farli in to cool off and lay in the mud. Some clouds also came by to help cool things and Farli's hunting picked up.

We then walked along another small irrigation ditch/canal with trees. About a third of the way down, I lost sight of both birds as they were lagging behind. I took out one of the rats and cut it up to have tidbits and attract their attention. I saw Rusty come up out of the grass. I called them and got both birds.

We had made our way back to the biggest water ditch by now. Farli, Rusty and I crossed the main waterway, by wading and we then worked the area between that and Davis Road back toward our van. The ground cover of grassy weeds was not as thick or tall as on the E side of the water ditch. I walked on a swath that had been cut. I sure wish they had cut swaths through the other side to chop of some of that continuous cover. Farli quartered back in forth in front of me. Occasionally she focused on the thicker weeds along the ditch and lagged. I waited to let her check things thoroughly. When satisfied, she ran by to work ahead of me again. About 3/4 of the way back to the van, the tail wag speeded up and she made shorter casts to come on to a nice solid point. Rusty was riding the backpack so I was ready to approach. In order not to dislodge the hawk, I could travel no quicker than a fast walk. I tried to circle about, but probably came up too much from behind. Any way as I approached and was about 20-30 feet back, Farli couldn't stand it. She crouched deeper. I thought about reminding her with a 'whoa' as I could see the stress building. But I could not really enforce any command with Rusty on the backpack. Anyway she pounced and flushed the pheasant. Rusty launched with a powerful push off the backpack and chased in deadly earnest. Farli started to chase, but fortunately she has no hope against these wild birds and stopped on her own. I could see the pheasant beginning to pull away as the two birds sped across the ground and through the trees along the water way out of sight. As this section of ditch had deeper water, I waited to see if Rusty would return. Quite often she returns if prey gets cleanly away. After a bit she did return. We continued on toward the van with renewed interest and enthusiasm from hawk and dog, but saw no more pheasant that day.

I returned home with the two hawks and dog I started with, so in falconry terms it was a good hunt. Catching a pheasant would have been thrilling, but that there are more that are hunted and chased is why it's "hunting" and not "finding" or "killing."

Good hunting all, Diane, Rusty, Farli and Pablo

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