Falconry/Training Hawks

The Training of Hawks Edit

This extremely detailed treatise on the training of hawks is intended for a legally operating falconer who has just acquired his or her first new hawk. Please follow all applicable rules and regulations when dealing with raptors. Although this is intended to help advise the legally operating novice falconer through from every step leading up to free-flight, please consult an experienced falconer for assistance and for making judgment calls with any particular bird, since every one is an individual with its own set of rules.

The training of the passage, the captive bred juvenile and the haggard bird are the same; the eyas requires a different approach, mostly conditioning the food-provider image away from that of the falconer and towards appropriate prey items and/or the lure. Also the training of falcons from the point of creance training is different from the training of the short and broad-winged hawks (redtails, Harris', goshawks, etc.) because of the importance of the lure.

The training of hawks is not as difficult nor as mystical as some books say. It is a mutual bond based on respect, forged in food, patience and trust. One must never hit nor starve their hawk in their attempt to achieve this delicate bond. To do either shows that you do not possess the respect that your bird demands. A hawk cannot be dominated into compliance and starvation. This approach is simply heavy handed and cruel.

The passage or haggard bird will be fearful; this fear must be overcome to achieve trust. Once the new hawk is jessed and tethered to the glove, she should be offered small pieces of food. Most likely her hunger will not be great enough to overcome her fear of man at first, in this case she should be hooded up or placed within a darkened mew, tethered to her perch for one night. A hooded hawk or one in the dark can be offered water during this time by means of a squirt or misting bottle, and as the liquid collects on her beak she will drink it. The next day, take her up on the fist and again gently offer her small, bright red tidbits of meat with your fingertips. If she bites at your fingers, use blunt nosed tongs to hold the meat to her face. If she still does not eat, repeat the process the next day. Within one to perhaps three days she will come around - do not worry unless she does not eat within five days for a large hawk (700g+). Smaller hawks and falcons need to eat within one to two days from capture. Consult a vet at this point as the bird may be ill.

A trick that works well for getting a recalcitrant hawk to eat is to wait for her mouth to be open (most fearful hawks "gape", that is, hold their mouths open in threat) and then pop a small piece of meat into her mouth with the fingers or the tongs. Mist a fine mist of water onto her beak and she will swallow. The taste of the meat will trigger a feeding response in her.

Once the hawk does snap at the meat and swallow, allow her to eat the thumbnail sized piece. Offer her another one, and see if she refocuses her eyes from your face to the meat when she does. At this moment you will see her desire for the food begin to override her fear of man. If she becomes full or begins refusing the food, put her away and begin later. If she is still hungry and eager to participate, allow her to eat a few more pieces, and watch for her head to start reaching forward in anticipation of the food. Now you can begin to move the tidbits down a bit lower down her body, ever coming closer to your glove. Repeat this process of offering a tidbit, her eating it, and you lowering the height of the tidbit until she is eagerly snapping them up from the level of her own feet on the glove.

Begin putting tidbits on the glove only and cease finger or tongs feeding at this point. The hawk should at this point (please be sure she is still tethered to either the glove or her perch!) allow you to 'wipe' her off onto the back of a chair, her perch, or any other similar stationary object. Do this, and place a piece of meat onto your glove. Offer this to her at the level of her beak. She will most likely hesitate for a moment, pause, and then eat the meat like you have conditioned her to do. Repeat the process of offering a tidbit and lowering the glove until she is standing on the perch and feeding from the glove at the height of her feet.

Now once she is eagerly eating from the foot-height garnished (with a tidbit) glove, back off a bit. She will reach to get the food. Repeat this process after she eats the food, and move back a bit farther. She will contort herself into odd positions as she tries to get at the food without jumping or flying... but eventually she will give into her greedy nature and hop to the glove for the meat. Repeat this same action, every time moving a bit farther back in response to each successful feeding.

At this point, two things should be done - one, begin getting your new hawk accustomed to the world and its oddities; barking dogs, cars, the househould, and bring her outside. Also, she should not be perched outside until she has begun flying to you on the creance. If she is, she may bate repeatedly and injure herself as she has not fully come to understand the life of a captive hawk.

Once she has begun hopping the length of the leash, now comes the time for the use of the creance - a long, thin line (suggested creances are 30 to 100 feet of braided nylon twine or very thin parachute cord in a similar length - do not use twisted twine or fishing-line monofilament for this). Take her to a short length lawn (football fields, large backyards, pastureland with short grass) and bring a perch. Place her on the perch and holding onto the creance in one hand, offer her a tidbit on the glove with the other. She should hop to it as eagerly as she had done indoors. Repeat the process, and back up a few feet. She should fly immediately to you without delay. If she turns round on the perch, flies in any other direction other than towards you or tucks a foot up, then she is not yet hungry or well manned enough to begin this stage. Man her or put her up for the night and begin the next day if she does this.

If she does fly to you with eagerness, then fly her as far as the creance will allow. A length of 50–100 feet is acceptable. She should be so eager to fly for her food that she should be coming to you BEFORE YOU CALL FOR HER. Most likely you will not even be able to get to 75 feet before she takes off after you. If you must wait longer than one minute, flap your arms, shout, or put up with any other such nonsense then she is not ready for the ultimate stage of training - free flight.

Before beginning free-flight, there is one more thing that should be addressed; the falconer's insurance policy - the lure. Even if you never again use the lure, train her for it now. Fat hawks with no intention of returning to the glove will happily nail the lure out of greed. Tie a full crop's worth of meat onto the lure after calling her to the glove on the creance a few times. You should do this a time or two to cement the concept of 'lure = a full belly' to the hawk. Once she is done with the food on the lure, offer the garnished glove and hold onto the tidbit hard to prevent her from bolting it down or taking it to the ground. Eventually she will tug and be forced to step to the glove to eat. Hide the lure as she does. Out of sight, out of mind or possession for a hawk.

If she is a falcon, the lure will increase in importance from here. The next major step in training a falcon is to take the lure away from it just as it is about to lay foot upon it, making the bird wheel round, and attack the lure again. Once this is achieved the lure will be swung around artfully by the falconer in wide circles, encouraging the bird to make more 'passes' at the lure, to attempt to catch it. This becomes a game of "keep away" between the bird and the falconer, a game which challenges both of their skills and dexterity. The falconer's job is to keep the lure enticing, yet pull it away at the last moment, while the bird tries coming in faster, turning more sharply, and even anticipating the falconer's actions. A bird may make upwards of forty passes at the lure once fit. If the bird should catch the lure, the falcon is rewarded with the small piece of meat tied securely to the lure. At the end of the game, the bird is generally fed a goodly portion of food as reward for the entire exercise.

Another useful thing to do before free-flight is to call the hawk still on the creance down from a height. For some reason, a new hawk who finds itself high up in a tree can develop a habit of being 'blind' to the falconer. This can mean she is too fat, not manned (acclimated to humans and the human world) well enough or perhaps being up high is simply more enjoyable than being down near the ground. Either way, she can be trained to avoid this hawkish inclination of being up high and not coming down. Throw her to a rooftop or other similar object that is at least twelve to thirty feet up. DO NOT choose a tree as the creance tends to get tangled up in the branches. Allowing your hawk to get hung up by the creance is an insult to her... and it sets back her training so it must be avoided at all costs.

After being trained to the lure, she will be prepared for free-flight. Experienced falconers have seen the highly attentive 'look' of a hawk who is ready for free-flight... she is focused only on the lifting of the glove, the blow of the whistle, even the reaching of the falconer for the food in the food bag. These are the same actions that a novice should look for. Once she is at this stage, remove the creance in the flying field and call her. Most likely she is already on her way. If she does swing up into a tree, try calling her to the glove once more - then offer the lure with its full ration of food attached. She should plummet from the trees to either the glove or the lure.

All that must be done from this point is to take your hawk down, make sure she is at proper weight and that the wind is not too great for her (passage or new young birds especially can be lured off by the prospect of a thermal) and to bring her to a field where prey is known to be.

Once the relationship is established and trustworthy, the pair go out into the field. The bird is unhooded and, in the case of a falcon, quickly takes to the air. Hawks either hunt from the air, from a soar, from a nearby perch, or from the glove itself. Once the bird is untethered, the falconer becomes the bird's servant, dutifully seeking out the quarry and flushing it for the raptor. The raptor then takes chase, providing stunning aerial maneuvers. Hawks can seem to defy physics, and the falcon's stoop (dive) is recorded at speeds up to 240 miles per hour, and her turns have exceeded 29 Gs! To many falconers, this aerial display is the greatest reward, this close witness to nature at its most impressive gaining him a front row seat to what is inarguably the greatest airshow on earth.

Hawks are not exercised by chasing the lure, but instead encouraged to fly from tree to tree as the falconer walks along by occasionally offering the tidbit-garnished glove. Some falconers employ a method called "jump training" in which the hawk is required to fly nearly straight upwards to a height of 10–12 feet for a tidbit of meat. This can be performed many times, the reward being given intermittently (as psychology principles have taught that the intermittent reward is a stronger reinforcement,) to gain strength and stamina.