What’s the little hat on the bird’s head for?”
“Ah that’s just to protect his eyes so they don’t get damaged when he’ flying”
Hoodwinked, another falconry word that found its way into everyday usage. I looked it up in the dictionary: to dupe or trick. I must not be very bright because every time I ever tried to trick a raptor I always ended up losing blood. Now I don’t for one minute believe that blindfolding a creature tricks it into thinking that its night time, but it does have the same desired and instant effect.
Hoods have been used for thousands of years and not just for birds. Most wild animals while being transported are blindfolded to cut down on the stress levels. Hunting cheetahs were hooded in the same way as hawks so they would not see the chase in progress. A good idea I think, as I would not like to be holding one end of a leash if there was a struggling cheetah in killing form on the other!
Years ago most falconry was done off horseback and it would have been near impossible to gallop a horse and carry a hawk or falcon unhooded. The same applies today travelling in cars. Place your hooded hawk on the seat beside you and when you get to the field you have a pleasant, stress free little bird. Otherwise you could have on your hands a wild-eyed, panting, fire-breathing dragon with broken feathers and a frame of mind that would take her over the horizon in every effort to get away from you. So you can see that a hood is a handy little gadget.
Reasons for using a hood are plenty. Basically it is used to switch the bird off when needed. To work with a new hawk without one would be a nightmare. From simply trying to get a wild bird to stand upright on the fist, to tying food to the lure unseen, getting veterinary work done, blocking her from seeing a flight in progress, or to stop the bird seeing just about anything you don’t want it to see. It is used everyday and should always be nearby.
“No man can claim to be a master of hawks until he is master of the art of hooding” (Gilbert Blaine 1936)
There are many different styles of hood available. The patterns we see today have come from places such as India, Holland, the Middle East and the Russian countries and have been altered by hood-makers everywhere. The three commonest are the Anglo-Indian,
the Dutch and the Arab styles.
The Anglo-Indian is a simple one-piece variation of the Indian hood. The original Indian hood had no braces and was tapped into place on the bird’s head. It is usually made from medium to heavy thickness leather to hold the shape. These hoods are not too bad and if fit well they will certainly do the job. A blocked version of the same hood is better, this means adjusting the older patterns to suit a block but the results are much improved.
The Dutch is a much better pattern. These are usually blocked, which means they are moulded on a block and usually fit better and last longer. Originally this style had a very small beak opening, too small for the bird to cast through and so was impractical because the bird could not be safely left hooded alone. But modern Dutch styles have been adjusted to rectify this and it is probably the commonest hood being used for falcons today. The fact that this is a three-piece pattern allows it to be made in two colours, the eye panels traditionally being red or green to state whether the bird was a game or crow falcon. The Syrio-Dutch is another variation with smaller eye-panels set in and can look very smart indeed.
The third common style is the Arab pattern. These are usually made from very soft leather, because, instead of having the usual inverted V cut in the back to allow the braces to close, it has the braces passing in and out through the leather. When they are pulled tight the back of the hood closes like a concertina. This is the one type of hood that should be stored with the braces closed. This style and shape of hood particularly suits Sakers and their hybrids, as it allows enough room not to touch their prominent (or frog-like) eyes, which sometimes happens with the closer fitting Dutch styles. These are just the three commonest types seen today; there are as many different hood patterns available as there are different birds to put them on. The countries famous for flying eagles like Germany, Austria, Kazakstan, Khirgistan, and right across to China have all come up with patterns that are as varied as the weather. One interesting thing about some of these patterns is that they can be modified to suit smaller birds like Harris Hawks, which would have the same head shape as some of the eagles have.
There are some other hoods worth a mention. Rufter hoods were usually a very plain hood used when in the days when trapping was the way to acquire a new bird. The braces and topknot were usually dispensed with, as a newly caught bird would be wearing it for days on end. It was worn until a proper fitting hood was available, and as it was probably not going to be a perfect fit, (“one size fits all” type of thing!) and any topknot would aid the bird in getting it off.
Another interesting one was the spring-loaded hood, this contraption also dispensed with the braces and was press together to open it and released when it was on the bird’s head. I think this one became extinct due to popular demand, as I know if I was to use one it would either spring away over my shoulder never to be seen again, or else would be the cause of me receiving some major eye surgery!
Various leathers have been used to make different types and strengths of hoods, everything from calf, kangaroo, dog, and snake and lizard skins to the soft and surely very pliable leather from a lamb’s scrotum! We humans really are resourceful creatures. I think if I ever get around to flying a jack Merlin, I will make him a hood from some of that soft salmon skin all the super-models are wearing! Whichever leather is used there is still the choice of soft, medium or hard, (except maybe in the case of lamb’s scrotum, I don’t claim to be an expert but I would say that choice is ruled out!) Very hard leather will last for years and years, but unless it is an exact fit and the beak opening is perfect it will be worse than useless. If it in any way touches the eyes or cere of your hawk or if it irritates her in any way, she will keep scratching and trying to get it off. She will more than resent it and this will lead directly to her becoming hood-shy. This is something that must be avoided at all costs and if you have ever owned a bird that is hood-shy you will know that it is a malady invented by the devil himself to make us falconers pay for our sins.
Softer leather is, I think, a better option, obviously not as good at holding its shape long term and will get squashed if stuffed into a tight hawking bag or pocket, but for the simple reason that the birds seem to prefer them. Look at it from the bird’s point of view; I am sure they would rather wear something soft and pliable rather than something rigid. This is probably why the Man in the iron mask looked relieved when he was finally released.
On top of the hood is the topknot, this is basically a handle. Traditionally this was a plume, crafted from feathers of the prey that the particular bird hunted. But it can be anything from a simple tab of leather to a series of elaborate leather Turk’s Head knots ornamented with beads. The plumes made from cockerel hackle feathers and finished with coloured wool can look spectacular. The bright colours makes them easily found if dropped, but tend to get a bit dishevelled looking if used when out hunting in the field. Ornamental or plain, they all do the same job and give you something to hold as you slip the hood over the bird’s head.
The quality of the hood braces can make such a difference. Though commonly cut from calfskin, this can be affected by the weather. In very warm weather they can dry out and become loose, and on wet days they can expand and become so tight that instead of gently closing the braces you are more likely to pull the teeth out of your head. Kangaroo leather is a better option as it is not as prone to dampness or drying out. Gortex braces have been used in the last few years and seem to be the near perfect solution, as they are not affected at all by the weather. But they are quite expensive and can detract from the appearance of a nice well-made hood.
The length of the braces is important too. Personally I prefer long braces. Some say long braces hanging down annoy a bird but I never found this to be the case, and if the bird is properly trained to a well fitting hood in the first place this won’t even be an issue.
The other alternative is to have short braces. This entails putting your face up beside your bird to place the short brace in your mouth while the hood is still open and the bird can still see you. Now if you want to place your rosy red lips (which are difficult to suture by the way) right up beside a potentially hungry, flesh eating carnivore, feel free to, but I don’t see the point.
My advice would be, if ordering a hood to leave the braces long, as these can be cut shorter if you so wish, as the training progresses.
With all the variations in hoods, the most important aspect is that it fits perfectly. It can’t be too small or tight as it will touch the cere or eyes and cause no end of trouble. It can’t be too big or loose as she will see out of it, defeating the purpose and she will eventually learn to get it off. It is crucial that the beak opening is a good fit, allowing enough room for her to comfortably cast through. Check also that the hood fits well around the neck as if it’s too tight it would be very unfair to the bird. No bird deserves that. At least give ’em a fair trial before you hang ’em!
Carrying the hood in the field when it is not on the bird’s head deserves a mention. Most people stuff it in the hawking bag or pocket, but some have a special little container attached to their belt to put it in and keep it safe. Some have a clip on their jacket to hang it from, and some just stick it on their ear!
Some of the better hood makers create fantastic hand-painted collector’s items, with falconry scenes painted on the eye panels and are so exquisite that they could only be referred to as fine art, as they are far too good to use.
Collecting hoods is something that nearly every falconer does. Every shape, style, size and quality of hood should be kept, as it will prove useful when you least expect it to. When injured birds are handed in, the first thing that is reached for is a hood, and the time will come when that ragged worn out hood that you nearly threw away will help you in an emergency.
Look after your hoods well and they will last a lot of years. Mould will attach itself to leather very quickly if left in a shed in damp weather, this cannot be very healthy for the hawk wearing it, as damp, mould and hawks do not go together very well.
When damp weather does make the braces swell and lock, and it would take the combined strength of two heavy horses pulling in opposite directions to budge them, a few minutes with the hairdryer will solve it. If they become too dry and too loose allowing the bird
to take it off, try putting a tiny cable tie through where the braces are anchored to the hood and around both braces. The smallest black cable ties when tucked in the right position can hardly be seen and these can be tightened if need be, or cut off and replaced if they become too tight.
There will come a time when your faithful hood becomes worn out and dishevelled looking. Usually by this time your bird has become so comfortable in that hood that she will wear nothing else. A good way to restore it to at least some of its former glory is to re-block it. If you don’t have a proper block and the hood is in a really bad way, then you could try soaking it in cold water for a few minutes and reshape it over your fingers, rubbing the outside with something like a wooden spoon as you do. Leave the braces open as you do this, and then leave it to dry. When dry, you can shine it up by rubbing the leather with the dry wooden spoon. If you don’t have specialist leather lacquer (and who does only
specialist leather worker) a good tip is to use one of those neutral quick shoe shine products, a dab of liquid and a quick shine with the sponge will keep your hood looking nearly new.
So you can see that a hood is quite a piece of equipment, Intricate, useful, essential even, an aesthetically pleasing piece of art. It is all of these things and more. So why is it that the next time someone looks to me for an explanation, saying to me in that certain tone of
voice; “Hey mister, that thing on the bird’s head, is that a..…?”
Why is it that I know my reply will be, “Yeah it’s a crash helmet!
T Byrne. 2004