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A good beginners bird?

Hello, my name is  …………, I want to get into falconry and I was
half thinking of getting a  ……. (in this space put anything from a bat falcon to a lammergeyer), but, the only birds available seem to be redtails and harris’s. Are these good beginners birds?’
This type of phone call is getting more common (which is OK by me), but before giving my usual answer of yes and no, I’ll try to explain.

The following is written for those contemplating their first redtail or harris.

These two have become the most popular hunting birds in Ireland today and have largely replaced the more traditional goshawk for a few good reasons:

  1. They are easier to breed in captivity than goshawks (eunuchs are probably easier to breed than goshawks and tend not to eat their partner).
  2. The quantity and quality of handling at the start, to properly man or tame the bird is not so intense with a Harris or redtail. They are very calm and relaxed compared to goshawks and spars.
  3. They suit most people’s modern lifestyle and don’t have to be flown every day, although obviously the more hunting the bird does the better the bird will be.
  4. Harris’s and Redtails can be flown and hunted over any type of terrain available in Ireland.
  5. Like the goshawk and sparrowhawk and unlike the common buzzard (which was the traditional British bird for the beginner) the Harris and Redtail will catch things, edible things, game for the kitchen. Rabbits, pheasants, partridge, grey squirrel,
    ducks and moorhens are some of the tasty items on the menu for these two hawks.

These two species are opportunists, you go hunting but you don’t know what’s going to end up in the bag at the end of the day. (I’ve recently seen my old female Harris dive like an osprey from thirty feet or more into a deep pond after what I presume was a frog).

If you want to fly a sparrowhawk or goshawk don’t get a harris or redtail as a stepping stone, a bird to make your mistakes with and then pass on to some poor unfortunate. If
you want a Gos, get a Gos, if you want a spar, get a spar, (be verycareful here with weight control and diet). The enthusiasm of a serious beginner for his or her first bird should not be wasted on a bird they are not going to keep. Young Harris’s and Redtails are not very fast to mature, lack the size and weight of the adult and so are rarely at their best in the first year. In other words they only get better and better.

Let’s take for granted you are going to choose one of these two species and keep it forever or until one of you expires.


This species is orientated mostly towards ground quarry. The bigger females can take hares, but don’t count on it; the Irish hare is no sissy. Both sexes will take squirrel (not everyone’s first choice for main course). Both will take pheasant and other birds if they spot them on the ground, but in Ireland this species really excels at rabbits. The females will usually hold every rabbit they come in contact with, but being bigger won’t be as quick off the mark as the smaller male. The male won’t hold every rabbit it hits, but if you are going ‘rough shooting’ with the chance of the odd rabbit, pheasant, squirrel or moorhen then the male may be the more exciting option.

Redtails are said to have two bad faults, being moody and being footy.The so-called ‘moodiness’ (sitting up a tree and refusing to come down) usually comes after a failed attempt at quarry. A Redtail in the wild may sit for hours on a tree or post waiting for some creature to pass below, it will then dive down and try catch it, and if it fails goes back up on the post to wait for it’s next victim. So you can see where they get the patience. Good initial training and giving large rewards after each failed attempt will keep this problem to a minimum. The other problem is ‘footiness’ or striking out at your ungloved hand. This is something you definitely want to avoid, as the redtail, so the experts tell us and I agree, has a stronger grip for it’s size than any other bird. A lot of the time this problem arises from food association, the bird is tit-bitted from the right hand or it sees food being passed to the glove. In other words don’t let the un-gloved right hand be associated in the birds brain with food.

Most Americans choose the redtail as their first bird, their only other choice is the kestrel (which can be trained to hunt starlings and other small birds, but won’t fill your larder). They have to trap their own ‘passage’ bird – a bird strong on the wing and killing for itself. The bird’s next stage is to be tamed by man, one of its only enemies. These passage birds always carry a slight fear or respect for man, aviary-bred eyasses have never had this initial fear. So the American’s tame their already hunting hawk, whereas we try to teach our tame hawk to hunt.

What you are trying to achieve with your aviary-bred redtail is:

  1. Reduce her (or his) weight as quickly as possible to get her trained and killing for herself and to stop looking to you for food.

2.    Reduce her weight as slowly as possible to avoid hunger, sustained hunger can bring on bad habits. So you can see, as with any other hawk, it’s a fine balancing act.

Flying redtails is an under-rated past-time. They have a bigger heart and crash into cover that would deter most other raptors, when they go for it they really give all they have.
Some of my best memories have been with my female, hunting rabbits on the mountains of Wicklow, with the dog working below us on a bright and bitter winter’s morning. I was once quoted as saying ‘flying Redtails is like puberty, everyone has to go through it’. I don’t believe that anymore.

Harris hawks.

Named by Audubon after one of his cronies. Also called the bay-winged hawk, this hawk has picked up a few other names along the way, like ‘Mexican chicken’. The Harris is taking over as Ireland’s most popular falconry bird. It can be the nicest of birds – I have a photograph of my three year old daughter sharing a bow perch and hugging my female Harris (don’t try this at home folks, you’ll get chocolate all over your hawk). It can also be the nastiest of birds – a friend has a nice little scar under his eye after a Harris hawk took a definite dislike to him.

The one thing the Harris has in its favour is the fact that in the wild they hunt in a pack. Now, this is no small thing, it not only means that you can fly two or more Harris’s together, it also means that you are viewed as a member of the pack as is the ferret and dog (be careful here and socialiseall together first). It also means that the Harris naturally follows when you’re walking (to keep up with the pack), where the Redtail (usually a solitary hunter) needs a little bit of training to do this.

Most people that put Harris Hawks down (usually those that haven’t flown one), say they only fly half-heartedly at quarry. There are two reasons why it might seem to be so. With a well trained Harris hawk there is a big difference between its actual hunting weight and its top safe flying weight (up to 12% in my two birds). So the Harris that looks as if it’s putting every effort into catching, only to refuse easily taken prey is usually a bit high in weight and doesn’t want the struggle all on it’s own – if this was a pack situation it would have all the help it needed. So weight control needs careful attention if you want to catch
dinner. The other reason Harris’s fly half-heartedly is a simple but effective hunting technique, soaring away, minding her own business, (impersonating a vegetarian), then suddenly performing a spectacular wing-over and diving on some unsuspecting prey.

Like most other creatures that hunt in a pack, Harris Hawks are vocal, from near silent to downright noisy, so the age to take your Harris can be a problem. Cut a very young bird’s
weight too low too quick and you could have a screamer on your hands, (a noise that can drive you over the edge), leave it in the aviary too long and you will definitely have your work cut out just to tame the beast. Some breeders leave young with parents until November, twenty five to thirty weeks old. No thanks!

Tom and Jennifer Coulson, who hunt a pack of Harris’s say that 15 to 20 weeks old is the perfect age. Martin Hollinshead says very soon after hard penning (all feathers fully
grown).  My female was taken at this latter stage, was noisy for her first season (which I had to cut short to save my sanity), she is the sweetest bird to handle and quietly vocal only if anything strange is about.

Female Harris hawks are powerful enough to handle any rabbit or pheasant, but in woodland the smaller faster male really shines. Where he might refuse that big fat rabbit sitting in the sunshine, a Harris can’t ignore anything moving about in cover. Some of the
best fun I’ve had is in mature woodland with the male and female in the trees waiting for the Brittany to go on point, after the flush it’s pure chaotic fun!

Harris hawks at the right weight are lions in lamb’s clothing, my male and female have both taken cats, something to avoid for the birds’ sake. I know of two instances where females have struck large dogs, assault withintent.

So as you can see, Redtails and HarrisHawks are a force to be reckoned with, but are they a good beginner’s bird?  Well … yes and no!

Tommy Byrne 1998.