Alice : A female sparrowhawk.
As I am writing this I am also looking out the window at Alice in her aviary,
sitting as usual next to her mate in an open fronted pen, surveying as only a
queen can, over what she knows to be her territory. She is nine years old this
year, and looks out over the scratching chickens and watches the children and
dogs play with disinterest. Further along the row of aviaries are other hawks
and falcons I have hunted with over the same distant hills and fields, but none
of them can claim to own the view as she can.
Alice was taken under licence as a white downy,
probably seven or eight days old, from a small mixed conifer wood not far from
where I live. In my wisdom her imprinting and training programme was planned
out in advance and left no room for failure or mistake. So, after making a
complete botch job in trying to imprint my first hawk I was left with a
noisy, screaming, and vicious she-devil. ‘Well done Tom, you messed up yet
Her initial training was smooth enough despite her incessant calling to
me to produce more food for her. So, I had on my hands a noisy but obedient
hawk that came when I called, but after my first few fruitless excursions to
the fields I knew I was doing something else wrong. I was a bit nervous to drop
her weight any, as she was obedient enough and definitely evil enough towards
me. After a couple more days of noisy, fruitless, perfect obedience, I decided
something had to be done, if only to prove to myself that she was not some
vegetarian double agent that had somehow managed to infiltrate my hunting
lifestyle. So I dropped her weight very slightly. I know now how Dr.
Frankenstein felt when that bolt of lightning brought life to his corpse; I had
just created a monster.
From then on we never looked back, I got a better understanding of weight control and condition, and she literally never looked back towards me but focused on what the dog and I could flush for her to catch. That first summer she taught me just how quickly a sparrowhawk can react. As we walked
through fields trying to find small quarry to fly at, butterflies would make my already thumping heart skip yet another beat in anticipation of a flight. On my upheld fist Alice wouldn’t have even flinched a muscle, if she could have thrown her eyes to heaven, believe me she would have. But if a bird got up she was gone. Before I could even make out whether it was a bird or yet another butterfly the dog had disturbed, the chase was already on, so I quickly learned not to hold her
jesses and leave the decision making up to the one with the brains in our little outfit.
Our team of three set out to the fields most days. Alice, the beautiful and capable killer, my Brittany, loving every second of finding, pointing and finally flushing stuff for her, and last, and by all means least, me. If I had any grand illusions about being in control, these two quickly burst my bubble, I soon realised I was only the transport and acting high-perch while the important ones got on with the job in hand.
It soon became apparent that pheasants exited her more than nearly any other quarry and in the early days we spent a lot of time in pursuit of them. Speed was not lacking on her part but pheasants are usually far too large for such a small bird to take down on the initial flush. But with the dog only too happy to find the bird again if he could, usually somewhere not too far from where Alice was taking stand, the second or third flush if we could get one usually saw results. Alice has caught quite a few pheasants in her day and the feeling of returning home with a big plump pheasant caught after a long hunt with a 9oz. spar will stay with me forever.
In Alice’s first year I flew her without telemetry and somehow managed not to permanently lose her, but after too many scares and being lucky enough to get her back each time, I vowed never again to take the chance. Many is the time I needed it, sometimes things just happened so fast I wouldn’t have a clue which way she went, and sometimes because she had killed and frozen on her kill as spars do, and there also was a very serious chance of stepping on her in the heavy cover. The first day she wore a transmitter on her leg was at a field meet and I
remember having concerns that it would get in her way. I needn’t have worried because as usual she didn’t let me down; in front of a crowd of onlookers she caught a swallow on the wing after a memorable chase around a large barn, hopped up to the fist for food and obviously accidentally on her part, released the swallow unharmed, perfect!
Just as a wild sparrow hawk would, Alicehas caught quite a range of prey over
the years, from her natural quarry of small birds like sparrows to woodpigeons
and feral pigeons. At one time I regularly used her to clear feral pigeons from
sheep-sheds and barns where they were causing a nuisance. She has caught a few
black-headed gulls and in another memorable slip she chose to take a herring
gull from a mixed flock of feeding gulls and crows. When I got there it was
fair to say they had an equal grip on each other and neither of them were going
anywhere in a hurry. I think she only chose this bird, which was easily six
times her size, because it was slower in escaping than the others, but it does
go to show what spars are made of.
When she was just a couple of months old she entered herself on rooks, after losing her for a while and finding her feeding up on a rook she had caught. So it seems she was a rook hawk, in every sense, and I took to driving around the country roads to maximise my chances of successful slips. The majority of crows were taken before they got a chance to get too far, but now and again the crows would be up and away. Anyone that came out to see my little she-devil, flying in underneath a rook, to take her precious head hold and pull it out of the sky had to agree it was spectacular. Over the years she has taken
many, many crows, not just rooks but hooded crow, a carrion crow, jackdaws, and
without a doubt her favourite of them all, magpies. It was actually a magpie
that cut a tendon on one of her outer toes causing her from then on to keep it
permanently folded up. This caused an infection, which took me some time to clear up, but luckily it never noticeably hampered her catching ability.
Catching rooks twice her weight on a daily basis took its toll on her plumage, especially her tail and the only supply I had readily to hand to imp with, that was near the right size were rooks tails, as you can imagine there was an endless supply. Wearing a black tail made her one strange raggedy-looking hawk and on more than one occasion people asked was she in disguise to infiltrate
enemy lines! But as each season passed thankfully she broke less and less tail feathers.
I fully believe why Alice was in the mind-frame to continually catch large quarry is because from her point of view, and being a full imprint, she was acting as part of a team. She knew that help was never too far behind; that if she just held on for a few minutes until I arrived she would have her just reward. Sometimes I would leave her on her kill and would lift her into the car and let her feed up back in her aviary as a special treat.
Most of her flights were after corvids and I usually limited such large quarry to one kill a day, but now and again when I knew she was on form we would take a chance and push things a bit, one particular day stays in my memory. We had just left the house when Alice slipped out the car window and caught a hen pheasant, this was one of the local
pheasants so I quickly took it off her unharmed and put in the hawk box to release again later. It was one of those days when everything just seems to go well and she caught a magpie and two rooks in quick succession without too much hardship involved. After such success we were soon homeward bound and that was when a full-grown cock pheasant showed up on the scene. The pheasant was on the road looking for a gap in the hedge to nip through when she hit him, but with such a size difference she couldn’t hold him down and was quickly shook off. The pheasant changed his tactics and tried for a vertical take off to escape, but in a split second she was after him, and as he tried to climb over the high hedge she bound to him
again and pulled him back down to the ground. A major struggle took place in the middle of the road and I got there as fast as I could to help her. I sat there with her as she fed up and beamed with pride at my little she-devil. This cock pheasant later weighed in at 2lb, 7oz, so including the hen pheasant, the two rooks and the magpie, she had caught approximately thirteen times her own weight, all in less than an hour!
It sometimes happened that I would run in to assist, only to see she had the situation so much under control that she would drag the struggling rook by the head with one foot, (she only ever caught rooks with a head-hold or not at all) while trying to draw blood from me with the other. She does love me really.
Once she gave a raven a slap, mistaking it for a rook in the long grass, I don’t know who got the bigger fright, the raven or myself, but she knows more
about crows than me and was wise enough not to get stuck in and came straight back. Another day she ended up battling it out and had to be forcefully removed from a full-grown Rhode Island Red that was minding her own business, I don’t think that chicken laid an egg or even came out of the coop for a week, even then only after checking that the skies were clear of avian attackers.
Most falconers have come to falconry through an interest in wildlife, a
fascination with seeing flights that the average bird-watcher could go forever
without seeing. Alice gave me some of those insights. Slipped after a starling, thinking she mighthave a good chance catching it in a straight flight, only to see her dip low
under a gate, angle herself at full speed through sheep-wire and take a
parallel route, having mentally calculated her distance, and flipping back over
the ditch exactly were the unsuspecting starling is still feeding. Seeing this
type of flight unfold close at hand really is the ultimate in bird watching.
Alice spends her summers moulting out in her aviary and in her third year she started acting peculiar, for some reason around that time we owned a cat, so maybe I can be accused of the same fault. Anyway, this cat, which just happened to be christened Dopey
for reasons of his own, spent a lot of time that summer sunning himself and
lazily poking his foot into Alice’s pen, and to my amazement she responded likewise, playfully trying to foot him. I left the two of them at it, as there was no harm being done, until I noticed that her tail coverts were huge and she was showing strange behaviour towards this stupid cat, and it finally came to me that she was coming into breeding
condition. I quickly built her a shelf and brought in soft conifer sticks and twigs, which she helped me form into something resembling a nest. That year and every following summer she laid eggs and stood happily for artificial insemination if only I had the natural (or unnatural, depending on the reader’s view) substance to inseminate her with. Without delving too deeply into my inadequacies and to cut a long story short, for years we had no success, and all we were left with were the basic ingredients of an omelette. One year she tried her best to rear a sick Harris Hawk chick, which through no fault of
Alice’s refused to survive, but it pushed me to provide her with a more stable and permanent relationship, (I know folks, reading “Mills and Boon” has a lot to answer for!).
Last year she produced fertile eggs for the first time,
now that she is living with a male of her own species. Not having seen any
signs of copulation and through every fault of my own, mostly through just not
being prepared, I only managed to hatch one of the two fertile eggs, and rear
one chick to four days old before it died. This year however might prove more
successful, and who knows, maybe one of these days I will venture forth to the
field with an offspring of Alice’s and start a story all over again.
Irish falconers are lucky. We might not have the proper
open plains to fly gyrfalcons and eagles, not too many perfect places to fly
our own peregrines at crows or game. Rabbits, hares and game birds might be too
scarce in too many regions to make hawking with larger birds worthwhile. But
the one thing we do have is one of the best and most versatile hawks in the
world. A sparrowhawk can be flown successfully in every part of every county of Ireland, every ditch and hedge holds its natural food and what better way to fly a hawk than in its own environment which is, let’s face it, every nook and cranny of the country.
Older and wiser men than me say that each man is allotted one good woman
and one good dog in his lifetime, I have had my dog, and my wife tells me not
to think too much about the other. But as I look across to her aviary and see Alice contently surveying all that moves within her territory, I wonder if the same applies to hawks. If it does I can honestly say I will be doing well to ever have another hawk that
could bring to me as much pleasure, knowledge and good flights as Alice has.