The best and the worst of hawks.
There are two types of falconers in this world; those that love Harris Hawks, and those that don’t.
If everyone loved the same things, if everyone agreed on everything and thought the same the world would be a less colourful and interesting place, so this surely can only be a good thing.
Since the first Harris Hawks were introduced into the falconry circle just a few decades ago this species really has taken the world by storm, shouldering aside the Goshawk and the American Red-tail to make a large space for itself in both Irish and world falconry. It is by a long stretch the most commonly flown Raptor today. People that could not otherwise have the time to put into a daily hawking regime can now have a bird that can fit into their lives; with an hour spare here and there and a morning out at the weekend. People that do not have the time to train and manage the old traditionals like Goshawks and Merlins can now classify themselves as falconers and enjoy their time doing it.
The old adage that if you don’t have the time you should not have the hawk, still holds true and always will, but what of these Harris Hawks that are not flown every day like the books tell us they should be?
I personally would be in favour of people flying their birds when they can. Every falconer knows that you get back from your bird what you put into it. Of course if the bird spends ninety per cent of its life tethered to a bow perch with nothing more to look at than a brick wall, this to me is wrong. If the same bird sits free in an aviary until it is weathered and bathed on the lawn, with visual stimulation such as a dog or even the crazy neighbours to keep an eye on, this is a major improvement. Harris Hawks are intelligent and need mental stimulation even more so than most Raptors, because in the wild they live in family groups and getting constant stimulation from the other group members is very important.
Harris Hawks do have a reputation for being noisy. There are two reasons for this and both stem from the fact that they live in groups or packs. Firstly, in the wild they are constantly calling back and forth to each other to hold the pack together, and holding the pack together is important because as a group they work together and if there is game to be caught the chances of catching that prey is multiplied by being a member of such a group. Each member of the pack has a role to play, some entering cover to flush the prey while others wait on above to do the actual catching. Secondly, because the young birds live in a group they are able to mentally mature slower than solitary hunters such as Redtails and Goshawks. They stay with the pack, learning skills and techniques from the older wiser birds and if they don’t make a kill it’s not the end of the world for them as they can still feed from the kills the pack makes. This slow maturity in the hands of a novice falconer; if he keeps his mentally immature Harris Hawk hungry for too long, can and in most cases will, lead to him having a screamer on his hands. And unless you have experienced this first-hand, take my advice and try to avoid it at all costs.
As I said earlier the more time you spend with your hawk the better she will be. On my key-ring is the ring from my old male Harris Hawk that I had for over a decade. He came to me after his first owner could stand his incessant squawking no longer. He came to me and immediately shut up as we hunted nearly every day and lamped pigeons most evenings in the nearby trees when winter kicked in. It is because of this bird that my kids lick their lips every time pigeon is on the menu.
There are bad Harris Hawks about. Being so easy to breed and hence so readily available, and the fact that they are often cited as being the ideal beginners hawk, the amount of ruined Harris Hawks about is bound to be high. If they are not taken and handled at the right age, they can be an absolute nightmare to work with. A totally wild goshawk would not compare to a Harris Hawk that has it in his head that he does not want to be anywhere near you. So if I can offer some advice to the potential Harris Hawk keeper (and I do this only because I have made nearly every mistake going), let it be this; Firstly, don’t just get one because one is available, prepare and book your bird long in advance and make sure you take her at the proper age. And secondly, even after spending as much time out and about with other Harris hawkers, make sure you have an experienced falconer to hand that can help and guide you through the maze of training your first bird.
This species is very intelligent and so easily
trained in the right hands.
This species is very intelligent and so easily
ruined in the wrong hands.
A good Harris Hawk is an absolute joy to spend time with. Because of its different and varied hunting styles it can probably put more game in the bag than most other hawks after a morning out walking the hills.
I have seen old school traditional falconers, men that would argue against these easy flown hawks, where the mere idea of hunting in a group goes totally against the grain and where the flying of falcons rules supreme. I had heard them putting Harris Hawks down time and time again. But I have watched them sit on a hilltop in Ireland on a breezy day and totally enjoy the spectacle of a dog below them working cover for rabbits while two or more Harris Hawks circled the skies above, diving and stooping down like a bullet to catch its prey or sometimes after every effort has been made and the bunny runs free, to watch a hawk climb on the rising air again and prepare for the next chase. Like the two old hecklers in the Muppet Show they had spent years shooting down any virtues of these “Mexican Chickens”. But out on that hill, these old falconers had to admit that maybe, just maybe, the Harris might have something to offer that is very special indeed.