The burden of weight.
When I was a beginner I knew everything. Now as I learn more about falconry I realise just how little I do know. Falconry, I read, hadn’t changed in thousands of years. I enjoyed reading about the different aspects of falconry such as rook hawking, game hawking, flying merlins and sparrowhawks and each one I mentally ticked off as something that I would master with time. Images of a trained sparrowhawk bursting through a flock of feeding pigeons, or a ringing flight with falcon and prey disappearing into the clouds kept me awake many a night. So that was my plan, get all the equipment, a good food supply, not forgetting the bird and the rest will fall into place. The birds flying weight for example I thought was carved in stone, the perfect weight for each particular bird was discovered during the training programme and that was the weight that bird would fly at
for the rest of its natural life. I quickly learned that this was untrue and more effort was spent chasing the hawk’s perfect hunting weight than in the
actual pursuit of prey!
So why does the perfect weight for your bird changefrom day to day?
Here are some of the reasons, feel free to add to it!
- Food quality…did she have a
feed of duck or washed rabbit yesterday?
- Food quantity…this one is
obvious, I think!
- Feeding time…did you fly her
and feed her at same time yesterday, or can you remember?
- Temperature…has rigor mortis
set in after a night of freezing fog?
- Weather conditions…maybe you
should follow the bird back to the car and out of the rain!
- Changing seasons…is your
bird looking for nesting material instead of rabbits?
- Strange people… who invited
that fellow in the shiny tracksuit?
- Distance from home…are you
flying in unfamiliar countryside? The average pigeon knows when it is miles
from home, why not the falcon?
- Air pressure…this gives me a
headache just thinking about it!
Every falconry book worth the paper it’s written onwill tell you that it is wrong to fly your bird too low. She will be lacking instrength; instead of hunting she will be turning to you to supply food andbasically won’t be enjoying herself. But it is equally important that she is
not flown too high. If she is, she could turn away from you, break up the partnership and go self-hunting or worse, sit there and yawn every time you call her. (I think I will have to drop my woman’s weight a little!)
So basically you want to fly your bird quite high, but low enough that she will still perform the task in hand.
Weight control is the most useful tool in training your hawk, this may sound like an obvious statement but it is surprising how often you see it ignored.
When a bird arrives from a breeder, obviously fat as a Christmas turkey and just as much a handful, one of the first things we do is stand her up on the fist and admire her, (that’s me, guilty as sin!) Every feather in place and her eyes as wild as fire. With one movement of your hand she is gone, bating off the glove with enough energy to take her over the horizon. We take for granted she is as wild as a wildcat and does not want to be there. The reason she does not want to be near us is because we don’t have anything she wants at that exact moment. But with a little bit of forethought and a little bit of weight reduction in the aviary before she is even handled, the time spent waiting for her to feed on the fist and start looking to you as a friend instead of foe can be dramatically reduced. Imagine it from the bird’s point of view and I think we can’t go far wrong.
I have seen a falconer stand waiting with outstretched glove, garnished with the loveliest piece of fresh raw beef. While I was getting hungrier and hungrier the hawk on the creance was getting bored, sitting with one foot raised and not remotely interested. This bird should have been put back on the lawn to weather while the falconer took the beef to a frying pan! Instead, through the best efforts of the falconer the bird was being taught to ignore the person’s call. Food is meant as a reward and it can only be a reward if the bird actually has an appetite.
Food can be used to overcome most bad habits, especially those little niggly ones that just get on your nerves. I had a Harris hawk that bated every time I passed through the gateway to the weathering lawn, this used to really annoy me. Why did he bate? I supposed he loved to go out on the lawn for his bath or maybe he got a fright once and just bated out of habit. Whatever the reason, something had to be done. I took an ounce off his weight, because the lower his weight the more important the food would be, and gave him a small piece every time just before we passed through the gate. After a few times I changed it so he got his food after he passed through without bating. The food took his mind off bating and after about twenty times it seemed to cure a problem that had been annoying me for months.
The same goes for birds that bate just when you aregoing to pick them up or put them down, or birds that don’t look forward to the approach of the hood. Use food to take their mind off it and then reward only when they do it properly.
Routine. I think this is the most important falconry term you will learn. In the wild raptors hunt to a routine, peregrines leave the cliffs to hunt usually at first light, and we have all seen sparrowhawks hunting just before dark, like a handbag snatcher surprising her prey. We can use routines to help us train our birds. Don’t try teach your hawk in the morning one day when she is not really hungry and then the next night when she is ravenous, then maybe skip a day or two and do the same again. It would be better to train her every day at the same time, she will be looking forward to it and have in her mind what she learned yesterday. If you stick to the same pattern during training and then actual hunting, you will notice the hawk getting more eager before the task or flight, which means that you can increase her weight quite considerably. One particular falcon comes to mind, a
hybrid prairie falcon given to a falconer because she was messed around, and totally refused to co-operate until her weight dropped to 1lb 15 oz. After flying this bird every day in the same area for a few months he was able to raise the birds weight until the last I heard she was doing well catching crows at 2lb 5oz.
But be careful when your bird reaches that top weigh and something unusual happens, like that fellow in the shiny tracksuit shows up all of a sudden. Not a problem if you have been wearing one during training but if it upsets your bird – and birds are more easily upset at a high weight, you could have a problem. One falconer training a peregrine tiercel to the kite with never a problem saw his bird range away as usual one day only never to return to the lure attached to his kite. After an hour of tracking he finally found him impatiently circling and dive bombing a hand-glider!
At field meets you will see the best-manned hawks acting up, (that’s me guilty again!) maybe slow to return or worse taking stand in a tree. “She was alright yesterday at that weight, I wonder what’s got into her today?” Maybe yesterday she was flown in her usual pattern of one man and his dog in the usual landscape, today in the field she has to contend with twenty noisy people, strange dogs, and to cap it all, children! By having
your hawk slightly lower (and I don’t mean ravenous) on days when you know it might be upset, the extra urge to hunt will usually override the other factors.
So what is the best way to control weight? After mentioning all the variables that can affect it, I suppose I had better look at ways of holding it where you want it. The weather and the seasons, and why people wear shiny tracksuits are things mortal man has no control over. But the three things we have at our disposal are food quantity, food quality and sticking as close as you can to feeding times. Most falconry books will tell you to vary your bird’s diet as much as possible. This is wise from a health point of view and I am sure the bird enjoys the change. But using this variety of food types makes it much harder to maintain a level weight. If you were trying to teach a bird something very important such as jumping to the fist, high jumping, catching prey for the first time or kite training, it might be a good idea to feed exactly the same food every day for the important part of the
training programme. There is enough to try figure out about your bird’s behaviour at this stage without factoring in what effect different food types are having on her. This is where I find day old chicks very handy, they are clean, the birds love them and they are uniform in size, which makes gauging how much to feed in the field very easy.
So over the years of trying to become a competent falconer, I have made more mistakes than a one armed juggler. I have finally got some idea how to control my bird’s weight and can now get back to my original plan which was………………..oh, I remember now, to actually go out hunting and maybe even catch something!