Summer School: Falconry

Aug 8, 2016

Long before guns were invented, humans developed other approaches to hunt wild prey. The art of falconry is believed to have originated in China some 4,000 years ago. For our "Summer School" series, we took a trip to the Green Mountain Falconry School in Manchester to learn about this ancient art of hunting for game using a hawk.

Director Rob Waite runs Green Mountain Falconry School and has been practicing falconry for more than three decades. To show how the hawks are trained, he took us on a walk through the woods with a male Harris's hawk named Monty.

"Harris's hawks tend to be quite vocal as birds of prey go," Waite explains, as Monty demonstrates his call, bleating out a repetitive squawk.  "They're also fabulous hunters, so we can practice the sport and we can catch a whole range of prey."

Indeed, Harris's hawks will kill and eat a range of creatures. Waite says hawks will catch prey humans are after, like rabbit and pheasant, but they'll also get things like snakes and insects.

The age-old goal of hunting with a hawk is to fly the bird where it can catch desirable game for humans to eat, but then quickly retrieve the prey before the hawk devours it.  So falconers put bells around the bird's ankles, to keep track of the hawk while walking through the woods hunting and to hear if it pounces on prey.  And today, Waite also attaches a lightweight transmitter.

"That's the traditional and the modern ways of tracking the bird, but neither one guarantees anything," Waite says.

"Even if everything works — and the transmitters do fail us at times — if you find your hawk, and he has, in the meantime, made a kill and eaten it, you can't get him back."

That's because the hawks are trained to return to their handler for a reward, a hunk of raw meat. But if the birds catch a prey large enough to fill up on, then they have no incentive to return to the handler.

"The bird doesn't come back to us because it bonds with us or because it wants to hang out with us," Waite explains. "It comes back to get something to eat."

Falconers keep tabs on the bird's appetite by weighing the animal daily to see if it's at its "flying weight," which means it is hungry enough to want to hunt, but never underfed such that it would be weakened or harmed. Many handlers use a sensitive scale, but once a falconer is accustomed to a bird, he can also tell how much food it's ingested by feeling the animal's crop, the area just above its breastbone.

"The bird doesn't come back to us because it bonds with us or because it wants to hang out with us. It comes back to get something to eat." - Rob Waite, owner of Green Mountain Falconry School

To take the Harris's hawk Monty out hunting, Waite attaches leather straps to his ankles, known as "jesses." The straps are designed to not hinder the bird as it flies through trees and brush, but also give the handler something to hold onto when the bird is perched on the glove.

"[He] wants to stand on your thumbs," Waite says, demonstrating the proper body positioning to hold the hawk. "You need your thumb up most, your elbow to your body, your forearm level with the ground. And now [the hawk is] comfortable."

Then to release the bird so it can find a hunting perch, Waite casts Monty, providing him with "a gentle throw into the wind," Waite explains.

While still maintaining a firm grip on the jesses, "I'm going to step, as my left hand goes forwards — sweeps forwards — and releases the jesses right at the end of the throw," Waite says.

And with that motion, Monty is released into the air, before settling into a nearby tree at the edge of an open field. From this perch Monty can see a mouse over a quarter mile away, Waite says.

A Harris's hawk waits in a tree. On his ankles, there are both bells for tracking the hawk's whereabouts, as well as straps known as jesses which a handler would hold onto when the bird is perched on their gloved hand.
Credit Kathleen Masterson / VPR

Waite explains that Monty won't go too far, because flying takes a fair amount of energy, which is only worth expending if there's a chance of food — either diving for a mouse or returning to his handler's perch for a treat.

"People think it looks like fun, it looks like it's effortless, but it's actually work," he says. "So like any wild animal, they conserve energy whenever they can."

The next step will be how to get him to return.

"The signal for him to come back is a raised gloved hand. So if you want to raise your hand towards me and make a fist," Waite says, followed by a whistle. "And by the time he lands, in position is a nice piece of London broil for him. And that's what he knows it means — that raised gloved hand is his guarantee of a reward."

This process of rewarding the hawk as it returns is one continued over time, in order to build up how much distance the hawk can travel on its own.

"We start with a short distance and lots and lots of rewards," Waite says. "And gradually you reverse that until you can be out for a couple of hours, go for a five-mile hike, and the bird's going to follow you from tree to tree and fly as far as you're willing to walk."

"People kept [falconry] up really as a passion and it became something that you do because of the love of it." - Rob Waite

It's a similar process to what a wild hawk would engage in, "where it still hunts and then repositions, and then still hunts some more," Waite says. He adds that the training methods serve to expedite the process, "so there's more flying time and less sitting time."

Although technological advances have been made in hunting since falconry originated, Waite says it still continues to be an activity people engage in.

"Your hawk was really an early gun. And when the gun was invented, then it nearly died out because people decided, 'Well, it's easier to go hunting with a gun than a hawk,'" Waite says. "But people kept it up really as a passion and it became something that you do because of the love of it."