The big Harris's hawk came swooping toward me, his eyes concentrating on my left arm. The tips of his wings moved slightly as he adjusted for the crosscurrent blowing off the Green Mountains.
I stood steady waiting for him. He dropped to about thigh level as he skimmed the ground and then he flared up about six feet away. His powerful talons spread out wide as they could as he pushed them forward of his body. It was all I could do not to run away like a screaming child as he stretched out to grab my arm.
He twitched his huge wingspan and dropped right onto my my wrist, immediately reaching for the tiny bit of meat I had trapped in the glove between my thumb and forefinger. His beak pecked gently until he had the treat.
It was an incredibly awesome feeling to have this huge hawk settle on my arm. It felt nothing like I had expected. It was like having a butterfly with claws there. Here was this huge bird that seemed to weigh absolutely nothing. Where I expected the weight of a small chicken, this whole bird was measured in ounces.
The huge leather glove that I wore on my arm prevented the talons from digging in, but the bird had great balance. Because he weighed so little, he did not have to dig in very hard to set there. He stared at me with piercing eyes, not in an unfriendly manner, but looking at me like he tolerated me only because I had food. He did not appear aggressive, but he gave the clear impression that he was not a puppy looking for affection.
Falconry is one of the oldest hunting sports, tracing back to China and at least 2000 B.C. Over the centuries it spread west until it reached Britain in about 850 A.D.
Before the advent of firearms, falconers used these birds to bring game to the dinner table. They were often used in combination with bird dogs. A pointing dog would work the ground to mark the game. Then a spaniel would be brought in to flush it. When the game flushed the falcon would swoop in and kill it. It was an efficient use of the dogs and bird to bring the game to bag.
The training of a falcon is serious and hard work. It is not a sport that can be a part-time fancy. When a new bird is brought in for training, it is usually wild. Through a process called manning, the bird is brought to feel confident in his handler, slowly coming to feel comfortable sitting on a gloved fist.
Two leather thongs called jesses are tied to the feet of the bird. These thongs are gripped by the handler with his left hand. Theses prevent the bird from flying away. The bird will often flap about (called bating) during the early sessions, but it soon learns to trust the handler. In fact, they become so attached to this wrist perch they will only leave it when purposely flown.
Hawks do not fly or hunt for for pleasure. They do not just jump up for a fly over. They are quite content to just sit there until they get hungry. The reason they fly is to find food. If they are full they will not hunt.
In fact, one of the trickiest parts of training these birds is figuring out how much a falcon has to be denied food before he will hunt effectively. To do this, the birds are weighed every day and brought down to fight weight before hunting.
To get the bird to return to the falconer, he starves him down a bit and gets the bird to fly to him for food. During this period a light line called a creance is used to prevent the bird from flying away. Soon the distance from the bird to the food is expanded until the bird can be released a long way from the glove.
This has to occur every day for weeks until the bird completely understands this is where the food is and that the flight is completely safe. Once the bird flies regularly more than 100 yards, the line is removed and the bird is ready to train to hunt.
There are two basic kinds of hunting and they use different birds for each. Hawks are used for ground game like rabbits. Hawks have shorter, rounder wings and long tails which allow them to maneuver quickly close to the ground and through the brush. These birds are called shortwings. They include the Harris hawk, Goshawk, Sparrow hawk, red-tailed buzzard, and the Ferruginous buzzard.
The longwings are used to fly after birds. These hunters are usually the speedy falcons that dive in on the prey and take them out of the air. They have pointed ends to their wings, fairly short tails, and are extremely streamlined.
These birds of prey hunt by climbing to great heights and swooping down on their quarry. These birds include the Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Gyrfalcon, and the Merlin.
Eagles are huge birds of prey, but are seldom used in Falconry. They are heavy to carry in the field, are slow off the mark, and are difficult to train. However, a trained eagle is a spectacle to watch. Some eagles used are the Golden, Tawny and Steppe.
Entering the sport is not easy. First, the birds are not affectionate cuddly birds that sit on the couch and keep you warm at night. They are solitary birds that only tolerate training, not enjoy it. They are a lot of work and must be flown often to keep them fit.
You must apprentice under a trained falconer. The possession of these birds is highly regulated by each state. The fraternity of falconers restrict their membership to only those that demonstrate over time their commitment to the sport.
If you are interested in seeing this sport first hand, contact the Green Mountain School of Falconry in Manchester, Vermont at firstname.lastname@example.org or call them at 802-379-2043. They will introduce you to the birds and allow you to handle one in an introductory lesson.