20 years ago a prominent American falconer wrote an article that was to set me onto a road upon which I am still travelling. In "Game Hawking ...At Its Very Best", Ed Pitcher extolled the virtues of flying highly conditioned peregrine falcons at Sage Grouse from super high pitches in excess of 2000ft and this writer was inspired. Ever since reading what that falconer had achieved I have had a vision of recreating the grandeur of a flight in the vastness of the North American plains over the enclosed woodland of Staffordshire.
As a developing falconer I had often read that the flying of peregrines required vast open areas of game-rich arable farmland or grouse-laden moorland. Fortunately, I have always been a bit of a 'dreamer' and my imagination had often turned to the seemingly impossible feat of producing a high-flying game hawk in the area where I live enclosed mixed arable & pasture with patches of woodland. As my experience increased, I began to believe that my dream could actually become a reality and set my mind on recreating the 'American Dream' amidst the unlikely location of rural Staffordshire.
I must make it plain at the outset that I am still perfecting my methods when it comes to game hawking peregrines but have got to the point in my falconry career that famous English falconer Captain C. W. R. Knight would have termed, "The acid test". As I write, there sits a 10-week-old peregrinus peregrine falcon in my mews that I hope will turn into a high-flying duckhawk by the end of the 2008/9 season. She is the daughter of my high-flying tiercel, 'Bubble' and brother to last season's prototype tiercel, 'Aero' and will benefit from a carefully constructed conditioning regime that had its roots almost a decade ago when I acquired a falcon from an illustrious line of peregrines.
The falcon, 'Sasquatch' had all of the raw material that should have made her a classic high-flying gamehawk a good size, huge feet (hence her name) and no little amount of flying ability. What she lacked was a falconer able to do her justice since I was only just embarking on my experiments in creating the veritable high-flyer. A simple lack of knowledge was to cause me to founder during the kite-stage. I had already kited a made intermewed gamehawking tiercel with success but it was my failure to take her weight up sufficiently whilst pushing her higher to the kite that caused her to stall at a height of only 300ft. By the end of her first season I had realised the error of my ways and re-visited her kite-training but it was too late and she was destined never to fulfil her full potential.
Two years later I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to continue my education as a falconer with a tiercel and this time I didn't succumb to basic errors during the kiting-stage. 'Bubble' was the brother of 'Sasquatch' and a very exciting prospect indeed being very large for a peregrinus tiercel at 23-25oz hunting-weight and having large feet like his sister. By the end of his first season he was making pitches in excess of 1000ft in spite of only having been kited to less than 700ft. In his second season he made regular 'out-of-sight' pitches and finished the season full of muscle and flying at 27oz. in the early part of his third he produced several outstanding flights including one that took him out of binocular-range in a clear sky. Unfortunately by the end of that third season his pitches were suffering as a direct result of my failure to produce quality set-ups on partridges on a regular enough basis and once again I had failed to harness the potential of a peregrine.
However, at least I knew that my method had not been the reason for my failure and I was keen to try my hand with a quality falcon again. By 2007 Bubble was part of a breeding-pair in a project run by friends and I had hopes of realising an ambition to fly a quality falcon to her full potential. Unfortunately only one youngster was raised in that first breeding season and it was a tiercel that I decided to use as a 'guinea-pig' for my reworked conditioning method centred around creating a duckhawk. 'Aero' was somewhat of a disappointment size-wise, being only of an average size but he had even bigger feet than his father and even more flying-ability. He was kited to 1600ft and his first flight off the kite was to over 1200ft. Unfortunately my one error was due to my not making allowance for his excellence and his pitch quickly suffered because of it. As he climbed to these early super high pitches (post-kite) I would lose sight of him and foolishly I would wait until I had visually relocated him before walking in to flush my hacked ducks. He began to stoop at me as I walked and after only two weeks his pitch had halved although he was making short work of the mallards. His proper weight was 20.5-22.5oz although he would take the large ducks well enough from pitches between 500ft and 800ft at weights over 24oz.
In order to attempt to recreate Ed Pitcher's experiences I borrowed from as much of his training regime as possible. This regime was based around the use of tame but parent-reared eyass peregrines but I had no way of copying exactly what Ed did (removing young nest-mates from the breeding chamber as a group for socialisation on a daily basis) since I do not breed my own hawks. My early-taking experiments with parent-reared peregrines began 13 years ago quite by accident when a mix-up by a breeder led me into collecting a six & a half week old falcon from Scotland in 1995. At that point I had no idea that this would lead me to try to recreate the regime of Ed Pitcher with his parent-reared human-conditioned peregrines but the result was so encouraging that traditional training was all but forgotten over subsequent years as I worked on finding the perfect age for taking a parent-reared peregrine and incorporating that hawk into the wider training method.
The idea was to have a peregrine that could be flown as high in weight as an imprint but still allowed for traditional weight-control and I have set out to achieve this over the past decade with tiercels & falcons taken at ages ranging from 6 to 8 weeks. I now believe that I have settled on that age where the eyass peregrine can be conditioned gradually into becoming a high-flying gamehawk with the minimal training that this method requires. That age is 45 days for tiercels and 49 days for falcons. This is the age where the eyasses have just returned to the nest ledge after spending many days on the floor of the chamber and therefore their fat-levels are at a low point. I have also discovered that eyasses raised in open-fronted pens by imprinted foster parents are given the best start since they are exposed to a certain amount of human activity without alarm-calls sounded by frightened adults creating an aversion to the falconer's presence before conditioning starts.
The next stage of Ed Pitcher's regime calls for the tame eyass peregrine to leave the fist and climb upwards, gradually going higher & higher to catch a previously released sealed pigeon. In order to replicate this in England, where the use of bagged quarry is illegal, I turned to the kite with a whole dead quail attached. In order to get the new hawk to the kite stage I have used a quail-garnished lure - thrown out onto the ground in front of the falconer whilst the peregrine stands on the fist - as a stepping-stone. It is important to remember that the hawk is never called to the falconer at any stage in the conditioning although the lure can be used once the kite programme is complete.
The next part of my method differs from Ed's as where as he relies on the thermals of mid-morning to take the peregrine high into the sky once there is no pigeon to tempt it upwards I live in an area of the world where thermals between September and April are a rarity. Therefore, once the kite is removed I am reliant on the prospective gamehawk mounting up under their own steam. To achieve this I instil a habit of climbing high by using the kite for up to 2 months and kiting to 1600ft - twice the height that Ed Pitcher sends his pigeons to. Like Ed Pitcher, I fly my peregrines in high condition so that they have the muscle mass and energy reserves to cope easily with the flight and in my case will continue to mount high once the kite is removed.
Week 1 Hawk is hooded all day & perched on a block in a totally dark mews apart from a 2 hour window once daily when the only food is offered attached to a lure whilst falconer is absent. It is important to give good quality food in the early stages so that weight, condition & metabolism can be maintained as high as possible. The aim is to have the hawk feeding as soon as possible after removal from the chamber but with no food association until the hawk has reached a self-determined level weight & is hard-penned. At night the hood is removed. Hawk is always picked up in the dark then the light switched on prior to hooding. Basic manning sessions indoors & out should be carried out twice daily for a short period whilst hawk allows this.
Week 2 Manning sessions should be discontinued and hooding restricted to once daily, just prior to food being offered. Hawk should have regulated its own weight by now and the falconer should now accustom the hawk to his presence whilst it eats from lure in mews. Falconer should sit absolutely still at first but progress to moving, walking and getting close to hawk as she feeds from lure. After several days the hawk should allow the falconer to touch the food and even assist by tearing pieces off and holding them as the hawk pulls at them. By the end of the second week the falconer should be able to pick the hawk up from the lure with food held in the gloved fist.
Week 3 Manning sessions can be reintroduced as and when the hawk allows the falconer to pick her up from the lure then walk about outside the mews whilst she feeds. Once this stage is reached the hawk should be taken outside prior to lure-feeding (after being picked up in darkness then hooded) and unhooded next to lure in a quiet part of the garden. The next step is to pick the hawk up from the mews in full light by use of food in the gloved hand. Initially the piece of food in the fist will be large (I use only quail for food in first few weeks so in my case I would start with a whole quail) but should be gradually reduced until the small piece of food is hidden in the glove until after the hawk has stepped up. Once this stage is reached her block should be moved from the mews into the house so that her manning can continue. Lure-work can continue outside with the hawk being asked to jump & then fly further away from falconer to grab lure. The quality of the ration will probably have to be adjusted during this week in order to maintain the hawk at the weight that she set for herself in the first week or so. If this is not done the falconer will either have to make intervals between sessions longer than 24hrs which could disrupt the establishment of a daily routine or else risk the very real possibility of retarding the progress of his charge.
Week 4 The hawk by now will be weathering outside during the day and brought into the house at night. The use of the lure should now be discontinued and it should not be used again until after the kiting-stage is complete when it will be ungarnished. In its place a whole bird (I use small quail) should be tied to a line and the line hung from the end of a pole so that the falconer can use his free hand to suspend the bait in the air. The hawk (on the fist & on a creance in the garden) should be unhooded (I use my teeth) and is required to bind to the bait suspended in the air. Initially she will be merely grabbing the bait with one foot then following with the other before fluttering to the ground with the bait. Gradually she should progress to flying from the fist to grab the bait about 5ft in the air and 10ft away.
Weeks 5-12 The hawk should by now be in a routine where she can be put out to weather all day and picked up at either end of the day without any food given as a reward. She can now be moved permanently back to the mews if further manning is not required (my hawks go onto a shelf-perch at this stage) and kiting should be started. This will be the first time that the falcon has been away from the falconer's garden and a creance is used for the first few flights whilst the height is less than 10ft & the distance 30ft. Incremental increase in height should be small for the first 100ft and the angle kept as flat as possible by going downwind of kite before unhooding the hawk. The peregrine's weight should be increased by a tiny amount each flight so that muscle bulk is being built to aid her development on a steady basis. When feeding her up she should be fed as much as she wants (this applies throughout her training) and if that means that her weight has gone up too steeply then intervals between flights should be increased to 36 or even 48 hours to maintain her appetite. By the time she is climbing to 1600ft on a regular basis you should be walking (slowly) under her as she climbs (starting immediately she leaves the fist) then walking back in so that you arrive at the winch at the same time as the falcon grabs the bait high above. It is important to practise keeping the hawk in view at all times during her ascent as you walk and extremely difficult to do - especially with tiercels which are mere dots at such heights. Also, when you unhood the peregrine, you need to start blocking out the kite by positioning your body in such a way that she cannot see the kite until she has left the fist. By the end of the kiting period she will be at her highest weight and may be showing signs of not being overly desperate to reach the bait such as flying wider than usual. Do not worry as long as she doesn't land and ultimately reaches the bait she is right on schedule. The sign that you are looking for before dispensing with the kite is a hawk that bolts off the fist the moment the hood is removed without trying to look for the kite in the sky.
Weeks 13-16 This is the moment that you have spent the past 3 months preparing for so be sure to choose good weather conditions with minimal wind. Once I have determined that my hawk is ready I usually keep on kiting until a calm day forces me to go sans kite then hope for no rain also. Although peregrines usually fly very well in the rain it is not worth taking unnecessary risks after all of your hard work thus far. Once the hawk is in the air you must stick to your routine of walking (usually downwind but you should have noted a particular method that the hawk always uses when flying to the kite) under the hawk as she mounts. If you haven't been walking during the later stages of kiting then you will only realise the importance of this routine on the following flying day because she has no reason to take notice of you at this stage. This is also the moment when things will be different depending upon what quarry you intend to enter the hawk on. If you are going to fly her on upland game (grouse) or lowland game (partridges & pheasants) then the following details will apply to both scenarios. The reason for this is because you should have been kiting (at least in the later stages) on the same ground as you plan to enter your peregrine to game on. You should have a dead bird (of the same type that you plan to hunt) with you when you plan to fly sans kite for the first time. Mark down a covey of partridges, grouse etc. And ensure that your release point will mean that the hawk should be at her zenith or close to it when you reach the covey after your walk beneath the hawk as she climbs. As you approach the gamebirds but before they are likely to be pushed into flying prematurely you should make a noise whistle, shout etc. - & wave your glove or whatever is your usual signal when about to flush game with a gamehawk above you. You should then start to wave the dead bird about as you continue on your walk in to flush and throw it out onto the ground (try to aim for it to land amongst the covey) as if throwing out a lure. The hawk should start to stoop and that is the time to flush the gamebirds.
When conditioning your peregrine for duckhawking it is unlikely that your kiting ground will be the same area you use for the majority of your flights at ducks so this stage is more complicated than for upland/lowland game. In the UK we are not permitted the use of bagged quarry and so what is required is to hack some ducks so that they will fly well and then transplant them onto a small artificial pond on your kiting ground in readiness for the post-kite stage. This is because it is important to make only gradual changes when conditioning your gamehawks so the first half dozen or so flights must be made on the same ground that kiting has taken place on. Only once the prospective gamehawk is flying in a predictable fashion is the time right to move the location for your flights to your more usual duckhawking areas.
I think it would be fair to say that my method is proven when it comes to conditioning peregrine tiercels to fly high but untested as yet when it comes to falcons which are generally acknowledged as being more challenging in this regard. However, I believe that the ultimate test sits in my mews as I write and this falcon carries all my hopes and expectations on her feathered shoulders. After the early stages of her programme the signs are good for she is far ahead of her forerunners. I put this down to the fact that she was taken from the chamber at exactly the right time. When the kiting-stage is reached in a week's time I believe she will, once again, be setting a high standard when it comes to performance and, following last-season's 'trial-run' with her brother, this augurs well for the future.
- Gerry S. Plant
Also by Gerry Plant: To Kite or Not to Kite? / Technical Aspects of Kiting for Falconry