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Learning how to handle a Harris Hawk


Monday was the last day of my summer holidays, and I had decided to spend it using up one of my Christmas presents which was a voucher for a falconry lesson at Phoenix Falconry which is a few miles up the road to me, near Gleneagles Hotel and next to one of the woods I do a lot of exploring for bones.

I've seen lots of big raptors (birds of prey) before, either in the wild (like buzzards, kestrels, red kites or ospreys), or at bird centres or trips (like golden eagles, white-tailed sea eagles or red kites) but on Monday I got to handle a new type of bird, an American Harris Hawk !

This was my voucher for the lesson. There weren't many lessons I could take because I was under 14, and dad had to have a spectator ticket while I was there as well:

The falconry centre looked really new but I think it had been there for a while. There was a big reception room and this big courtyard where the birds live:

First of all our guide Colin gave a talk about falconry and how it is a form of hunting for food that goes back at least 4,000 years and hasn't changed much since then. He showed a video of a rabbit hunt with a dog and a four harris hawks, and explained how birds are trained. He also said that at the centre they did a lot of breeding birds, but the mum and the dad bird never actually met because the birds are valuable and sometimes the female ends up killing the male. 

(Instead, they have to do the weirdest thing I have ever heard. A falconer wears a special weird hat and goes into the male falcon's room and bobs his head about. Then the male falcon flies across and tries to mate with the hat. Once the falcon has finished , the falconer takes off his hat and puts the stuff into a tube, then presents it to the female. It is completely bonkers and gross. "How did your day go ?" "Well, I bobbed my head then a raptor got funky with my hat". Mad.)

We got to watch a falconer training a young female peregrine falcon. She has her head down and is avoiding eye contact so not to spook the falcon. Every day she does this and the falcon begins by jumping a few inches onto her hand to get food. Every day the hand moves further and further until it can fly a long way onto the hand.

The corridor was full of rooms like this that you could watch:

This was an adult peregrine in another room:

Outside in the courtyard were other birds, including a kestrel, other peregrines, a peregrine-gyr hybrid,  a barn owl, and this American bald eagle:

Then Colin went to get the harris hawk which we were going to use. It was called Oggy:

He took us a small distance from the buildings with the bird, and talked about the bird and how you would train it:

The Harris Hawk (also called a dusky hawk, although I've never heard anyone actually say that) is a medium-sized bird of prey that you don't find in the wild in this country. It looks a lot like and is closely related to a buzzard:

It has a wingspan of 1.1m and unlike other raptors it hunts in packs. 

Colin explained that any bird of prey never gets emotionally attached to an owner in the same way a dog does, and they just react to food, so they have to work out the exact weight when they will always respond to food and keep them at that. If the hawk is too well fed it won't come back to the falconer. The hawk has a radio transmitter too and bell so it can be tracked, but if it is well fed and up a tree it might not want to come down to the falconer:

We were all given a leather glove called a gauntlet which goes on the left hand. The leather stops the talons digging into your skin while they hold themselves upright. There is a special way which to hold your arm, and it varies from bird to bird because they stand in different ways.

The Harris hawk had straps round his feet so he could be secured onto the glove. When it flew, it was amazing to see what looked like a small bird had such a big wingspan:

Oggy liked to sly to the trees at the left of the track and call to the falconer.

Then the beautiful dark and light brown wings would come out and it would fly down to our group:

Sometimes it flew down low over the grass:

Other times it flew right above us as if it was trying to spook us:

Colin then showed us how to call the harris hawk down from the trees. You put a piece of meat in your gauntlet, stand so the bird is to your left, over your shoulder, put your hand behind your back, then when you want it to fly down you bring your arm out in front with your elbow bent and your wrist higher.

Oggy flew down to my hand, not in a straight line, but bending round in an arc to his right.

At first Oggy comes in with beak level to the wrist, then he put the wings and tail feather out against the way he was travelling to slow himself down, then he lifted up his feet to the wrist. Birds do it all the time but it's quite impressive.

I felt a tiny bit scared as he came in but it was good fun. He was very light indeed but very big. I couldn't feel the claws through the glove.

In this picture the lump below the throat is the pouch where the bird keeps swallowed meat before digesting it. The lump shows it is storing food there now. (And this was how the SSPCA inspector knew the ill buzzard I found hadn't eaten recently.)

Even though he was light it was still hard keeping the hand up. Oggy kept shifting about to keep balance but I wasn't scared and I don't think he was either. Colin taught us how to hold his straps through our fingers to keep him secured on the gauntlet.

When it was time to send him back into the trees you move your arm forward and he flies away:

We all did this a couple of times to get the experience. I had never handled a bird before and I felt a bit nervous but once he was on the hand he felt fine. It was an amazing experience and I definitely recommend you do it if you're interested in nature ! Thanks to Mum and Dad for the Christmas present !

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Ric said...

Very interesting Jake, and great photos, Nick.

Psydrache said...

What a cool christmas present, your parents are very cool!
I had some experience with a saker falcon once and I was nervous, too. Especially as it fly with a breackneck speed to my hand xD
Falconry is very cool and sometimes I wish I could own a little barn owl, but in Switzerland you need a lot of bumf and some licenses.

Your dad did a fantastic photo-job! I think it isn't easy to take picture of flying objects.

And that "Beware of Eagle" sign is so awesome xD

Jake said...

The falconer was saying that in the UK it's too easy to own a falcon. In the USA it is supposed to be very difficult.

Jake said...

Thanks !

Christine Sutcliffe said...

I had a day out at a falconry centre near Stirling a few years ago and got to fly a tawny owl and a kestrel I think. I was also volunteered to hold the eagle owl while the falconer talked about him and after a while I could feel my arm dropping under his weight - it's not all feathers and fluff I can tell you!

Jake said...

My arm was dropping too ! In the first picture on the post my arm is actually far too low.

Sylvía Oddný said...

That has to be the coolest Christmas present EVER. Also, the falcon breeding thing? Had me laughing for five minutes straight. I'm so mature.

Christine Sutcliffe said...

Not as badly as mine was! The poor bird was almost at a diagonal angle by the time the falconer rescued it from my arm! XD

Jake said...

It's absolutely mad ! And who was the person who first discovered it ?

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