By Thomas Rowe, Region 1 Director
For a lot of us, getting started in falconry means “passing the state exam.” But really, we that should be the absolute tip of the iceberg – all the work, the real decisions, the effort – comes after the test. Despite that, it’s important to consider each step after the test carefully, and make your choices of sponsor, mews, trapping, training and hawking practice intentionally, and with forethought. Doing so will make the process easier, your sponsor happier, and ultimately create a more enjoyable and successful falconry career for you. This year in particular, I wanted to lay out what I hope will be a solid roadmap for an incoming apprentice based on my experiences.
The very first priority after passing the test, to my mind, should be finding a sponsor. Some of us are lucky enough to know someone in the sport, many will rely on the list from the state. Calling the Regional Director of the state club is also an excellent way to start meeting people and figuring out a good match – in both personality, and falconry goals. Keep in mind that finding the right sponsor is probably the most important part of the process. Your expectations, and that of your sponsor, must align. That means you need to have expectations, and you need to ask your sponsor what theirs are. The definition of a “good sponsor” is relative. I’m not here to start a debate about what makes a “good sponsor” or what “minimum standards” are the best; each sponsor has their unique set of standards and requirements. Some may want you to live within a 45-minute drive and require that you fly the bird a minimum of 5 days per week. Others may have no problem living several hundred miles away and have no minimum flight time requirements. The point is that you need to know what’s expected of you, and your sponsor has to have an idea of what you can do. So, don’t rush right out and sign up with the first sponsor you meet who is willing – take some time, meet a bunch of people, and make the best possible choice.
Another big thing to do after the test is to build your mews sooner rather than later. It often takes several weeks or a month to schedule the inspection, not to mention construction can hit snags for all kinds of reasons. Plan it out thoroughly. Build as big as your budget allows. Ask for blueprints on the club website. Do some research online. Have your sponsor assist you with perch placement and basic layout. Have everything ready to go before trapping season starts, so your first hawk (and you!) have the best possible access to furniture and husbandry. The worst thing you can do, apart from not having your mews ready, is discovering mid-season that you’ve made an error and need to retrofit your mews in the middle of New York’s “warm winter season.”
Opening day of trapping season is probably one of the most exciting days of the year. It’s likely the third consideration after your test, and your first big step as a falconer. Before trapping day arrives, go out and scout around the areas where you plan to trap. If your sponsor has a stationary cage trap, they may have some ideas for where to put it. If you’re road trapping, absolutely drive around the areas you want to trap and take note of any juvenile hawks you see. This will help you on the first day of trapping, but it will also help you identify raptors in the field, which is a great experience to gain.
Anticipation the night before your first day of trapping will probably lead to little or no sleep. Getting up before sunrise, grabbing some coffee, and loading up the car for the days trapping adventure is unbelievable fun. Success depends on many factors. At some point, you will start the day with an empty mews. You will go through the progression of boredom from driving for hours looking for birds, to heart pounding excitement of watching a bird hit the trap and get caught--followed by the decision to affix leather gear and bells. At days end you will have a wild hawk in your mews. This is the time when things get very real, very fast. This is when your responsibility skyrockets. At this stage, you’re going to very glad you found an excellent sponsor and build a great mews already, because you’re about to need both!
The manning process starts. You will have fun. You will be very nervous. You will worry about the birds’ health. You will get bitten. You will get footed. You will make mistakes. Here’s my advice; ask questions and do what your sponsor tells you. I’ll say it again – ask questions and do what your sponsor tells you. There are many different ways to train a bird. There is no best way. The best way for you is your sponsors’ way. If you did the homework and found a great sponsor, there’s absolutely no reason they won’t be able to see you through this process in great shape. Daily communication with your sponsor is a must. Ask questions of them every day. Observe every single thing your hawk does. Check their feet. Their talons. Their feathers. Throughout the manning process. Hopefully your sponsor lives close enough to stop over every day or every other day. If regular visits are not possible, it’s not the end of the world. Just be sure to…take a guess what comes next…ask questions and do what your sponsor tells you.
You will work with the hawk every day for weeks or months. You will be excited when the bird eats from the glove for the first time. You will be more excited when the bird hops to the glove for the first time. Even more excited when the bird flies the full length of the creance. Your bird will be wed to a lure. You will get past the anxiety of the first free flight. Your sponsor will tell you that your bird is ready to hunt. What you do from here is the last consideration after taking the test, but perhaps the most important for your long-term success and the health of your hawks.
It’s game time! Fly and fly often. Make sure you fly according to your sponsor’s schedule. If they say fly 7 days a week – recall that they likely told you this before you built your mews – it’s best to find a way to do as they ask. If they have some other schedule that you’ve agreed upon, do that. The reason is that your sponsor likely has a method that leads to the overall health and well-being of your hawk. Following their proscribed hunting regimen is like training an athlete – do it as your sponsor does, and you’re likely to have great success.
It’s critical that you fly in a game rich environment. Scouting ahead before flying is a great summer activity, but if you can’t do it then, trial and error can get you through. Your sponsor may have some sites they’re willing to share – if they don’t offer, it never hurts to ask. You’re still learning, and your sponsor is there to help. But, get your hawk on game as soon as you can! The sooner your bird associates your behavior in the field with flushing game the better. The more game you flush the less frustration you will have later in the season. If your bird does something you don’t understand talk to your sponsor about it. Understand ahead of time that your first kill may come on day one, or it may come three or four weeks into the season. It’s not about the speed that you do this next step at, but that you do it purposefully, and correctly, at a pace that allows the hawk to understand what you’re doing. It will happen. Everything will come together. You will watch your bird connect on game for the first time. You will feel a great sense of accomplishment. That feeling never gets old!
The last big thing after the test is learning to be patient and self-disciplined. You can’t rush any of this, and the fine tuning in the art of falconry is going to last your entire life. So, imagine this is a marathon, not a sprint.
You will quickly figure out that there is a major difference between traditional hunting and hunting with a hawk. In western NY we primarily fly on gray squirrels with an occasional cottontail thrown in the mix. If you’re in a similar environment to where I am, you’ll find that learning what to look for in a squirrel woods is huge. You will waste a lot of time flying your bird through areas that offer smaller concentrations of game. There is no way to avoid it. Only time spent in the woods will show where the greatest concentration of game is. More concentration of game means more flushes. More flushes should mean more chases. More chases give the hawk more chances to learn, take game, and improve their skills and conditioning.
Learning how to read your hawk is extremely important as well. Each bird is different. In time, your birds’ movement and attitude will tell you more about what’s going on than anything. Best advice here is to trust your bird. If I had a dollar for every time I called my bird off a squirrel because I didn’t see it, I’d be a millionaire – especially during my first year.
You will get frustrated. Things will go great for weeks. You will regularly catch game. Your hawk will behave exactly the way you want it to. Then, for some unknown reason, the wheels will fall off. Your bird may stop following, or it might start running from you, or miss easy catches, or not fly at all, or a combination of the above. Be patient. There is an explanation for every behavior. When this happens, ask questions and do what your sponsor tells you. Usually, it is something you did.
Unfortunately, there will come a time when your bird suffers an injury or becomes ill. Obviously, we do our best to limit factors that could cause injury and illness, but there are some things that we can’t control. As mentioned earlier we primarily fly on gray squirrels in this area. They can inflict serious injuries when struggling with your hawk. If you fly on squirrels your bird is going to get bit; you can be lightning fast or have the best squirrel hawk in the state, but eventually something will go wrong and she’ll take a bite. If you plan on flying on squirrels advise your sponsor during the trapping season. He or she will help you select a bird best suited for such game. Being able to differentiate between a serious injury and something minor is especially important. It’s also a great idea to plan ahead and have a veterinary contact you know can handle diagnosis and treatment of a hawk. And, of course, your sponsor will be able to assist with diagnosis and proper treatment as well.
One last note; try to get family and friends involved right from the start of the training process. Its tremendous fun bringing others into the woods to see the power you have harnessed by training a wild bird. Other falconers, if they’re available, can also be great friends to make during this stage. Above all, have fun, fulfill your responsibility to the bird and the sport.
If you’re one of the many folks who took the test in the last year and are searching for or have found sponsors, the state’s list is great, but don’t be afraid to reach out to your friendly neighborhood Regional Director and ask for the hookup with someone close by you. You’re going to have the best times of your life in the field, and you’re going to meet a lot of great people and hawks doing this. Welcome to the world of New York state falconry.