Below are two different articles by falconers on the subject of hooding. We believe that hooding is a critical tool to success in falconry, and while there are many techniques to hoodmaking and proper hood use, generally it is considered the best practice of successful falconers to make their hawks to the hood. Fortunately, our own members and the community at large have written extensively on this subject. We present a couple of these perspectives below, but for new falconers it is always a good idea to consult your sponsor on proper hooding technique.
To hood, or not to hood, that is the question!
(with apologies to Shakespeare)
By Stuart E Rossell, author of Falconry: A Guide for Beginners. Originally published in the 2021 Mews News.
There is some debate on whether Shakespeare was actually a falconer or, as is more likely, just extremely knowledgeable on the sport, but either way if he were discussing the subject of whether to hood a hawk or not he may well have written, ‘To hood, or not to hood, that is the question. Whether ‘tis wise to allow your hawk to suffer the sights and fears associated with life as a trained hawk, or hood her, and allow her to remain in peace’.
With regard to the broadwings such as the Redtailed Hawk and Harris’s hawk the subject of whether to train a new hawk to the hood is not unduly complicated but is often misunderstood. Simply put, the purpose of the hood is to prevent a hawk from bating. Falconers tend to fall into two camps, those that hood train their broadwings and those that feel if the hawk is well enough manned, it is unnecessary. Bating can cause frayed feathers but far more importantly it causes frayed nerves. Many falconers believe that the longer the hawk is in training, the less it will bate. That may or may not be correct but any time a bate can be prevented, the effort should be made to do so. In the early stages of its life as a trained hawk, a hawk tends to bate from fear of the falconer and its immediate surroundings with which it is not yet familiar, or because it does not yet understand that it is tethered and cannot fly away; most hawks never learn to understand the latter otherwise no trained hawk would ever bate once it had learned that lesson. In the wild, the hawk is free to fly whenever and wherever it chooses, that is obviously not the case with a hawk being trained yet it will still try for various reasons and the result will be a bate, either from the fist or from the perch.
When it comes to bates from fear, it is the job of the falconer to gradually accustom the hawk to all the things it might find concerning. This is done by slowly exposing the hawk to all the things associated with life as a trained hawk and is called manning. Perhaps it will soon be called ‘personing’ in the current climate but I sure hope not! However manning a hawk is not as simple as carrying the hawk around on the fist and exposing it to frightening things. If not done with considerable care, each new experience may well result in a bate. In the ideal World the falconer first tries to arrange things so that the hawk sees a particular object he wants the hawk to become accustomed to, say for instance a vehicle, at a distance. His hope is that being so far away she will not be overly alarmed and will not bate. The closer the object is, the more alarming it is to the hawk until she has established in her own mind that, that particular object is something she need not be afraid of. The falconer may strive on the first attempt to allow the hawk to see a small stationary car at a distance of fifty yards or so while gauging her reactions. A wise falconer will probably wait until the hawk is feeding on the fist before trying the experiment so that she has something interesting and pleasurable to occupy her. If done carefully, she may not even notice the vehicle at all and that is the result the falconer hopes for. Over coming days and manning sessions he will approach the car closer and closer, all the while gauging her reactions until, it is hoped, he can stand next to a road with traffic moving past in both directions and the hawk will not even notice. While it requires pretty extensive manning to accomplish this result, not just for vehicles but for other objects as well, the more manning a hawk receives, the less likely it is that she will bate from fear of such objects. Many wild hawks actually learn such ‘manning’ in their own time and of their own accord. I remember one particular Peregrine Falcon sitting on a runway happily discussing (as the old falconers used to call it) a pigeon he had caught while a fully loaded and revved up 747 Jumbo jet was mere yards away waiting to take off. The peregrine didn’t move until someone approached in a vehicle, stepped out and got within a couple of feet of him when he reluctantly let go of his food and flew off to sit on a nearby post. Few trained hawks are so well manned!
In the past, though not so much nowadays, falconers would often use tirings to keep the hawk occupied wile on the fist for such manning sessions. A tiring is a piece of tough bony food with only a small amount of food left on it such as a rabbit leg, squirrel head, pigeon wing or some such. The hawk will spend a lot of time discussing the food item and not be as likely to notice the vehicle in the distance. In this way she can slowly be moved closer to the vehicle while she feeds on the fist. The same approach is used to introduce the hawk to anything she may be fearful of be it dog, bicycles, trains, spouses, kids or whatever. A wise falconer will take a hawk through the manning process with as little nervousness shown on the part of the hawk as possible. But why? Well, the simple reason is a falconer is the hawks’ partner and not its jailer. Hopefully, he cares about the mental wellbeing of his hawk. A very worthy additional reason, in particular with regard to passage redtails, is that hawks under stress are more susceptible to disease such as aspergillosis. As stress levels increase so resistance to such a disease decreases; put another way, a hawk taken gently through the manning process will be less likely to develop such a disease as one that is put under more stress.
But what part does the hood play in all of this? Well, when hood trained, the manning session can be brought to an abrupt end at any moment the falconer deems necessary. Say for instance, you’re trying to get your hawk used to people in a similar way as you got her used to a parked car. Ideally you want her first of all to see people, or better still, a single person, at a distance before gradually introducing her to people closer and closer. That is not an easy thing to arrange, especially when trying to do it with complete strangers. Back in the days of Shakespeare folks were familiar enough with falconers manning hawks that they would sense when a falconer was trying to keep his distance from them and not bother him. Nowadays my experience has been the opposite, while trying to gradually introduce a new hawk to people most of the people I come across want to approach closely, and often quickly, to take a good look at the hawk. If the hawk is not ready for such an encounter a bate is the normal result, unless she has been hood trained. With such a hawk the hood can be quickly popped on as soon as a situation begins to develop that might result in a bate. A quick explanation to the interested party as to what the hood is for and all is well. As they walk away, once they are at a safe distance the hood is removed and the manning session continues.
Thus during manning, the hood is used to slowly introduce the hawk to things which it needs to learn to accept while at the same time having at your disposal a tool to instantly control a situation that may cause your hawk to bate. Used carefully and with wisdom, the hood will allow the hawk to be taken through the manning process with fewer bates than if it isn’t used. And there is another aspect to it aside from the reduction of stress; hawks which are used to being afraid with resulting bates while on the falconers’ fist, are more likely to bate, or, put another way, hawks which go through the manning process with fewer bates are less likely to bate in new situations. To put it in human terms if every time you went out with a particular friend something bad happened that increased your stress level you’d be on edge every time you were out with them. In the company of a trusted friend that did not expose you to things which terrified you, you would feel calm and if something unexpected did arise you’d be less likely to panic or feel fear because experience had not taught you to be constantly on edge when in the presence of that person. Of course over the years many hawks have been trained without having ever seen a hood. I think though, as I have outlined above, it will be obvious that such hawks would have had a less stressful time during manning if they had been trained to accept the hood but let’s move on.
What use does the hood play with a trained hawk that is trained and in the field regularly? It is here that in my opinion the hood is most useful for it allows the falconer to prevent bates from the hawk that are not caused by fear or lack of manning but are the result of the hawk wanting to be somewhere else other than on the falconer’s fist. The first instance likely to be encountered is when travelling to the field, not just in the vehicle but also on foot. It is rare that we can drive to a spot, get out of the vehicle and immediately release the hawk, nearly always we will have to walk some distance from the road before it is safe to do so. Many falconers, myself included, us a transport box of some kind to get the hawk to the field but they’re not very practical outside of the immediate vicinity of the vehicle and they have no use once we’re away from the vehicle. Once we arrive at the field where we’re going to fly the hawk, as often as not we’ll have to walk some distance from the vehicle before it is safe to release the hawk, either at quarry or to put it up into trees. What happens if our hawk sees quarry on that walk? If it’s not safe to slip the hawk and we hold onto her the result is a bate. One can imagine the hawk thinking “why are you restraining me you idiot, there’s a rabbit let me go you fool!”. But we can’t because it’s not yet safe to do so, or we don’t have permission, or it’s another falconer’s slip, or there’s a road just beyond the rabbit, or there’s a train coming etc. etc. etc. none of which the hawk understands. My philosophy is, if I’m not ready to release the hawk at quarry, or even to allow it to fly into nearby trees if that is what it is trained to do I will keep it hooded so that it does not bate and in doing so get frustrated at me. I want to be a partner and assistant to my hawk, not a master or a hindrance to it. And what about at the end of the hunt when our hawk has perhaps taken quarry and been fed up and we now have some distance to walk back to the vehicle? Some hawks will happily sit on the fist with a full crop as we walk several miles through suitable hawking habitat but the majority won’t, they’ll begin to bate and as the walk gets longer so the bates increase. We can’t use a tiring because they’ve already been fed up and if the hawk is not hood trained and hooded by the time it gets back to the vehicle it’s often in a foul mood and what should have been a happy conclusion to the day has been spoilt, both for us and the hawk. Of course some hawks, in particular many Harris Hawks, act as if these bates don’t really affect their relationship with falconer at all but that should not be used as an excuse to subject them to such a situation simply because we lacked the foresight to anticipate such an event and did not hood train them. While a transport box has its uses, it cannot fully replace the hood.
At home, some hawks, especially a lot of passage redtails will bate from their perch particularly during the early days when they are still adjusting to life as a trained hawk. When they can see trees from the weathering location this is really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as they have spent the previous part of their lives being able to fly into such trees whenever they want. For such hawks I will not hesitate to hood them while on their perch to prevent such bating which tends to be more common before they have been flown than afterwards, when they have food in their crop. Slowly, sometimes over the course of several months, I gradually let them spend more and more time unhooded while weathering. I would much rather see a hooded hawk relaxed and sitting on one foot, than one bating every few minutes. If you read through the old books you will find countless references to the older falconers weathering their hawks hooded, especially before flying.
When it comes down to it, there is really only one reason for not hood training a hawk, but it is rarely given by those who don’t do it, and that is that the falconer lacks the skill or confidence or knowledge of how to hood train a hawk properly. Teaching a broadwing such as a redtail or Harris to accept a hood is not unduly difficult but it must be done at the right time. The window of opportunity that must be exploited is the first few days after the hawk is taken up for training or trapped. The process has been explained many times in different books, my own included and I will not bother to repeat it here. Suffice to say it is not unduly difficult and of enormous benefit to the hawk, both physically but more important, mentally.
THE ADVANTAGES AND MECHANISMS BEHIND HOODING
By Gregory Miller of the Pennsylvania Falconry & Hawk Trust
Falconers all over the world have hooded birds for centuries. The use of the hood in falconry birds has been documented in most historic falconry resources; but why? Can you answer that? Most falconers have been exposed to hooding in varying degrees, but I suspect that most wouldn’t be able to come to an agreement on why. They may even be able to agree on some of the behavioral benefits, even while still not understanding the mechanics of how and why a hood works. I may not have decades of falconry experience, but I do believe in the value of hooding.
I have spent a lot of time the last few years reading falconry texts, talking to successful falconers, observing them, and applying that knowledge to my own birds to include broad wings, short wings and long wings. A very common trend that I have seen in successful game hawkers is the extensive use of the hood. This is not to say those that don’t hood, or even not consistently, can’t be or aren’t successful, but that there appears to be a definite parallel between consistent hood use and field success.
Hooding is both a learned skill and an art form. It can be as difficult or as easy as you make it out to be. It is my opinion that the reason hooding appears to be on a path of becoming less common compared to the use of giant hoods (which can be a successful alternative in certain situations) or not hooding at all is that often during the apprenticeship process, fewer and fewer apprentices are ever taught the values or the mechanics behind hooding.
We’ve all heard many reasons describing how a hood works, from “it’s like a parrot cage cover, it just calms them down” to “it forces them to use all of their other senses that they normally don’t rely on”. These reasons explain some of what happens, but it still doesn’t disclose the psychological mechanics.
Let’s break down why a hood is an effective tool for manning and field hawking a falconry bird. The primary key to the value of hooding, based on my observations, is the ability to control the experiences that a bird is exposed to. The birds, regardless of whether they are chamber, hacked, passage, wild or captive bred, relate their relationship to the falconer based on their visual interactions directly and indirectly. The proper use of the hood allows you to control those interactions.
Simplified, I believe the bird “grades” interactions into three basic and logical categories. Negative, neutral and positive. When un-hooded and not being fed or hunted, especially early on in the relationship, the bird can only see any interaction as negative or neutral at best. They have little interest in you at this stage in the game, so everything you are doing is under heavy scrutiny. It’s very easy to slip up and create a negative interaction, even if it’s not with you, but with something they associate with you like dogs, cars, certain gear, etc.
Even if you are doing everything right, and the bird is calm, you can only have a neutral effect at best, and more commonly, a negative experience if the hawk is un-hooded without the re-enforcers described above. Most un-hooded manning without food present is not a positive interaction, but neutral in the sense that the bird is being conditioned that you are not dangerous or a risk, but there is nothing the bird sees as positive or better than the baseline condition of simply existing. Without positive re-enforcement, you are simply hoping to habituate the hawk to your presence .
The hood allows you to control those interactions the bird has with you and his or her environment. Early in the training cycle, the hood would come off, and the first thing the bird sees is food, making the interaction with you positive. The hood goes on and now whatever is being done in the area can’t be construed as negative. Accidentally put food in sight of the bird while hooded, no effect, wave an arm too fast, didn’t see it, and you get the idea from here. An un-hooded bird can and may find the sight of food in your hand as “theft”. A bird at weight is looking for that next food or hunt, and it’s a lot easier to make a mistake in the relationship when the bird is itching for that next meal and already sees you as a partner. The appropriate use of the hood allows you to mitigate those potential issues.
It is not uncommon for falconers to keep a young and fresh bird in the hood for the majority of its time except during actual training. Once the bird is accustomed to the falconer and routine, un-hooded weathering would be introduced after the bird has already had nothing but positive and neutral experiences with the falconer.
HOODING LUNA W/ TIDBITTING
I condition my birds that the only thing that’s going to happen when the hood comes off is food or flying. Both of which are positive events in the bird’s existence. A little bit of high-level tid-biting to get the message, and then a set schedule will reinforce the meaning of the hoods removal. I often weather my bird in the evening and then hood the bird before I turn in. The next time that hood comes off is to fly or be fed a hold over meal until the next flight. I will always provide the lesson, flight, or food immediately after the hood is removed, although some birds have a little “wake up period”, to keep the mental state that the hood removal is the sign for something to come.
Even later in the game the repetition of hooding can create a mental connection between what is to come when the braces are struck. It can act as a trigger mechanism for the hunt to start. You’ll often see the hood used to “reset” a bird after a quarry is caught before continuing a hunt. This conditioning happens by the repetition of using the hood at the same time in the hunting/flying schedule and cycle.
In conclusion it has been my observation that the answer to what is the value of hooding is found to be the control of the meaning of the events tied to the hood, and removal of events happening outside of the hood. By taking advantage of the control given to a bird’s life experiences, hooding gives the falconer an excellent stepping-stone to success. Take the application of the hood and use it to your advantage as a behavioral shaping tool, and you may find more success. The hood is not simply a “shut down the bird” piece of your falconry equipment, but an item that when properly used results in a psychological conditioning method that can be tapped to assist you in developing a behaviorally solid, and field ready hunting partner.
This page was written by myself, Gregory Miller, and may not be the opinion of all falconers.