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Warrior Birds: Hawking

The Ancient Sport of Hawking Gives Outdoorsmen a Ringside Seat in the Primeval War between Hunter and the Hunted
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

(continued from page 1)

Falcons are generally known as the fighter pilots of the sport. Long, pointy wings, slender bodies and particularly large feet make them especially adept at high-speed, open-air flight; they are capable of soaring to 1,000 feet or higher and bringing down ducks and pigeons at speeds ranging from 120 to 200 mph. Hawks do not fly as fast--probably closer to 70 mph--but with shorter, broader wings and a stockier build, they are more maneuverable, capable of twisting through forests and brush to nab quail and pheasant. Some of the birds, such as the red-tail hawk, are expert bombers, which soar down from lofty perches, pouncing on mice, snakes and rabbits with brutal force.

Spend enough time around the weathering yard and you'll notice a spectrum of bird behavior, from the delightful to the terrifying. In one corner of the yard, a mature Harris hawk, relaxed and seemingly content, bathes himself in a small bowl of water beside his perch. If not for his curved, needle-tipped talons, you might think him a wren in your backyard.

Across from the laid-back adult Harris, a young, immature female of the breed periodically begins to "bait," jumping up and down, flapping her wings. Her neighbor, a young red-tail, screeches loudly, like a baby seeking a bottle. According to Rick Holderman, an engineer from San Diego and the field meet's weathering yard marshal, the red-tail's caterwauling may be a plea for attention, or it may merely be social talking. "Once these birds have been domesticated," he says, "they can recognize their owner, whom the bird associates with food. If I walk past my bird, you can bet she'll start yelling at me."

In the falcon wing, a petite, robin-sized merlin "mantles" over an afternoon snack. He stretches his wings to their full length and pulls the tips toward his beak, creating a tent of feathers that conceals his food from the other birds. The effect is something like a vampire enveloping his cape over a nubile victim.

Some of the birds wear little leather hoods, like horse blinders. "A raptor's brain is 90 percent vision," Holderman says. "Maybe eight percent of its brain is dedicated to hunting and killing, and two percent to reproduction. The rest is all about eyesight." The phrase "eyes like a hawk" is not merely a cliché. A hawk's vision is thought to be about eight times more powerful than a human's. (If you and a hawk, for instance, were to sit in the stadium press box at a football game, you would see an expansive green field; the hawk would see individual blades of grass.) To a hooded raptor, the world is an extremely mellow place.

Unhooded, perched on a tree above a meadow, a game hawk is anything but relaxed. He is part roving radar dish, part meat-seeking missile.

At the California Hawking Club's field meet, groups of falconers (and their birds) light out into the fields around rural Yuba City, in search of quarry. Those falconers flying merlins seek flocks of English sparrows, which a merlin can pluck out of midair like an outfielder snaring a line drive in the gap. Those flying Harris hawks seek jackrabbits--muscular, superfast bunnies the size of a small dog.

Whether you like hunting or not, it is difficult not to admire the precision and grace with which a raptor works. Though domesticated, most trained birds hardly differ from their brethren in the wild--except that the domesticated ones live about three times longer. Trained birds, like wild ones, like nothing better than to hunt. You can see the excitement in the bird's behavior when it is cast from its master's forearm into the sky: It's like a slot-machine junkie let loose in a casino.

Falconry is not merely voyeurism. Part of the sport's appeal is working with the bird, beating the brush, flushing prey, guiding the hawk toward potential targets. "It's not the bird that gets trained," Holderman says. "It's the hunter who gets trained. We have to learn to operate within the bird's instincts. We have to learn how to work in tandem with this flying creature."

To that end, all apprentice hawkers in America train under the supervision of a sponsor, a master hawker who guides them through centuries-old methods for trapping (it is illegal in America to buy or sell wild birds), training and bonding with a bird of prey.

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