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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 2)

Once a hawk or falcon is trapped, it is trained solely with food. Through Pavlovian conditioning, the hawker gets his bird to associate an upraised, gloved hand with being fed. During the bird's indoctrination, most hawkers feed it fresh, unprocessed meat, such as day-old chicks, quail and rabbit. In addition to training a hawk to return for food, humans must become adept at "manning" the bird, getting it used to being around people. Most raptors will fly away--never to return--only if they're spooked by human contact or become too fat.

Though we humans prefer to believe that the birds adore us as much as we adore them, raptors are not like, say, dogs. They do not feel affection and loyalty for us. They do not crave praise. They want one thing: meat. As long as we can provide it--whether in the form of freeze-dried baby chicks or running rabbits--they will stay and work with us. Otherwise, forget it. All hawkers carry portable scales on which they weigh their birds, for a sated, heavy hawk will not fly. Why bother? A light, hungry hawk, on the other hand, will become a fearless hunter once it's let loose of its restraints.

Duane Zobrist, an international lawyer from Los Angeles, and his son, Duane Jr., the director of The Falconry Academy at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia [see box, page 337], lead a jackrabbit hunt early one moody morning during the California Hawking Club field meet. Accompanied by three other hawkers, the Zobrists prepare to fly a couple of experienced Harris hawks in a field behind an abandoned farmhouse. The air is cool and moist; the sky is gray. If you did not see large tractor-trailer trucks roaring past on the horizon, you might think you were in the moors of Scotland, where an abundance of small game makes it one of the best countries in the world for falconry.

The Zobrists weigh their animals and pronounce them fit to fly. Offering the birds a gloved hand as a perch, they carry the eager hawks into the field. (The birds are restrained by small leather straps, called "jesses," tied around their ankles.) Aside from the pure, aesthetically pleasing sight of a hawk in flight, having one of these magnificent creatures sitting calmly on your arm may be falconry's most appealing element. Though the birds do not like to be pet--it is not good for the water-resistant oils on their feathers--they do not seem to mind being near their masters. This awe-inspiring proximity, this intimacy a falconer shares with his winged partner, is hawking's greatest reward. If you are not filled with wonder by the sight of a hawk perched on your hand, staring at you with its steely green eyes, falconry --or any natural communion--is probably not for you.

Duane Sr. and his son gently cast their hawks into the air. The birds take to the sky, looking for a lofty, secure perch. They find what they are looking for in a nearby telephone pole. The hunt is on.

The hawkers fan out across the field, beating the underbrush as they walk, hoping to scare out a jackrabbit. The hawks coolly observe the action below, careful not to waste any energy until their quarry is in sight. (Each extended flight is equivalent to a grown man running a mile or more. The birds cannot afford to waste themselves on frivolous efforts.) When the hawks' handlers feel they are getting too far from the birds, they whistle and shout, waving furry lures to attract the birds' attention. "We don't want them to get out of range," Duane Sr. says. Predictably, the birds follow their masters. The prospect of some chicken snacks does wonders for a hawk's commitment to the team.

The younger Duane notices his hawk displaying some peculiar behavior, leaning anxiously on her perch. "She sees something," he says, excitedly. Sure enough, a gargantuan jackrabbit, around 10 pounds, breaks from the brush and sprints across the field. With a few powerful flaps of their wide wings, the hawks soar after it, closing the 50-yard gap in maybe three seconds. The birds chase the rabbit; the humans chase the chase. A football field away, darting left and right, one of the hawks pounces on the rabbit, creating a spectacular collision. Struggling to live, the rabbit rolls on its back and kicks at the hawk with its giant hind legs. "Help the bird!" Duane Sr. yells to his son, sprinting ahead. "She needs help." In a few dramatic seconds the struggle is over; the rabbit escapes.

None of the falconers seems the least bit disappointed. "Did you see that? Wasn't that amazing?" Duane Jr. asks the group. "What a flight! What a great flight!" The only member of the hunting party noticeably dismayed is the hawk, who returns to her master with a chunk of rabbit fur in her talons and an anxious look flashing in her eyes.

"Most people only get to see that kind of flight in a nature film on television," the younger Zobrist says, nuzzling his hawk, nose to beak. "We get to see it every time we step outside. That," he says, looking as though he might kiss his bird, "is what hawking is all about."

Contributing editor Michael Konik writes Cigar Aficionado's gambling column.

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