Tips on acquiring and training captive-bred Harris’s hawks

Contact: Toby Bradshaw <baywingdb@comcast.net>

Introduction

As a Harris’s hawk breeder, I get a lot of calls and emails regarding the training of captive-bred Harris’s hawks.  Many of these inquiries come from falconers obtaining their first Harris’s hawk.  It is primarily for these falconers that this article is written, although I do hope that even experienced Harris’s hawkers will find some valuable tidbits of information or alternative points of view to stimulate them.

I am a scientist by profession, so naturally I try to draw my conclusions on Harris’s hawk training using the scientific method whenever that is possible.  Inevitably, because of the modest number of Harris’s hawks I have flown, a good deal of intuition creeps into the equation, too.  Consider what is written below to be one person’s (informed) opinion.

Let me say from the outset that there is more than one "right" way to train a Harris’s hawk and end up with a highly desirable finished product.  I am still learning new tricks every year and incorporating them into my "standard" training routine.  I have seen exceptions to nearly every "rule," including my own training rules.  I’d love to hear from you about your own views and experiences training Harris’s hawks.

The methods described in this article have worked well for me and many of my hawking buddies around the world, hunting in a wide variety of terrain for many different quarries.  My comments are based on my 28 years of hawking with 31 captive-bred Harris’s hawks (with more than 3500 head of quarry taken), plus careful observation of dozens of other falconers and hundreds of Harris’s hawks.  I have made more than my share of mistakes along the way, and been witness to the mistakes of many other falconers, but hopefully I can help you avoid learning everything the hard way.

Acquiring a captive-bred Harris's hawk

Purchasing a Harris’s hawk is potentially a long-term commitment.  With luck, it will be your hunting partner for 10, 15, or even 20 years.  It makes absolutely no sense to skimp on the cost of the young hawk from the breeder, or to obtain a hand-me-down Harris’s with known behavioral problems.  A few hundred dollars here or there is insignificant in the long run, given the thousands of hours and hundreds of gallons of gas that will be spent hawking.  If the hawk is really good, you may even have to invest in an extra freezer to hold all the game!

Do yourself a favor and research the bloodlines of the Harris’s hawks you are considering for purchase.  Do not assume that any young Harris’s hawk is as good as any other, because this is not true.  Ask a few questions of the breeder.  Why were the breeding birds chosen as parents?  What are the performance goals of the breeder?  Does the breeder fly his/her own stock?  Can you watch the parents or, better yet, siblings of your bird fly?  What pedigree information does the breeder have on the parents and their offspring?  Can the breeding stock be traced back to wild-caught birds?  Breeding Harris’s hawks is easy, but breeding exceptional Harris’s hawks is not.  Harris’s hawks are unique because of their highly developed social system.  Find a breeder that really understands and flies Harris’s hawks.

Although it is highly desirable to choose your young Harris’s hawk from good bloodlines, it is even more important that the breeder rears the young bird in a manner that will produce a well-socialized bird, properly imprinted on its natural parents, and yet unafraid of people, dogs, automobiles, and other things to which it will be exposed while hunting later in life.  Proper rearing extends well beyond the hard-penned stage of eyas development, which occurs at approximately 8 weeks after hatching.  Far too many Harris’s hawks are sold just as they become hard-penned.  This is partly because other captive-bred raptors traditionally are sold at this stage of development, partly because many breeders prefer to sell their stock as soon as possible to reduce feeding costs (roughly $1.50/day if Coturnix quail are the food source), and partly because young hawks kept in solid-walled breeding chambers start to become nervous and jumpy about the time they are hard-penned.

Harris’s hawks are far more social than the other raptors flown in falconry, and have a much longer dependency period in the wild.  It takes time for a young Harris’s hawk to learn all the nuances of social behavior, and to fully imprint on its natural parents.  Harris’s hawks can be taken from their parents as early as 8 weeks if they are trained quickly, flown hard to develop independence from the falconer, and flown in a cast with an adult Harris’s hawk which will continue to teach the young hawk the necessary social graces.  A Harris’s hawk taken as young as 8 weeks will almost invariably become a constant screamer at home, though most are silent in the field.  Surprisingly, a Harris's hawk taken from its parents at 8 weeks and housed and flown without another Harris’s hawk is still capable of becoming mis-imprinted on the falconer.  Like any mis-imprinted Harris’s hawk, when it becomes sexually mature it may even attempt to copulate with the falconer and become territorial around other humans (and, sometimes, dogs) to the point of attacking them.  This is flirting with disaster.

An 8-week-old Harris’s hawk is a very poor choice for the falconer who has never before flown a Harris’s hawk, or who does not have another Harris’s hawk to fly in a cast with the youngster.  In general, I like to take a youngster from its parents at 12-20 weeks of age.  By this time the young hawk has learned its place in the dominance hierarchy, and will be much less prone to screaming and crabbing when trained.  Males do develop more quickly than females, and are much less likely to show aggression problems as they get older, probably because males are never the dominant bird in a family group setting.  For these reasons, I will sometimes take a male as early as 10-11 weeks and have never had any major problems, and with appropriate discipline and a good cast partner I routinely take females at 11-12 weeks.  But for the inexperienced Harris's hawker, I think it pays to leave females with their parents for the full 16-20 weeks, especially if the hawk will not be flown in a cast as soon as it is trained.

In order to keep the young hawk with the parents for 4-5 months without having it become nervous and skittish from lack of exposure to human activity, I consider it critical to rear the young in an open-sided breeding chamber from which they can see people, dogs, cars, and other distractions they will be expected to tolerate for the remainder of their lives.  Accordingly, I use chain link breeding chambers erected in plain sight of a busy street.  In these chambers, the young hawks are fed by their natural parents and so become properly imprinted, while at the same time they become unafraid of people, dogs, traffic, and the other trappings of civilization.  The parents themselves are proven falconry birds who remain calm around human activity.  This calmness reassures the young hawks.

Yes, it is a lot of trouble to breed and rear young Harris’s hawks the way that I prefer, but the end product is worth the effort.

Qualities of an excellent Harris's hawk

Harris’s hawks are the most versatile and adaptable raptors used for falconry.  They are probably the easiest hawk to train successfully, even for a complete novice to the sport, yet at the same time are capable of the most complex and varied flight styles imaginable when handled by a real expert.  I am forever amazed by the depth and breadth of their abilities in the field.  A well-bred, properly-reared, correctly-trained Harris’s hawk is a lifetime hunting partner.  Given sufficient opportunity and encouragement, the hawk’s repertoire of skills will grow over the years and provide constant enjoyment to the most discriminating falconer.

Many people seem to think that all Harris’s hawks are cut from the same cloth.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  There is tremendous variation among individual Harris’s hawks and among different bloodlines within the species.  This variation can be exploited for maximum advantage by thoughtful falconers.  My expectations for a "finished" Harris’s hawk have risen dramatically over the past 25 years.  I am sure that they will be higher still 25 years from now.  Here are the characteristics I think are important in a trained Harris’s hawk, roughly in descending order of importance.

Tameness.  Tameness simplifies every aspect of Harris’s hawk management.  Although captive-bred Harris’s hawks have a well-deserved reputation for tameness, this is by no means a universal trait.  Some are as twitchy as as the spookiest goshawk.

Most Harris’s hawks can be tamed to a remarkable degree, especially when at flying weight.  I like a Harris’s hawk that is totally tame at any weight, under any circumstances.  I molt and breed Harris’s hawks in chain link enclosures with natural turf on the ground.  Chain link breeding and molting chamberThe openness of chain link provides year-round visual stimulation to the hawks, gives them plenty of light and fresh air, and prevents the accumulation of food scraps and hawk slices.  At the same time, chain link is portable, extremely durable, and impervious to predators.  Even at temperatures somewhat below freezing, a little protection from the wind and a heated perch are all that is necessary to keep a fat Harris’s hawk healthy in a chain link chamber.  It is crucial that my hawks be comfortable in such exposed quarters and not thrash about breaking feathers and scraping ceres, even when garbage trucks rumble by or lawnmowers blare at full throttle.  I really dislike keeping Harris’s hawks in solid-walled mews, especially if the hawk is alone or has a limited view of the outside world.  Harris’s hawks are social animals, and isolation is not good for them.  Isolation can produce problems such as thigh-plucking, aggression towards people and dogs, and mis-imprinting or overdependence on the falconer.  Tameness is essential to my style of Harris’s hawk husbandry.

Tame hawks also fly at higher weights and with greater zest, are not easily lost, molt fast and cleanly, and breed easily when and if that is desired.  Tame hawks are more forgiving of training errors.  They are more tolerant of novel hunting environments, the presence of strangers in the field, and unexpected distractions.  There is no such thing as a Harris’s hawk that is "too tame."  The best of them are as friendly as any dog, and will actively seek out the company of the falconer.  Their total lack of fear and inhibition allows them to focus all of their energy on hunting, and makes them extremely effective in the field, as well as a pleasure at home.

Tameness is a product of good genes, proper rearing by the parents in an open-sided chamber where the young are exposed to human activity, and training/hunting for several months in their first year to form a strong "pack bond" with the falconer.  In the best Harris’s hawk bloodlines, no formal manning is required. but traditional manning can be done if the falconer so desires.  Hawks from the White Wing line, founded by Tom and Jennifer Coulson, are the tamest Harris’s hawks I have ever seen.  I would certainly be interested in locating unrelated but equally tame Harris’s hawks for my breeding project.

Eagerness for quarry.  Since the point of falconry is to hunt wild game, it is obvious that an excellent Harris’s hawk must have a strong innate desire to chase quarry of all kinds.  You might think that natural selection would long ago have eliminated any tendency to be "slack-mettled," but I have seen and (unfortunately) owned Harris’s hawks that were essentially useless in the field because of their lack of hunting drive.  These were not hawks exhibiting the "near miss syndrome" due to improper hunting weight (see below for details), but simply were not very interested in pursuing quarry under most circumstances typical of falconry.  Probably someone more patient than I could make something of such hawks, but I prefer to direct my limited talents towards Harris’s hawks with more inherent gameness.  Nearly every one of the Harris’s hawks I have trained caught a rabbit on its first day in the field, and many other Harris’s hawkers have had similar success.

In my experience, gameness is a matter of good genes and plenty of exposure to suitable quarry, especially early in life.  Most Harris’s hawks are not easily discouraged by failure, but certainly there is nothing like immediate and frequent success in the field to give a Harris’s hawk the confidence it needs to undertake the most demanding flights.

Not every Harris’s hawk shows an instant interest in feathered quarry.  If hunting game birds is a high priority for you, make sure to select a young Harris’s hawk from parents with a proven penchant for chasing quail and pheasants.

Similarly, there is quite a bit of variation in the persistence of individual Harris’s hawks when pursuing quarry.  Many Harris’s hawks are decidedly opportunistic, and will refuse a difficult slip in hopes of finding more vulnerable quarry later.  When these opportunists do sense an advantage over the quarry they will explode into action and try very hard to catch it.  When they choose to attack their success rate can be high indeed.  To some extent this opportunism is a learned behavior, and it is rare for an older, experienced Harris’s hawk to show the same reckless abandon commonly seen in the first season.  Nevertheless, I prefer a Harris’s hawk that will consistently take a long, challenging slip, such as an upwind flight on a jackrabbit flushing wild.  Even the most reserved, calculating, veteran Harris’s hawk will take a tough slip if its weight is right, game is scarce, and the sun has set.  The best Harris’s hawks will try hard all the time, and never give up the pursuit as long as they are gaining ground.  These are real gems.

Social skills.  A good Harris’s hawk needs proper manners around people, dogs, and, particularly, other Harris’s hawks.  It must never be aggressive towards people or dogs (even small dogs like Jack Russell terriers or mini-dachshunds), and should not demonstrate aggression or territorial behavior towards other Harris’s hawks in the field.  The very best Harris’s hawks will actually turn their back and walk or fly away from a fight even when challenged by another Harris’s hawk.  Good social skills come from good genes, by allowing the parents to rear the young for at least 10-12 weeks in open-sided chambers where people and dogs are constantly visible, and by flying and molting with other properly socialized Harris's hawks.  Harris's hawks can lose their social skills if not housed and flown regularly with other Harris's hawks.  I like to perch my hunting birds close together (but not able to reach one another) in the weathering yard during the hunting season to keep them familiar with each other, and they are housed together in a chain link aviary during the molt.  Long-term isolation is not good for a Harris's hawk -- I consider it cruel.  If you aren't able to join in regular hunts with another falconer and his/her Harris's hawk, consider flying a cast of Harris's hawks yourself so that the birds can keep each other company.

Situational awareness.  A good Harris’s hawk adopts different flight styles in varying terrain and weather conditions.  It will ride on the glove or T-perch for hours without bating in open country, take excellent high perches in enclosed country, and soar when conditions permit.  Some Harris’s hawks have an uncanny ability to spot game.  "Good eyes" put a lot of rabbits in the bag.  Some falconers like having a hawk that is "well-trained' and under control at all times.  In some hunting situations, such as confined areas where a hawk might have to be recalled quickly, this is necessary,  I avoid hunting such confined areas, and I prefer to give my Harris's hawks complete freedom in the field.  I usually fly them without jesses, and always allow them to select their own perches from which to hunt.  If given this freedom a good Harris's hawk quickly learns to position itself to give it the maximum advantage over quarry flushed by the falconer and dogs.  Part of the enjoyment of falconry is watching the hawk develop and implement effective hunting tactics on its own.

Athletic ability.  Speed, agility, and good footing are important traits for hunting hawks.  There is a remarkable amount of variability in this area.  These traits are difficult to compare unless you are flying a lot of Harris’s hawks at once.

For some reason there is a preoccupation with the size of Harris’s hawks, with large birds seemingly preferred by many falconers.  Since even a 620g (22oz) male can catch 3kg (6+ pound) jackrabbits regularly, the fascination with large size escapes me.  Bigger is not better!  Just as with dogs, it’s the size of the fight in the hawk, and not the size of the hawk in the fight, that really counts.  If having a large hawk is important to you, just tell everyone that you fly a 1200g female Harris’s, even if you are really hunting her at 940g.  I’ve seen too many falconers fly their Harris’s hawk fat to brag on its large size, then look foolish when the other guy’s 850g female is catching all the game.

Mantling and screaming.  Most captive-bred Harris’s hawks I have had mantled to some degree, especially if fed large portions of food on the glove.  Since I do not give tidbits on the glove anymore, mantling is not a problem.

Screaming is very common among captive-bred Harris’s hawks, and few if any Harris’s hawks are completely silent, especially at home when hungry.  They are social birds and vocal communication is normal for them, even as adults.  Luckily, the adult voice is much less grating on the ears than the immature scream.  Despite the fact that vocalization is normal for Harris's hawks, there is a world of difference between a Harris’s hawk that squawks once or twice when it sees the falconer and one that screams with every breath from dawn to dark.  The latter can drive you (or your neighbors) crazy.  In the most extreme cases, the hawk will even scream in the field.  A bad screamer can also teach other Harris’s hawks to scream, and that is reason enough to avoid them.

Screaming is the result of a complex mixture of genes and environment.  Some pairs of Harris’s hawks tend to produce young that are less prone to scream than usual.  Unfortunately, sometimes this is because the young are not as naturally tame as I think a Harris’s hawk should be.  However, if silence is more important to you than absolute tameness, one of these "wilder" Harris’s hawks might be for you.

The main cause of screaming is well known to falconers.  Once the hawk understands that the falconer is a food source, the food-begging scream begins.  Taking the Harris’s hawk from its parents at too early an age is a major culprit.  The best solution to food-begging is to eliminate the association between food and the falconer.  The hawk should come to see the falconer not as a direct source of food, but as a source of opportunities to hunt for its own food.

Male or female?

There is more difference among different bloodlines and individuals than there is between the sexes, but there are some rules of thumb for choosing the sex of a Harris's hawk for falconry.

For quarry up to the size of cottontails and pheasant, I prefer the male Harris's hawk.  Males are quicker in acceleration and turning, much more agile, and more aerial than females.  They have a flashy flight style, and rarely give problems with aggression towards people, dogs, or other Harris's hawks.  It is easier to practice "catch-and-release" falconry with males, which don't do as much damage to the quarry as most females will.

If the primary quarry are large rabbits (swamp rabbit, European rabbit) or jackrabbits (hares), I prefer a female Harris's hawk.  Females have the size and strength necessary to subdue large and powerful game animals.  They are faster than males over the long haul, and better able to fly into a strong wind.  They can eat a larger amount of food without gaining weight, and usually fly well at a wider range of weights than a male.  Many falconers fly female Harris's hawks simply because females tend to be more relaxed and amiable than males.

A female-male cast of Harris's hawks gives the best of both worlds.  It is a pleasure to watch the two hawks simultaneously compete to get to the quarry first, then cooperate in catching it.  The flying skills of the female and male are complementary -- the aerobatic male frequently forces the quarry to leave cover just as the female closes in at maximum speed to deliver the final powerful stroke.  Cast flying gives the falconer a window into the behavior of wild Harris's hawks, provides suitable companionship for the Harris's hawks, and is very effective on game, especially in heavy cover.

Training goals and principles

Personally, I hate to train hawks.  I much prefer to hunt.  There is only one real goal of training, and that is to have the hawk allow the falconer to approach it on a kill, or call it back should it fail to kill.  Everything, and I mean everything, the captive-bred Harris's hawk needs to know beyond this can only be learned by hunting.  Not by creance flying, not by free-flying in a game-free field, not by lure-flying, not by jump-ups, not by restrained pursuits, but by HUNTING SUCCESSFULLY.  For a captive-bred Harris's hawk, there are no substitutes for real-world experience and consistent success.  Good physical condition is important, of course, but not nearly as important as flying and hunting skills, and the confidence they produce in the hawk.  Every effort should be expended towards getting the hawk in the field as soon as possible, where it learns to fly, chase quarry, make kills, and become more socially mature.  The hawk also learns that the falconer, dogs, and other hawks are helping to find, flush, and catch the game.  A successful Harris's hawk is a confident Harris's hawk, and a confident Harris's hawk will amaze the falconer with its intensity and hunting prowess.

Here are my cardinal rules for training a captive-bred Harris's hawk:

1.  Think of everything from the hawk's point of view.  A good falconer channels the instincts, development, and learned behaviors of the hawk so that the hawk wants to do exactly the same things that the falconer wants it to do.

2.  Do not make any food association between yourself and the hawk.  Do not feed the hawk on the fist, ever (except once or twice to get it to hop to the glove the first time or two).  Instead, make an association between yourself and the opportunity for the hawk to hunt.  This promotes pack bonding between the falconer and the Harris's hawk, while at the same time teaching the young hawk to become food-independent.  The hawk wants to be near you not to be fed by you, but to hunt with you.  You become its packmate.  That is the desired relationship between a falconer and a Harris's hawk.  If the hawk knows it is capable of feeding itself, it is much less likely to scream and beg the falconer for food.

3. Do not restrain the hawk on the fist.  If the hawk is given complete freedom to leave the fist, even from the first days of training, it will never resent the fist or the falconer.  Instead, the hawk will learn that the fist is a good place from which to hunt and will return voluntarily without reward.  I like to watch a hawk develop its own hunting style, exploring different methods of gaining an advantage over quarry (e.g., taking stand in a tree, soaring, or riding on the falconer's glove).  I have trained and flown Harris's hawks without ever having the hawk bate from the glove or hang from its jesses.  This desirable outcome does require that the hawks be super-tame to start with, so that no 'fear bates' occur.  Hawks trained this way will fly hundreds of yards to the glove just to be with the falconer, anticipating the chance to hunt.  [NB: Many successful falconers routinely restrain Harris's hawks on the fist during manning and hunting, and I can't say that it causes any harm.  I just prefer not to restrain them.]

4.  Do not overtrain.  Let me be clear.  DO NOT OVERTRAIN.  Training is a necessary evil, to be kept as brief and simple as possible.  Hunting is the goal.  There is no such thing as "too much hunting."

5.  Provide a LOT of opportunities for your young Harris's hawk to catch quarry.  Make every effort to get the beginning hawk a large number of easy slips every day for the first few weeks of its hunting career.  Do whatever it takes to get the young hawk entered and made to quarry as quickly as possible -- you only get this opportunity once in the hawk's life, so put in the hours and miles to do it right.

Many first-time Harris's hawkers in the U.S. are General class falconers just finishing an apprenticeship with passage red-tails.  If a captive-bred Harris's hawk is treated like a passage red-tail, the Harris's hawk will be ruined.  In many ways the captive-bred Harris's and passage red-tail are exact opposites.  A passage red-tail comes to the falconer with a wealth of flying and hunting skills acquired when the hawk was on its own, but also with a fear of people.  The training of a passage red-tail revolves around overcoming the hawk's fear of humans.  Usually this is done by making the hawk hungry, and creating a food association with the falconer.  Once the red-tail is trained (tamed, really), it can be taken hunting.  It knows what to do when it sees game.

A captive-bred Harris's hawk, on the other hand, has no real fear of people if it has been bred and reared properly.  Very little (if any) time needs to be spent taming (manning).  However, the young Harris's hawk is a complete novice at flying, and probably has never seen live game, much less killed it.  That is why the hawk needs to get from the chamber to the field as quickly as possible.  It is critical that the falconer NOT make a food association with the young captive-bred Harris's hawk.  The young hawk should associate the falconer not with food but rather with the opportunity to hunt for itself, helped by the falconer, dogs, and castmates.  Harris’s hawks have a long dependency period in the wild, and quickly transfer their dependency from their parents to the falconer if the falconer acts as a parent by providing food.  OVERDEPENDENCE ON THE FALCONER, PROMOTED BY FOOD ASSOCIATION, IS THE ROOT OF NEARLY ALL PROBLEMS WITH CAPTIVE-BRED HARRIS’S HAWKS.  You can save yourself a lot of grief and end up with a much better Harris's hawk by eliminating any association with food.

Training methods

I find that it takes about 1-3 weeks to move a young Harris’s hawk from the breeding chamber to the hunting field.  In that first 1-3 weeks only a small amount of time, perhaps 5-30 minutes, is needed each day, at least for the Harris's hawks I breed and fly.  I do no formal manning at all, since I work with an exceptionally tame line of captive-bred Harris's hawks.  If your new Harris's hawk is not tame enough at the outset to sit on the glove or perch without bating or fear of your hands, a day or two of traditional manning will be well spent.  When the eyas is pulled from the chamber by me, or arrives by air freight from Tom and Jenn, it is cast gently in a towel while the Aylmeri cuffs, jesses, bell, and telemetry tail mount or (preferably) backpack mount are attached.  I use a single merlin-sized leg bell and a Marshall TrackPack mount for the telemetry.  When released from the towel, the hawk is placed on the glove.  A really tame Harris's hawk will not bate; the best of them will stand on the glove and preen.  The hawk is then weighed and put on a low bow perch in the back yard, with access to a bath.  I generally put a tidbit on my glove and show it to the hawk while it is standing on the perch.  I have only had two hawks take the tidbit on Day 1; one of them even made its first jump to the glove within a few hours of being pulled from the breeding chamber!  I wish that every falconer could experience the pleasure of flying such birds as these, which practically train themselves.

Every time the hawk sees me from this point forward, it will have a chance to look for food.  Occasionally I will walk by and offer a tidbit on the glove.  I will let the hawk pick one tidbit from the glove, but after that, if the hawk wants to eat it has to jump to the glove.  When it makes its first jump to the glove, I immediately toss a tidbit to the ground.  The hawk learns an important lesson -- the glove is a good place from which to hunt (for tidbits, in this case).  At this point, many hawks will return to the bow perch, then jump back to the ungarnished glove.  If this happens, I toss another tidbit to the ground at once.  If the hawk won't jump to the ungarnished glove, I offer another tidbit on the glove, then toss a tidbit to the ground after the hawk has eaten the one on the glove.  Nearly all Harris's hawks will now jump from the bow perch to the ungarnished glove.  From now on, the hawk will never receive another tidbit on the glove, but will be expected to come to the fist and wait to be "served."  In the evening, I carefully pick the hawk up from the perch and back it into the transport box to spend the night.  A tidbit is placed on the perch in the box to encourage the hawk to step up.  The next morning, the hawk is weighed and put back on the bow perch. 

Hera on a mountain cottontailOnce this routine is established, all that is needed is to increase the distance of the flights just as one typically trains any other hawk or falcon.  I like to use a second person to help at this stage, so the hawk flies back and forth between us, and a tidbit is thrown to the ground every time the hawk comes to one person or the other.  When the hawk will come 30-50 feet on the creance promptly, it is shown a whole dead rabbit lure.  Every Harris's hawk I've had slammed into the lure the first time it was brought out.  The hawk is given the rabbit's front leg, and allowed to eat it in peace.  I walk away from the hawk while it eats, so that it doesn't feel compelled to mantle.  When it is finished with the leg, the hawk is called to the ungarnished glove and put in its transport box.  The same pattern will be followed in the field.

There is no need to do any more training, or fly the hawk free, before hunting.  All of my Harris's hawks make their first free flight in a hunting field, and most of them catch a rabbit on their first day off the creance.

So far, I haven't mentioned weight control, manning, or hooding.  Weight control is important, and most captive-bred Harris's hawks will need to be reduced in weight before being hunted.  For the vast majority of eyas Harris’s hawks being trained for the first time, this hunting weight is lower than the weight at which the hawk will return to the falconer.  This means that training needs to proceed quickly so that the young bird is out hunting before it becomes dependent on the falconer.  Harris’s hawks are notorious liars, and will act like they are starving at home, but have poor response in the field because in reality they are too heavy.  Likewise, at their "first free flight weight" many of them will come a mile to the glove, but somehow never quite catch up to rabbits that they chase.  This "near-miss syndrome" is a symptom of being over their true hunting weight.  To catch rabbits consistently a Harris’s hawk must fly hard, crash into brush, and rebound in pursuit after a miss.  If it doesn’t do these things, it is too heavy to hunt well, no matter how good its fist response might be.

When the captive-bred Harris's hawk is ready to be flown free, training is over and the fun begins!

The next three weeks -- hunting!

In the first three weeks post-training it is a great advantage if the young bird can be flown hard for an hour or two every day, seeing plenty of game.  Try to arrange your free time to accommodate this critical developmental stage.  I feel that if I cannot produce a decent slip for every 10 or 15 minutes of walking that the young hawk is likely to become bored or distracted.  I don't hold the hawk on the glove.  If it is out of position for a flush, it will soon learn the error of its ways.  There must be enough game so that success or failure does not depend upon one flush.  Now is the time for the hawk to learn that the falconer reliably produces game, and that if the hawk maintains good position on the glove or a suitable perch, uses its eyes to search for game, and exerts itself when quarry is seen, it will be rewarded with a satisfying pursuit and a hot meal.

The training process is made easier if the first three weeks of hunting is in an open area, where recovery of the minimally-trained hawk is simplified by the lack of high perches, thick cover, etc.  It is worth driving a considerable distance to hawk in such favorable conditions.  I would gladly drive 1000 miles to get my young Harris's hawk off to a good start.  That first catch will unleash a ferocity in the hawk that it has never felt before.  The quarry is footed over and over, the hawk's talons convulsing as they tattoo the prey.  Savor this moment, for the hawk will never look at the world the same way again.  It is amazing how this first kill affects the intensity of subsequent hunts.  After the first kill, try very hard for an unbroken string of kills on successive days.  Four or five catches in a row will "make" a Harris's hawk, and the hawk will be on its way.

By far the easiest way to train a new Harris's hawk is simply to fly it with an experienced adult, which is what I do.  I put no particular pressure on a brand-new young Harris's hawk to make kills for the first several days (although they usually do anyway), as long as it is flying and behaving well with its castmate.  I would rather have the young hawk start out a little heavy, but feeling frisky and getting strong from constant flying, than to be overly hungry.  If too low, a young hawk may not have the energy to expand its flight envelope, and may be too aggressive around kills made by its castmate.  A young Harris's hawk flown daily will soon enough grow into its role as a hunter and provider for the pack.  This is part of the normal social development of a Harris's hawk.

The importance of early, constant exposure to game cannot be overemphasized.  I am asking this young hawk, which has never flown more than 50 feet, to simultaneously learn to fly, learn the escape tactics of game, use its eyes well, foot accurately, and feed itself on its own kills or the kills made its castmate from its first free flight onward.  That is a tall order.  I give my hawk every chance to succeed by finding "honey holes" loaded with game, preferably young quarry that are as inexperienced as my Harris's hawk.  Preseason scouting for these special hunting spots is well rewarded.

If necessary, bagged game can be used (judiciously) to serve the same end.  However, I have not found this to be needed with my Harris's hawks entered to rabbits.  And, of course, my young hawks learn the ropes from a veteran castmate.

After the hawk makes a catch, I dispatch the quarry and remove part of it (e.g., a rabbit front leg) and trade the hawk to that.  I walk away and leave the hawk alone to eat.  When it is finished, it will come looking for me so that that the hunt can continue.  Harris's hawks are capable of multiple kills from the very beginning, and this is something to be encouraged.  The hawk will always find a tidbit on its perch in the transport box, so my truck and the box itself become lures.

If desired (or necessary), the dogs and other Harris's hawks can be introduced once the young hawk has caught a few rabbits on its own.  Use proper precautions when starting with dogs, especially if the young Harris's hawk is a female.

After that magic five or six weeks since the young Harris's hawk was taken from its parents, I have a competent (if not completely polished) game hawk.  By providing for itself the hawk will not come to depend on the falconer as a source of food, but rather will consider the falconer (and dogs, and other Harris’s hawks) as members of its hunting pack.  The falconer’s glove is not seen as a vending machine for tidbits, but as a mobile perch from which game is sure to be spotted, pursued, and caught.  Multiple kills are the norm, not the exception.  I have set a favorable pattern that will last for the rest of the bird’s life.

These methods have worked very well for me, and are the result of a lot of thought and experimentation over the past 20 years.

Let me illustrate my training methods using comments and excerpts from my logbook entries for ‘Milo,’ a male I started in 2001.

20 July 2001.  600g.  Milo arrives from Tom and Jennifer Coulson’s breeding project at age 12 weeks.  Being from the naturally-tame White Wing line of Harris’s hawks, he sits on the glove without bating, even when he is carried outdoors and placed on the bow perch.  He learns to regain the bow perch after the first bate, doing in five minutes what less-tame Harris's hawks may take several days to learn.

21 July 2001.  590g.  Milo stretched his neck for a tidbit on the glove.  I use rabbit hind leg meat for tidbits, wetted with water and sprinkled with Vitahawk.  Rabbit leg is not very nutritious and aids the weight loss process, while the Vitahawk provides essential vitamins and minerals, and keeps the foot and cere color a nice deep yellow.

22 July 2001.  588g.  Milo hopped to the garnished glove for a tidbit, then to the ground for a tossed tidbit.

23 July 2001.  590g.  Milo hopped immediately to the ungarnished glove, then down to the ground for a tossed tidbit.

24-29 July 2001.  ???g.  I was out of town at a meeting, but my daughter Bridget (age 10) worked with Milo daily, having him hop to her ungarnished glove and wait for increasing lengths of time before the tidbit was served by tossing it to the ground.

30 July 2001.  550g.  Bridget had done such a good job while I was gone that Milo was ready for the creance.

31 July 2001.  540g.  Milo was flown to the dead rabbit lure on the creance, with excellent response.  He probably could have been flown free several days before, were it not for the interruption caused by my out-of-town travel.  No matter, the falconry rabbit season in Washington doesn't open until tomorrow!

1 August 2001.  550g.  After his first ride in the truck, first time outside the yard, and first time in this hunting field, Milo makes his first free flight and behaves perfectly.  Sometimes he rides on the glove but mostly he takes low perches, following me nicely.  It was hot, but the young rabbits were out in abundance.  Milo chased nearly every one that flushed, but wasn't too sure about what to do when he caught up to them as they disappeared into cover.  It took more than an hour, and perhaps 10 or 15 slips, but he finally made a nice catch on a cottontail just as it disappeared under a piece of metal.  The rabbit was covered with ticks and full of tapeworm cysts, but to Milo it was quite a prize!  I gave him the head to eat, planning to hunt him again on 3 August.  He has made his first kill 12 days out of the chamber, even with me being away for six days in the middle of his training.  I guess I'll have to get Bridget to train all my hawks from now on ...Milo on his first kill

3 August 2001.  550g.  Milo tried hard but couldn't connect.  I was satisfied that he knew what to do, though.

4 August 2001.  548g.  Milo was banging to get out of his box at 1PM, the hottest part of the day.  We got a nice 'toenail' slip and he pounded the young cottontail.

Milo trespassing5 August 2001.  552g.  Milo didn't try all that hard today, so was fed very little to prevent 'near miss syndrome.'

6 August 2001.  557g.  We tried a new hunting spot (not by choice -- family vacation!), with Milo getting his first experience in group hawking, joining my other male 'Neon' and hen 'Killer.'  There were very few rabbits, but Milo got to chase some quail running through the sage.  At the end of the day I gave him a 'dragged' rabbit (killed by Neon earlier in the day) rigged to move away from me as I pulled the string, just to keep up Milo's interest in rabbits.

7 August 2001.  566g.  Amid a field of four experienced Harris's hawks, Milo drew first blood by catching a young cottontail in some heavy sage.  This turned out to be the first of many days on which Milo kept me from going home empty-handed!

8 August 2001.  570g.  Milo's weight is creeping up, along with his skill and confidence.   Today was his first experience flying in a strong wind, and he handled it well.  Again Milo caught the first rabbit of the day while group hawking, after which I put him up to give Killer and Neon a chance!

9 August 2001.  566g.  Flew Milo with Neon and the dogs, and the two males put on quite a flying demo while the dogs worked the hot, thick cover below.  Neon scored, but Milo was unable to connect in the heavy brush.  By following Neon, Milo is quickly learning how to take commanding perches and to slope soar.  This is one of many reasons that flying a young Harris's hawk with an older castmate is worthwhile.

11 August 2001.  567g.  Again flew the males in tandem, and Milo turned a rabbit that Neon caught.  Both shared the spoils.  Milo behaves perfectly with his castmate and with the dogs.

12 August 2001.  571g.  The males continue to work well together, but Neon uses his experience to beat Milo to the rabbits.  Milo gets to join in on lots of flights, and shares the kills.

14 August 2001.  567g.  Many, many flights with all three birds, but only one kill (by Neon).  Milo is seeing lots of rabbits and chases them hard.

15 August 2001.  567g.  Milo saves the day and bags a bunny after both his elders miss it.

17 August 2001.  565g.  Milo takes his first double on cottontails, flying in a cast with Neon, who also caught one.

23 August 2001.  570g.  After a week in California, Milo is still not interested in chasing jackrabbits.  He is in on many kills with the other hawks, but those jacks just look too big to him!  He does catch a desert cottontail, and then grabs the smallest jackrabbit I have ever seen -- 300g including the guts! Milo's baby jack, with normal jack for comparison

28 August 2001.  575g.  Back in Washington, Milo gets some solo air time and turns a nifty hat trick -- 3 cottontails in about 20 minutes.

29 August 2001 562g.  Milo and Neon team up, with Milo making the first catch.

Milo and Nuttall's cottontail31 August 2001 580g.  Milo catches one that is set up by Neon's miss.  One month into the hawking season, Milo has 13 kills and is flying well with other hawks and dogs.  During the entire month he has never had a meal anywhere but on a kill in the field, though not all the kills were his.  He follows me like a shadow not because he thinks I will feed him, but because his experience tells him that I and the dogs will flush something for him to chase and eat.  He watches his castmates to learn the tricks of the trade, and takes advantage of their expertise at spotting and catching rabbits.

Milo is flown until the end of December, catching 61 cottontails, the micro-jack, and two quail.  He has several 'triples' and even a couple of 'quads,' despite that fact that he is almost always flown in a cast or group with more experienced hawks.  His quail flights show that he may offer a little variety to my usual bag of rabbits and hares.  Milo is totally tame, though he was never 'manned.'  He is a tribute to good bloodlines and 'minimalist' training philosophy.  He flies to anyone, riding on their glove or (preferably) head.  His weight goes as high as 660g, but his response never changes.  He loves people and will hunt effectively even when his is as plump as a partridge.  His repertoire of flying includes slope soaring, and he takes wonderfully high perches when conditions are suitable.  All in all, he is a fine little hawk and a real pleasure to fly -- the kind of rabbit hawk everyone wants.

Other recommended reading

Brewer, Gary (2000) Getting the most from your redtail: Part one, weight management.  Hawk Chalk 39(2): 43-53.

Coulson, Tom and Jennifer (1996) Group hunting with Harris’s hawks.  In: Desert Hawking with a little help from my friends.  Harry McElroy, ed.  pp. 245-269.

Fox, Nick (1995) Understanding the bird of prey.  Hancock House, Surrey, B.C., Canada.

Froboese, Jay (2000) Flying your first cast of Harris's.  NAFA Journal 39: 66-74.

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Last revised: 04-Aug-2010