Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
Falconry: the pursuit of wild game with a trained raptor; the sport of hunting with hawks.
Humans have been chasing wild game with trained hawks for somewhere in the vicinity of 4,000 years now, making falconry one of our most ancient forms of hunting. I’ve been practicing the sport for 30.
t its most basic level, falconry has the potential to provide human participants [falconers] with exhilarating chases that may occasionally end in hard earned meals of pheasant, wild duck, partridge, or rabbit. On a deeper level, falconry establishes a unique bond between man and bird — a relationship that sets the stage for repeated firsthand observation as birds of prey act out their spectacular natural role as supreme aerial predators. Gaining a hawk’s trust to the point that it accepts you as an equal hunting partner is falconry’s greatest reward.
Most of my falconry has focused on peregrines, a highly dynamic species that specializes in hunting other birds such as pheasants and mallards. I’ve flown a total of 16 peregrine falcons so far; they are my favorite species. Well, maybe.
Recently, I’ve also formed a hunting alliance with a tiercel [male] northern goshawk. Secretive denizens of northern coniferous forests, goshawks are characterized by short wings, long tails and short — but highly lethal — bursts of speed.
Northern environments are harsh. Whether it’s wearing fur or feathers, goshawks have learned to take advantage of each and every meal that comes their way. Unlike peregrines, goshawks do not specialize. High strung and volatile, goshawks will pursue grouse or squirrels, ducks or rabbits with equal enthusiasm.
The goshawk and I are currently in the middle of our seventh hunting season; which is the longest I’ve managed to hang on to a bird. Together we’ve chased just about everything from snowshoe hares to mallard ducks. Although I’d like to think our bond is permanently sealed, I realize that there is always a chance the hawk will one day say, “Adios”. That’s just how falconry is.
Once the daily hawking adventure begins, our shared anticipation quickly escalates. Once you start down a rabbit trail, you just never know where the hunt will end. Although each and every outing becomes its own high adventure, I doubt we’ll ever surpass the level of excitement that occurred earlier this winter.
It was late afternoon and we were combing a brushy stretch of habitat when a hen turkey came running from behind a blowdown. Displaying an obvious dislike for our company, the sprinting turkey went airborne with a mighty thrashing of wings. The event did not go unnoticed by the hawk riding my gloved fist. Exploding into flight, the goshawk threaded its way through the tree branches in hot pursuit. In the span of what was probably no more than five or six seconds, the accelerating raptor overtook and then firmly seized its fleeing quarry. The flight ended with both birds crash landing into the snow behind a concealing screen of thick brush.
Racing to “rescue” my hawk from a severe trouncing [or worse], I was amazed to find him standing atop his prize with the fear paralyzed turkey stretched atop the snow like a limp dish rag. As if merely subduing a giant pheasant, the ’gos had one foot around the turkey’s neck with the other foot wrapped completely around its head.
The scene seemed frozen in time as each motionless bird contemplated its next move. I intervened by grabbing a fresh pheasant leg from my shoulder bag. Kneeling down, I offered the meat to the ’gos. Releasing his grip on the turkey, the raptor quickly jumped to the fist and began tearing at the leg. Once the hawk was secured by his jesses, I gave the turkey a thorough examination. Amazingly, I couldn’t find so much as a single cut or drop of blood. Other than a few shed body feathers, the bird appeared unharmed. Once the goshawk had successfully seized his prey, I’m guessing that the turkey’s total lack of resistance had saved both birds from getting roughed up.
I don’t know what the turkey weighed, but the goshawk tips the scale at 29 ounces. Although goshawks are renowned the world over for their speed, courage, and aggression; pulling an eastern wild turkey from the sky is bit over the top — at least from my perspective.
Although I possessed a late season archery turkey tag, it could not be used. Birds of prey hunt what they want; when they want. But humans are bounded by rules. For me, bow & arrow was the only legal option for taking a wild turkey. Consequently, this turkey would live to fly another day.
By now, the late afternoon sun had begun to set. After obtaining a quick ‘voucher photo’, I returned the hen to the snow. Not surprisingly, the giant bird lost no time in putting maximum distance between herself and our winter hunting party. Meanwhile, the goshawk had finished his pheasant leg and was ready for a good night’s sleep.
Speaking for all concerned, I think it’s safe to say that it had been a highly eventful afternoon. I guess all’s well that ends well. The turkey was back in the woods. The goshawk had successfully pursued a gamebird three or four times his weight, and had been rewarded for the effort. And although we didn’t bring home any wild game, I had enjoyed the privilege of witnessing one of the most remarkable feats I’ve observed in thirty years of falconry.