Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
Pursuing late season cottontails is one of my favorite forms of winter recreation. It’s a team effort, and I never go it alone but always include my longtime feathered hunting partner, Attila. Attila is my male goshawk and we’ve been chasing rabbits together for fifteen seasons now. I can say with certainty that you’ll rarely find a creature, winged or otherwise, that takes chasing rabbits more seriously than this sharp-eyed raptor.
It is Attila who actually does the chasing, of course. My role is far less spectacular. I merely serve as a rabbit locator for the hawk, moving through the woods and beating the brush while the ‘gos impatiently rides my gloved fist or follows from treetop to treetop. The longer we walk, the more focused and wired the raptor becomes. Sometimes, I’ll attempt to make our flights even more intense by employing a bit of child psychology; starting the hunt by walking through cover where I don’t really expect to find any game. By the time I shift gears and move into prime rabbitats, Attila will have become so focused, so amped up, that a sizzling, tree-bark-scorching, high octane flight is all but assured.
But that’s not to say that our late winter hunts are a slam dunk proposition. They aren’t. By the time we get to late January, there are no easy cottontails. Each and every rabbit has become a winter hardened, street wise survivor. Every bunny successfully brought to bag is nothing short of a woodland trophy.
When I first started hunting with trained hawks, I quickly learned that cottontail rabbits are a whole lot smarter than I had even given them credit for. Once they’re put to route, most cottontails follow a well-defined, predetermined escape route. They know exactly where they want to go and, even more importantly, know the fastest and safest way to get there. Getting from Point A to Point B means careening at top speed through the most impenetrable cover imaginable – cover that usually includes woody blowdowns, thorny brambles, and tangled overhead canopy.
It is nearly impossible to force a late season rabbit into the open. On those rare occasions when you do, a fleeing cottontail will never fail to impress, moving across the frozen landscape with spectacular six-foot leaps. I know for a fact that the leaps can attain six feet; I’ve personally measured the tracks.
The high-speed flight of a hungry goshawk is equally impressive. Goshawks and cottontails have been refining their uneasy relationship for thousands of years. And as predator and prey vie for survival, the hunt’s final outcome is never certain. Many of the rabbits we chase get away and we – or I should say I — wish them well. Those less fortunate — rabbits that zig when they should have zagged — become dinner for two. Successful chases conclude as fur and feather collide in an explosive geyser of clean snow.
Today’s Hunt: Following a couple of exciting near misses, time is running short when I route a final cottontail from a waist-high pile of brush. Attila detonates the second the rabbit makes its move, and the chase is on. But as the hawk shadows the rabbit’s evasive warp speed exit, he can find no break in the tangled cover. Sprinting for a few more yards, the rabbit crosses a small opening in the brush. Seizing the split-second opportunity, the ‘gos executes a lightning-quick wing over and pins its speeding quarry to the snow. The cottontail is ours.
Although it only lasted for a few brief seconds, the flight is an exhilarating conclusion to an afternoon in the woods. For Attila, the rabbit is a hard-earned prize and I sit nearby as he breaks into his meal. Sunset is fast approaching, and I can already feel that the temperature is dropping. Wintering goshawks instinctively know that fresh meat will quickly freeze. Short on table manners, hawks always rush their meals. Today is no exception and a cloud of steam rises into the winter air as the ‘gos eagerly consumes the rabbit’s heart, liver, neck and front shoulder. When I slowly move in, the hawk hops back to my glove for a final tidbit. While he’s distracted, I quietly sneak the rabbit into my game bag. I’ll wait until I get back home to enjoy my portion of the kill – skillet fried and golden brown. Although Attila has no use for cooked meat, I feel that at least one of us should try to act civilized.