Jack and Jill, the Black Sparrowhawks.
It is rare these days to get an opportunity to fly a fine hawk. By “fly” I mean to have it buzz about, follow you, exercise and finally catch things on its own. In the past I used to get a number of flyable fine hawks in a year and go through rehabbing and/or flying them like a conveyer belt. I got to be blasé and flew and released so many I lost memory of all but a few. I reminisce over encounters passed somewhat like Maurice Chevalier’s song “Ah yes I remember it well”. It is all a pleasant blur. I must presume that the low volume today is reflected not so much by a decreasing number of wild raptors but by other factors, not the least being the increased difficulty the public (and rehabbers) now have in being allowed to rescue raptors.
By a ‘fine’ hawk I mean the athletes of the raptor world. The accipiters and large falcons are the chief examples. They are monstrously strong, have an enormous metabolic rate and vast physical demands upon them. They are the “heavily wing-loaded” raptors…the guild of elite that need careful management prior to release otherwise they will die.
Fortunately these birds are almost domestic in the sense that methods used in handling them are as old as those used with the training or herding of domesticated animals. If you know what to do, such a bird slides seamlessly onto your arm and will within a couple of weeks be flying about and returning to you, tweaking your ear and fluffing up on one foot happy at the end of the day with a bulging crop filled with something it caught. Instead of having confined it for a few millennia to your cave, home, enclosure, stables or paddocks; and selected genes that scrubbed all semblance of pride and independence, hawks and falcons are already biddable and potentially good buddies. There’s no need to go through thousands of years of domestication, they get on with it from day one (well, maybe by day 7 if you give them some TLC). You leave them in a cage and they are destroyed.
This is falconry, a method of wildlife animal husbandry so ancient and ingrained in raptor management that I feel it should be a legal obligation for anyone handling these birds. I would go as far to add that any rehabber who has not trained and successfully hunted with a single hawk, should under no circumstances attempt to rehabilitate one. I know it opens a can of worms among animal rights groups, and because of this I have kept some of what I do quite. The end result has not been good, for many raptors are released in Kenya (and elsewhere such as India) today with no hope of them being able to catch food. I do not propose each and every raptor needs to be falconry trained prior to release, but I do support that the athlete species should and that most would benefit from it.
After cautiously recognising a new and favourable view on falconry after its UNESCO recognition in Nairobi I felt sufficiently bold enough to once again step out of the closet and train and hunt this new and fearless little sub adult male Black Sparrowhawk, dubbed Jack, after Jack Sparrow. I could have let him go, for there was nothing wrong with him, he was fit and had nearly a year of hunting experience behind him. I actually hoped to show-case his “falconry” management to prominent people, and to use him to get a few messages across. Then release him.
Jack was about a year old, rapidly changing his plumage and thus had no wife and family. Jill was to come later, she was a just fledged female with no hunting experience, picked up by an old friend Craig Sorely and trained. The two birds were very different despite being the same species.
Jack was extremely flighty and bated all the time. Throughout the time I had with him he never returned to his bow perch, nor stayed on it after I put him back. He drove me crazy. I had to keep him on a high screen perch or on my fist, sometimes for 6 hrs of the day. The first day he fed on the glove, the third day he stepped onto the glove, the 5th day he flew to the glove and by 2 weeks he was flying free and chasing birds. Unusually for his species he took to the hood well, which was a great relief as that meant I could have some respite from his constant high fever-pitch behaviour. This hyper-activity was typical of “passage” or “haggard” males. I put his tail in a sheath to stop it from getting damaged. Each day I weighed him twice to the last 1 gram. My goodness to see him all decked out with, jesses, bewits, tail bell, radio transmitter, swivel, leash, 3 different perches, 2 gloves, weighing scales, his night shed and a few fancy hoods even impressed me. To some this image is painful and indicative of dominion, whereas to see him “free” in a large and airy shed would seem to them much more humane. Nothing could be further from the truth as I will relate.
The weather was blistering hot and by mid afternoon I had to spray him with water, which he greatly appreciated. If I missed this, he could well have died of heat stress. I realised with not-so-fond a memory what hard work it was to keep a falconry bird and to keep them in tip-top condition. I was glad that Craig was busy with his female, because 2 Sparrowhawks would be too much. I had to fly him every day but in view of the limited ability for me to hunt him at wild prey I made a point to exercise him extremely hard and increase his fitness. I used an old trick in putting weights on his legs (bags filled with ball bearings) and getting him to fly high up onto my fist held above my head. This was tough work, but maintained muscle and stamina (for us both!). Anything less and he would not be able to hunt. Such attention occupies a falconer’s mind but seldom seems that important to the pure rehabber, who may blissfully think “the wild” is a peaceful benign place full of food and that a skinny weakling will do just fine. It isn’t, and food (doves mostly for Jack’s species and sex) are damned hard prey to fly down! When finally the clouds broke and it rained, it did so without respite for weeks. But I was able to fly him at Coqui Francolin, Crowned Plovers, Collared Dove and Dikkops (Stone Curlew) and one wet weekend was perhaps the highlight of my entire year despite the mud.
To attempt to tell a person unfamiliar with raptors just how fast a Sparrowhawk can go when in earnest after prey and very fit is impossible. None can understand the impression of speed and agility because it defies imagination. But image those old movies with an astronaut strapped to a rocket sledge on a railway line. Remember those G forces and the extreme exponential acceleration? Well a hawk’s flight is nothing like it because Jack keeps his composure and his jowls do not flap in the wind. But otherwise the speed seems similar.
On this muddy weekend I took Jack, hooded on my glove for a drive (one handed through knee deep mud). I saw a group of Coqui Francolins and stopped the car and got out and removed his hood. He sat there looking blank and a bit stupid, until he too saw the francolins trotting to cover some 100m away through the yellow fever woodland. This is usually too far for most hawks to stand any chance. His face changed and he lent forward with deadly intent. I stepped forward, anxious lest I messed up. Just as they turned behind a tussock, he snapped off the fist and rowed out with every wing beat gaining him momentum. The francolins were airborne and going flat out, with one (the cock) that rose higher than the rest. Jack picked him out and like an arrow closed at incalculable speed towards him. I was able to see the whole flight as in curved an arc. Other hawks would have long dropped out when the male francolin dropped a gear and blazed for cover. But not Jack. As with every hunt I see, be it a cheetah after a gazelle, or a falcon after a bird my mind was torn between edging the prey on to escape, or edging the predator on for the capture. But on this occasion things were suddenly concluded leaving no time for mixed emotions of any kind. He left only a few feathers floating on the wind. Plodding as fast as I could breathless through the quagmire listening for the sound of his tiny bell, I heard instead a huge and ugly snort behind and to my right. It was two buffalo and I laughed because as stupid as I might have first appeared, I always run through thick bush towards climbable trees through force of habit. That evening by candle light I toasted Jack to the applause of thundering rain on the tin roof. I thanked him for a day too rarely had in this modern Kenya where getting dirty and practical with wildlife is looked upon as unnecessary, distasteful and too “dangerous”.
I flew Jack at prey for just over a week and achieved the highest possible standard of falconry with him taking 4 Coqui francolin, and one Spotted Dikkop and one Red eyed dove in the air. I fed him and other hawks on these kills. He almost certainly had killed less than he would have done if wild and free, but to me that was an exceptional score. He was not infallible and did bungle a few times. But he was one of the best hawks I have ever seen. It was significant to note that when he did fail it was after a day or less of inactivity. I was so pleased to be able to get back into what, many years ago, was a way of life that taught me more than any scholastic endeavour ever did about wildlife and raptors.
Unfortunately I had to go to a Vulture conference in the Mara and wrecked my car engine on that horrendous road. I had to “ground” Jack for a week, but did so by placing him in a custom-made “padded cell”. I tested him out in the spacious shed with shade-net darkened walls, a tree and a nice bath and he seemed happy. I returned wheel-less and broke and much later than planned and was appalled to see the Jack had damaged his cere and had broken 2 tail feathers during the time I was away. I took him up, repaired his tail and dressed his nose wound, angered with myself at having caused damage, rather than cured it.
I flew him hard and made him carry weights again until he was back to prime fitness. At first he was puffed and weak. I cut his jesses over a week later and left him to finish a meal and fly to the top of a yellow fever tree to clean his bill. He was only a few weeks ago as wild as a hawk could ever be, and now again he was just as wild and fit. He never was “tame” by any stretch of the imagination. Although that is the way I like most of my birds, I did single him out to be the ambassador for regulating of falconry (and rehab) and wanted him to show off his skills in front of VIPs. More to the point anyone of these people witnessing a hunt, would all acknowledge within a heart-beat, the futility of cage managed rehabilitation. But I soon knew he was not going to tolerate company and while that spoiled my plans I bore him no grudge; rather I admired him all the more. I saw him the next few days, chasing shore birds around the lake. I can’t get near enough to him to feed him and he doesn’t need it either. I am not worried about his fitness or ability to survive because he proved his mettle in an out of captivity. Should I worry about his tameness? Hardly, for I just spoke today at length to what I thought was Jack in a tree high above me, pleased at the faint recognition he showed me by quizzically turning his head upside-down. Last week he would have just raced off ignoring me. What had brought about this new boldness I thought as I raised my binoculars? What I saw was not Jack, but a strange adult (wild) male of whose acquaintance I had never previously made.
This story does have an important message in re-affirming the need for assessing a raptors’ ability to hunt prior to release. For the “athletic” species, those that habitually hunt birds and or active strong prey as large or larger than themselves, it is imperative to have them at peak fitness and with the will and way-with-all to catch their prey. Just a day down and their success rate plummets. More inactivity than that, such as the usual and locally much endorsed small open-sided cage and containment for weeks or even months with barely a few meters to hop…will result in a dead hawk after release. I have incessantly opposed cage management for some groups of raptors. It humiliates me that I erred and placed such a hawk in a shed (infinitely better suited than the usual kind) for whatever the reason. A momentary lapse on my part led to Jack getting injuries incurred while in captivity. He’ll survive the injuries, but had he spent a few days longer in incarceration or had we not taken pains to make his shed quite and “padded”, he could easily have had permanent life-threatening injuries. Short of having football stadium sized totally enclosed pens, physical fitness of these birds is tough to achieve without hard work.
The only way to achieve guaranteed successful results and no injuries at all with this group of birds is falconry management. With falconry only management Jack was perfect in feather flawless and a proven hunter. With “normal” rehab management, he was a near wrecked bird.
The story of Jill will follow. But suffice it to say she flies great, goes for kilometres each day free…but has no idea that she has to catch things to survive.