Friday, June 24, 2016

Handling Birds of Prey

Today is a bright and beautiful summer day with the temperature at 76F (24.4C) and the humidity making it feel like 85F (29.4C) but with the breeze it is comfortable to be outside.

This is an added bonus for me since I am going to use the Falconer for a Day gift certificate that Christine got me for Mothers' Day from the Ontario Falconry Centre.

Also with Ron home today which is very unusual, he is going to go with me which was a good thing otherwise I would have gotten lost and missed my chance to handle birds of prey.

He will take photographs of all the different kinds of birds and pictures of me while I handle, hold, fly and feed the various raptors.

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

When we arrived in Bowmanville, we were greeted by Sam Trentadue, owner of the Ontario Falconry Centre.

He explained that as falconer of the day this allows me one hour of all aspects that are involved in falconry. This consists of handling, holding, flying, feeding and information about all birds in involved in my one hour session as falconer of day.

Sam stressed that the most important thing to remember about birds of prey is that they are hunters and NOT pets and that they kill a wide variety of animals in order to survive.

He then handed me a cowhide gauntlet and explained the reasons why it was necessary to wear them when handling the birds of prey.

The first bird he brought out was a mature Red-tailed Hawk, which he transferred to my gauntlet and explained about the bird and its history as a hunting hawk.

They are found throughout North America and are very intelligent birds, learn quickly and have a more social disposition than all other hawks with the exception of the Harris's Hawk. This hawk is the one of the best birds for a beginner falconer to own to learn the art of falconry and having a fairly long life span they can keep the bird for many years as a hunting companion.

After taking the bird back and settling the hawk on one of the fence posts to relax and enjoy the sunshine, Sam brought out a young female Red-Tailed Hawk for me to meet and greet that was in training. She was one of the birds that I would fly later in the lesson after handling some of the other birds of prey.

Northern Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus subarcticus)

The next bird that was brought out was a Northern Great Horned Owl. Sam explained that the colours and markings on horned owls are a form of camouflage. Most of the owls in this area are various shades of grey and brown, having lighter coloured under parts with brown horizontal barring, which darkens along the sides. The back and wings are mainly a mottled brown having heavy, darker markings.

Whereas, the northern owls have the palest colour of all the horned owl species; with some birds from the far north of Canada having a washed out, light-buff colour overall with very few dark markings and seldom have any reddish colouration.

The bird I had on my glove was from northern British Columbia, while she still showed many of the markings, they are washed out, with the base colour being white with a hint of buff.

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus virginianus)

Sam brought out one of his favourite birds next, a Great Horned Owl affectionately called "Frankenstein".

He explained that Great Horned Owls will eat almost anything that moves, up to mid-sized mammals, reptiles, many types of birds including other owls and birds of prey. When finding live food is difficult they will also feed on carrion, which doesn't move.

Because of this they are often mobbed by a wide variety of other birds, including most birds of prey when they are found in flight or on an exposed branch. Crows in particular will dive at Great Horned Owls and will call to other crows to join in the attack; several incidents have been recorded of large numbers of crows gathering to mob an owl.

Owls are not as easily trained as many of the other species of birds of prey and once mature will usually be tolerate their handlers' wishes, but most eventually become aggressive and may attack their owners.

Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis atricapillus)

The next bird Sam brought out was a Northern Goshawk, which I often have around my bird feeders in winter. They hunt and kill some of the small birds and many of the squirrels. In fact this past winter the one hawk took over a dozen of the squirrels that used to regularly come to snack on the feed put out for the birds.

Sam explained that the Northern Goshawk is highly prized by falconers and has remained equal in popularity to Peregrine Falcons. They adapt to a variety of hunting techniques and will follow their prey into wooded areas and thick brush.

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus alascanus)

Next he brought out a young 4 year old female Bald Eagle, weighing just over 10 lbs. (4.5kg.) explaining that they are slow to mature and do not reach sexual maturity until the age of four to five years. In the wild they have an average lifespan of 20 years. In captivity if well cared for, that age can be doubled.

They are one of the largest birds of prey in North America, second only to the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). In Canada, a license is required to use Bald Eagles, while in United States they cannot legally be kept for falconry. As a rule, the bald eagle is a poor choice for beginning falconers, as they are often easily stressed, timid and unpredictable in nature.

The Bald Eagle, like the Great Horned Owl, consumes a wide variety of prey and they are not above scavenging from other predators such as bear, wolves and foxes or helping themselves to road kill. Fish are often a large part of their diet, followed by various species of water birds such as ducks, gulls and geese. They also feed on nesting seabirds from the eggs through to full grown adults.

Dead, injured, newborn or sickly mammals are often preyed upon and a variety of mid-sized animals including beaver, fawns, groundhogs, young goats, muskrats, rabbits, raccoons and seals.

Harris's Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)

After Sam set the Bald Eagle on her log perch so she could relax and enjoy the sun, he sent out three Harris's Hawks that landed on the top of his trailer and waited for him. He said that these hawks were imported from Arizona, U.S.A.

Sam explained to me that they are very different from other raptors in that instead of being solitary hunters, only coming together for breeding and migration due to their intelligence and social nature they hunt as a pack of two to six.

The group consists of a mature female which is the dominant bird, followed by the adult male and then the young of previous years. Not only do these birds cooperate in hunting, they also assist in the nesting process.

Next he had me go for a walk with him so I would be accepted into the pack. We were followed by by the hawks and occasionally one would fly ahead and wait for us to catch up.

When we got to the far end of the field Sam told me when he turned around to raise my arm with the bait and one of them would come for it, he then left me and walked away followed by the hawks.

When he turned around I raised the glove and the female launched herself from the ground and came straight in to land on the glove. Once she finished eating the bait I sent her aloft and she flew back to the group.

It is no wonder that this intelligent, sociable and easily trained bird has become one of the most popular hawks used in falconry.

Once I returned to Sam, he had put the Harris's Hawks away and was attaching a lightweight nylon rope to the jesses of the young female Red-tailed Hawk that I had handled earlier and set her on the perch.

He explained that she was in training and this was the reason she was on the rope. He would look after the rope and I was to concentrate on the hawk and try to get her to come to my glove for the bait.

I waited for her and then she finally came to the glove and ate the bait which was her reward. I then sent her toward her perch and she went straight to it without any detours. She was allowed to stay there and relax.

This was the end of my lesson and I spoke to Sam about learning falconry and he told me the Ontario Falconry Centre offers two programs: Intro to Falconry, the apprenticeship program for beginners and Advanced Falconry for those who have completed their apprenticeship and wish to take hunting with their raptor to the next level.

To begin the falconry program, you must complete an Ontario Small Game Hunting course and exam provided by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Once this is achieved, you will receive your Small Game License and can then register with Ontario Falconry Centre as an Apprentice. You most complete two Octobers, therefore, the duration of the Intro to Falconry is 15 months, or October to October, whichever comes first.

Armed with this knowledge, who knows, there may be a bird of prey in my future. I have to decide if  I have the time to dedicate to owning and keeping a hawk, or to just content myself with watching my North American Kestrels and the many hawks which I see flying across my property.