Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Straggling to a conclusion

Officially, we've got until the 31st, but the hawking season seems to be winding down here in Nebraska. Warmer weather and increasingly scarce rabbits have taken their toll on Stekoa's concentration; lately we seem to be going out more for exercise than with serious expectations of bringing home dinner. That's my perception, not Stekoa's—he's had some good flights on pheasants, though he hasn't held on to any this year, and when he's not chasing pheasants he's content to fill up on small rodents.

My good friend Karl Linderholm has already cut the bells off his female Harris' hawk, Clarice. She caught a pregnant rabbit a couple of days ago, which traditionally marks the end of Karl's season: We don't like catching pregnant rabbits any more than a farmer enjoys eating his seed corn. The third member of the Lincoln hawking trio, Mike Cox, will probably put Clarice's brother Hannibal up to moult soon as well.

Meanwhile, out in the Sandhills, Anita Johnson's tiercel gyr x peregrine hybrid, Riddick, finally caught his first sharp-tailed grouse. AJ has struggled with this bird: Although he started chasing sharps and prairie chickens early on, they are very difficult to bring to bag. Falconers usually take this in stride—the first season with an eyas longwing is essentially an extended training session, the foundation for future hunts—but some hawks can become frustrated by repeated failure. Riddick also had trouble keeping weight on, which affected his strength and climbing ability; AJ joked that he was afraid of heights—not something you'd want in a grouse hawk. But a few days ago, everything went right. A small flock of lekking sharptails flushed cleanly with Riddick waiting on high above, and he took one in good style.

[Photos courtesy of Eric & Anita Johnson:
  • The flush
  • Well-fed hawk and grinning falconer]

Anita did the exact right thing: fed him a huge crop of grouse ("He can't see his feet anymore") and called it a season. This can be a difficult thing to do. After tasting success, we naturally want more. This is intermittent reinforcement, and it's a powerful motivator—we use it to train our birds, so you'd think we'd be aware of its power, but all too often we make bad decisions in pursuit of another random reward. Kudos to AJ for her wise decision to end on a high note. Riddick's confidence should be boosted, and he can relax in the mews for several months with the thought: "I just killed a grouse!"

I'm still looking for closure as the season straggles to a conclusion. Stekoa, the dachsies, and I will make at least a few more trips to the field. If I'm very fortunate, here's how things will go: Maxine and Anya will flush a rabbit, Stekoa will catch it. It will be a male; no harm done to next year's bunnies. I will feed Stekoa a huge crop of rabbit, feed the dogs some as well, and call it a season. Later, I will smoke a pipe and say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the rabbits we caught this year. For all the mice and voles we caught this year. For all the pheasants we chased this year, even if we didn't catch any. For all the grouse I've seen chased, all the quail that flushed close enough to make me miss my sharpie, all the ducks and geese that make me dream of gyrs and peregrines in a season yet to come. For all my relations: mitakuye oyasin.


Matt Mullenix said...

Mark I take some issue with your conclusions here! Where's the best place to hash them out? Should I keep my opinions to myself?

Mark Churchill said...

Keep your opinions to yourself?!? How does that help? Let 'em fly!

Matt Mullenix said...

Alright. But it's been a couple days and I'm not quite sure what I was all worked up about before.


I think it's the big eyas longwing thing. This is just a general rant and certainly not directed at you or Anita (who was, years ago, generous enough to give me the only big eyas longwing I've ever flown).

My beef is with what looks like a kind of defeatism---the a priori agreement that an eyas longwing's first season is a training session. I know that's not the case with other hawks (given the obvious differences between hawks and falcons). But it's not necessarily the case with big eyas longwings either, some of which I've seen catch lots of quarry in their first seasons (approaching an average of one kill per hunt). Maybe not grouse, but certainly ducks and sundry coots, etc.

I think air time is a critical factor, and even a regular hawking schedule that would suffice for a shortwing is not enough for a young falcon. Maybe they should be flown twice a day, as are some of the more successful ones I've seen? And yet, with so many falconers, the paradigm is completely reversed: One flight and done. Even one flight per week! Let him think about it for a couple days and see what happens next time.

The whole process, otherwise analogous to a shortwing season, is thus drawn out over weeks and months when, with a shortwing, we expect progress in literally hours and days.

I know: shortwings take shorter slips, have more (and arguably easier) quarry available to them and can be flown in tighter spots. All that supports giving them more air time, which they take advantage of by progressing quickly to competency as hunters. Opportunity breeds success, and success breeds more success.

If there is not enough space, time or game for a longwing; or the local quarry is too difficult to catch and no other can be found or is desireable, you might expect to catch a couple head in a season. No disparagement: My point is rather that result represents the falconer's choices (in hawk and quarry and time management). It's not necessarily the nature of the longwinged beast.

I don't have any experience raising or hunting with big eyas longwings. Anita and Eric's gift of a tiercel hybrid (already 7 years old when I got him) was my one and only foray into falcons larger than merlins.

So my opinions are suspect on that ground. But I know about shortwings and have raised a'plenty. I know that for every kill recorded, dozens of unsuccessful flights are attempted. The hawks get better, but even the best of them continue to miss regularly. It's just a numbers game: more slips and more more quarry, more missess and more hits. At the end of the season, a bigger bag.

My suspicion is that falcons are not so different. They need to miss a lot, maybe just as much or more than any young shortwing. And yet, with a defeatist attitude going into the season ("This is just a long training session"), there is no pressure to fly them enough to secure those many hundreds of slips required for any young hawk's chance of regular success. With tossed pigeons part of the process, there's even less pressure on the falconer.

Ah, it's all good. To each his or her own. My buddy Eric finds me extremely annoying on this point, as he loves the longwings and flies very tough quarry with them. He thinks I'm comparing apples to oranges and should just leave well enough alone. He's right I should, and I usually do. Sorry for the rant!

What are your thoughts? You are a shortwinger. How wrong am I? Anita, please chime in!

Steve Bodio said...

A bit of apples- oranges at least for game hawking I think. With pursuit hawking, with which I am more familiar, your analogy holds better, but it is more "natural" and frankly easier. Pursuit hawking with desert falcons is "long range shortwinging"-- the falcon chases and figures out things like "whack the hare on the head, not bind", and learns how high to go up (not too) etc.

Game hawking involves a lot of setting up, and the bird's learning not to chase, which might be natural, but to return and wait on. Add Gyr blood in hybrids (which might make the bird more inclined to pursuit) and you have a complicated situation that may take a bird a long time to learn.

Matt Mullenix said...

Steve, I'd say the small falcons (like larger pursuit falcons) are also very hawk-like, with high ratios of flights per hunt. Multiple kills and multiple hunts per day are more the norm, the smaller the falcon you have.

My theory (unlikely to be proven by me!) is that even proper game hawking need not be so different in its development. Sure the falcon needs a pitch---the stoop is the whole point, and for some quarries the only possible means of bringing game and hawk down near the falconer.

But look at Art Haschak(sp?) in Webster's "Gamehawking" book. Art's position is that smaller, easier quarries are the way to start, and he uses no baggies. His training style is developmental, making what amounts to models of the hawk's future hunting style but at smaller scales---sparrows in his case. Ultimately, he's hawking snipe and quail in the classic format, but he works up to it from "the bottom."

Letting the hawk chase and miss a lot is key, but that requires giving them enough slips. A hacked eyas goes through this. The released peregrines I babysat in Georgia spent hours in pursuit of swallows and mourning doves and harrassing vultures, rarely if ever catching anything. Unhacked eyases don't get anything like that experience, and I wonder if that alone might explain the expectedly slow training process?

I guess that's obvious. Maybe what I mean to oppose is not that developing a classical gamehawk is an unavoidably slow process, but that there's something inherently "retarded" about big longwings. Can't be true. The same species that account for so few head in their first seasons on game can fill buckets if flown in pursuit styles or ringing flights. The hawking is no easier (harder, in fact!) but there's just more of it--more flights, more misses, more catches. Mo' bettah! :-)

Mark Churchill said...

Okay, a lot to deal with here. I was expecting a dispute on the merits of putting the tiercel up to moult after its first wild kill versus going out and trying it again—the usual "ask two falconers, get three different opinions" phenomenon. This sounds like it's a more fundamental question about expectations for an eyas longwing. And between the two of you, Matt and Steve, I think you've already addressed many of the points I would make.

As Steve notes, there is a lot of difference between a pursuit flight with a kestrel or merlin (or prairie or saker or gyr) and a waiting-on flight. And as Matt points out, the quarry makes a big difference—not just in terms of its difficulty (and there's not much more difficult than prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse) but also in terms of its abundance, and therefore the number of good slips that can be provided.

In this case, Anita's intentions were to fly only grouse, and only from a waiting-on position. No doubt she could have found easier quarry—ducks, pheasant, etc.—but while that might have increased her bag, it might also have detracted from her ultimate goal.

The "extended training session" comment reflects not defeatism or lower expectations per se but a different way of viewing performance. The following will be a gross over-simplification, but I think it will contain an element of truth.

Shortwingers have a tendency to define success as, well, success: The hawk catches quarry on a regular basis. Easy enough to measure.

Longwingers, on the other hand, tend to define success in a more esoteric way that gives greater weight to flight style than to catching game. (Steve [I think] pegged this as "If I can't do it with whips and midgets, then I won't do it at all...")

There are plenty of "cross-over" falconers who fly both short- and longwings, and more than a few who fly shortwings with a longwinger's mentality or vice-versa, but work with me here...

I have a friend who flies only gyr-peregrine hybrids because he is spoiled for anything else. He needs (on a psychological level) not just a bird that will hunt from a thousand-foot pitch, but one that will climb the thousand feet without once setting its wings. Pump, pump, pump, all the way up, and then a perfect stoop, or it's ruined for him. This might be an extreme example of the "true" or "purist" longwinger, but chances are you've met the type. They want to see the thousand-foot stoop every time—even if a thousand feet might be too much pitch from the catching-game standpoint. They'd rather see a miss from a thousand-foot pitch than a kill from four hundred.

And here's the important point: That emphasis on style translates into a different training mindset. Whereas the shortwinger-at-heart wants first and foremost to serve the hawk and get a flight, the longwinging purist has to be willing to call off the hunt if the bird isn't flying according to plan. The way you get a bird to consistently hunt from a thousand feet is to only flush game while the bird is climbing. If it sets its wings, the correct, disciplined thing to do is not to flush—even if you've waited all day for this flight, even with a dog on solid point, no matter what. This kind of discipline is difficult, but it's the mark of a true, purist longwinger. And in this context, when the bar is set this high, the first-season-as-extended-training comment begins to look more reasonable.

I might someday fly a peregrine, or more likely a prairie. I'd be thrilled to catch game—be it grouse, ducks, or pheasant—from a four-hundred foot pitch. But I'm ("just") a shortwinger.

Matt Mullenix said...

That's a satisfying summary Mark and a good answer to my less-than-clear question.

The off season brings out the armchair falconer in me about this time every year. :-) But I think it's a necessaru post-processing. The actual season is too busy and too short to spend much time speculating and pontificating on it.

One thing I've known about my falconry for some years is that I love the element of surprise. I need to be in the moment, and in every moment; a full partner to my hawk and dog; no more (or not much more) in the know about what comes next but ready for anything. I see that frame of mind as the one the animals have, and it's a pretty effective way to operate in the wild.

Gamehawking in the classical sense (and certainly in the purist's) requires a reduction of variables----as many as there are to as few as possible---and is reallt he opposite of my goal. I don't seek chaos (which is impossible to hunt in) but I welcome variables and uncertainty in general. It's what I LIKE about falconry.

I may be destined to be a shortwinger, and maybe specifically a Harris hawker (given they are so similar to me in what they seem to enjoy about hunting). But I can see a way, theoretically, to fly big longwings that would give me something of the surprise and rough/tumble possibilities I like to see.

It's just probably not legal. :-)