lanning a bird's first hunt
I'll describe some of the ideals to a first red-tail hawk hunt to make the most connection to the hawk understanding what the hunt is for and how the members will coordinate. Not all successful hunts go this way, and not all first hunts will go this way, but these components will help set you and your bird up for success.
The best preparation is a bird who is exercising and working with you well, and who has dropped some weight off her trapping high. How much weight depends on the training and her fitness level when she was trapped.
Things to bring to the field:
The bird has ideally been flying at the same weight for several days or a week to tune in to this and adjust her metabolism. She has been exercising well, and flown free or on a creance in several different locations having great response time and focus each time. Steve Layman has often said that a bird who will do 100 jumpups in 20 min is ready to hunt. The process of getting a bird to that fitness level and the partnership of cooperation that go into it sets the team up for a hunt. For creance controlled hunts, a frozen rabbit (entirely intact with skin, fur, ears, etc) or squirrel or other game target can be tied to the end of a string and hidden behind a bush. With the dog searching and the bird on the fist a mock hunt can be done with the frozen game pulled out from behind the bush at the right moment and letting her "catch" game. It's the same as a lure, but with a frozen target game animal lending more realism to the hunt setup. In this way she also has discovered the usefulness that the dog brings.
She has had the bell on for a week or so to get used to the sound and feel of it. She's been introduced to the hawk box, often as part of the routine for being boxed, driven around or just carried around, pulled out, then worked or having a mock hunt. When I pull her out of the box, she's looking to work or hunt.
The night before I will exercise the bird but will short crop her giving her only half of her usual meal so she is satisfied, but will be looking for breakfast the next morning. I'll use something that doesn't have any casting material, so rabbit meat that has been rinsed off carrying no fur or bones, or beef heart. This allows everything to pass straight through so she isn't waiting to cast the next morning or feeling full from indigestible materials. The morning of the hunt, I will have gotten her up early so she can throw that big morning mute, then weighed her to be able to track her weights with her behavior and successes. I'll have put her transmitter on testing the signal with the receiver.
The day of the hunt, the weather is cool, overcast, even slightly misting. It's enough to discourage a bird from soaring or sunning herself, but not enough to keep game holed up tight somewhere. The low cloud ceiling here helps encourage her to stay in the field and helps her focus. I want to get out in the field early, first light if possible, so the rabbits are eating and out and about.
I will want to be away from roads, trucks, and suburbs, as suburban dogs or cats can be a distraction, and people and movement can distract. The field has no resident RTs or eagles, and plenty of game. The important thing is that the game flushes fast. She will probably pass up one or two, but will get plenty of opportunities. I want her able to see the rabbits, near and far, and have several options, so a game field that has tall substantial trees, preferably not evergreens or firs. It should be late autumn as the yellowjackets won't be out, if a frost or two has occurred the nettles are down and the leaves are down. The thickets of grass that will hide a rabbits are pushed down somewhat also allowing a rabbit's movement to be seen. I want islands of blackberries that rabbits will dart between but won't be so large as to hide all the rabbits and allow them to just run in circles in the big bush. Ideally there's some large, substantial trees with leafless branches, that face a hillside slope dotted with blackberries. The rabbits will creep their way up the hill and she will have clear shots at them between the bushes.
When we arrive at the field, I'll want to ensure I'm parked in a way that I'm unobtrusive and safe, preferably with the back end of the car towards the field allowing dogs and hawk access easily. I'll flip on the receiver to ensure the transmitter is on and giving a strong signal, then flip the receiver off. I'll pull the hawk out and only focus on her for a moment. I'll pull out her regular jesses, leash, etc and replace with a pair of field jesses. We'll play games, I'll toss a tidbit on the ground letting her fly off after it, then have her jump back to the fist for another tiny tidbit. We may do this several times so I can assess her mindset and ensure she isn't going to bolt. With this relationship re-established, I'll let her take off and choose a branch to perch on. With her settled, I'll observe for a moment, then prepare the dogs. She will likely wag her tail, mute, and assess what's around her ideally laddering up. I'll let the dogs out with their electric collars on, and pack my game bag with tidbits, rabbit leg, shears, and the like. Then we get to work beating brush until she takes a shot. If she shows no interest at all, keep trying for a little. If there's no interest and no game, I'll pack it up and call her down. If I have another field to go to, then we'll head there and repeat everything.
She may make a shot and miss. That's great! If she doesn't get up immediately, I'll try to approach and tidbit her from the glove. She may hop to the glove and let me be more a part of the hunt. I can tidbit her, play a few games, or cast her back into a tree. I want her rewarded for letting me approach her and for coming to the glove while hunting.
It's possible she wants to hunt and doesn't want to come to me at all. Or wants to just not come. The lure may work to entice her, or I may need the rabbit leg. With the skin and fur stripped back exposing the tasty meat, and held up high on the gloved fist, waved around a bit, she may be enticed down with this. Often a little tidbit won't do a thing to entice her to come to the fist in the field (as it would in the home), but a big rabbit hind leg will convince her to come to the fist. If I need to go to this length, she probably isn't ready to be hunted. When she does come down, I'll honor my part of the promise and let her have a good amount of it to eat, then head home for a big exercise session and tiny tidbits. I will probably spend a week exercising her harder and bringing the weight down slightly.
It's possible she gets spooked or chased out of the area by wild raptors. Then it's time to get the telemetry, the lure and any food that may entice her to come to you.
It's possible she finds non-game - mice, tiny snakes, rats, etc. Hopefully these aren't more than a mouthful and she's still with you and hunting. If you think she had more than a mouthful and isn't interested in hunting, then it's time to make in and reward her taking her back to the car and packing it in for the day. If she has caught a species that needs to be noted on an Accidental Take card, be certain to fill that out right then in the field.
She may catch a rabbit. That's great! If it's a regular cottontail rabbit, she'll be able to hold on and control it for a few moments, so I'll first make sure the dogs are under control. It's awful to have a dog run in on a catch, or have a catch in a position where the dog accidentally runs over the bird. I also want to know about where she is so I don't step on her. With the dogs on leashes and under control, I'll make in on her slowly and low so she sees me. Hawks in the wild will just start eating, whether the catch is dead or not. It is more kind to the game to dispatch it quickly before the hawk can begin to eat it. I will grab a hind leg of the rabbit's and pin it under my knee while I kneel next to them. She may try to drag her catch away. I want to anchor the rabbit so it doesn't get drug out of reach, and so the wounded rabbit doesn't get free only to be in pain for a prolonged period of time. A bird that has not been through this before will likely be more insulted than others. The first time I may not be able to dispatch the prey as quickly as I would like. I'll feed the hawk tiny tidbits as I inch my gloved hand closer. As soon as I can dispatch the prey without putting the hawk off, I will, then we'll just sit together. If I can open the prey for her, I'll do that. I want her to enjoy what she has caught - the fresh game is highly rewarding. She'll be slow to let go, and that's perfect. While she rips and eats, I'll offer her tidbits, or help expose tastier parts for her. I'll secure her in some way swapping her field jesses for mews jesses, and leashing her up to the glove if possible. With her secured, we can take as long as we want and she can eat a much as she wants. The danger is when she's eaten enough that she wants to bolt and hide from the wild things that prey on hawks. Or if she can take off with a good part of something, such as the head or a leg. If I have her secured then I can work with her and indulge her post-catch. I want to feed her up well so she's highly rewarded by this. I always notice the mentality of the hawk after a catch. She seems so turned on and has heightened senses, in a way. This will start to subside a little, but seems to stay with them for a day or two. As she accepts my presence more, I'll begin to inch my game bag over the prey hiding it from her view. She may still have her talons wrapped firmly into it, and I'll eventually cover over her feet. Some falconers have a drawstring bag that they will slip over the prey and draw the string top around the foot so that when she pulls her foot back the prey has totally disappeared. With her still firmly grabbing the prey, and my knee holding down some part of it, I'll rip off a hind leg and put it in my gloved fist offering it to her. She'll have to step to the glove to grab it, and will have to let go of the now unseen prey. It may take a few minutes, and I'll keep lifting up on her to separate her from the prey and get her on the fist with a big rabbit leg. If I can't pull a leg off, I'll use the leg that I brought with me to entice her to step up to the glove or grab it and trade her off the game. Once she lets go and she's secure, I'll slip the game into the game bag without her noticing. The detachable game bags works well as they can be snapped off, slipped over the bag, game slipped into the bag, and the bag re-clipped to me. She feels full and gorged, the game has smoothly been hidden and she certainly doesn't feel robbed. I'll head back to the car and start putting things away.
At the car, and with the hawk in her box, I'll go over each dog thoroughly looking for any rips they may have gotten from barbed wire, any thorns in their paw pads, or other problems. I'll run my fingers through and around every paw pad. I'll put the dog on his back so I can check the soft tummy area. I'll check the eyes to ensure they didn't get anything in their eyes. And finally I'll towel each one off. I'll make sure they have their fill of water before putting them back in the car. Many rabbits carry parasites, or at the very least fleas. I'll always bag a rabbit in a completely contained plastic bag of some sort to prevent the dogs (or me) from getting fleas.
Once home I'll first dress the rabbit gutting it, cutting it into meal-sized portions, and noting if there are signs of disease. It is a little late as she's already eaten some, but there's no reason to add more potential disease vectors to her diet if you suspect problems in the prey. Flukes are not uncommon and are typically not a problem. There may be many other things, though. Some falconers like to freeze the prey for a few days at the very least to try to reduce the parasite load and potential for impact. If she's fed up well, then I'll just pull her out of the hawk box, remove the transmitter and bell, and put her away for the night.
I'll pull out the dogs and give them another go over in the house to ensure they haven't ripped a toenail or torn some skin, and I'll pick the blackberry thorns out of them. A quick brushing will get most of the bigger bits out and make them more comfortable.
For a disastrous first hunt, make sure your bird is overly fat and unresponsive. Tidbit her throughout the day before going out. Go out in the evening, way out to a place that is difficult to get out of. Make sure it's late in March when her hormones are running high and any tendency to mate, defend territory, or migrate is occurring to her. Look for a warm and windy day, especially after damp and overcast days. And forget your telemetry at home.