We've grown to accept that dogs were the first animals to be domesticated by man. I would venture that riparian birds were next. After all, both dogs and hawks would have helped early man to catch and kill animals for food.
For thousands of years man has paired up with hawks, falcons, and eagles to create a unique hunting relationship. This relationship has been a part of Arab culture for most of that time. Having lived in Saudi Arabia for 16 years, I've had a fascination with all sorts of Mideastern themes - camels, palm trees, Arabian horses, salukis, and falconry. A few months ago a half-off deal came up for a basic falconry class and I jumped at the chance.
West Coast Falconry is a facility sitting in the foothills about 20 minutes northeast of Marysville. It is one of only a handful of facilities licensed in the United States and the only one in California with a satellite in San Diego. The six acre property is perched on the hillside with several enclosures. Most contain birds, but there are also dogs and horses.
Although there are other raptor facilities in California, they are all rescue or wildlife facilities which do not allow public access to the birds. WCF is the only place where you are going to be able to get a hand-on experience with them. WCF has quite a variety of raptors. There was an eagle, a vulture, an owl, and then several hawks and falcons that are used for falconry.
I was here for a one-hour course on the basics of falconry. There were about a dozen of us in the class varying in ages from 15-75. Most people came in pairs - couples or family relations. I was there flying solo.
|Barkley, Marden, and Teeka|
The class was led by owner Kate Marden and Jana Barkley. These two ladies had obviously become so well versed in the course that they were feeding off each other like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Our feathered instructor was Teeka, a young adult Harris hawk.
We are taken to a lawn area and given a bit of history and background information on falconry. Here in the U.S. people must be licensed in order to handle these birds unless they are at a licensed facility such as WCF. Not surprisingly, raptors cannot just be transported about the country. There are very strict rules about keeping and transporting all the birds.
Each bird will have bands around their ankles to indicate whether they are a wild caught bird or bred in captivity. Birds that are bred can never be released in the wild. Wild caught birds, on the other hand, will be trained and used for a few years before they are released back into the wild to live as they please.
The lifespans can vary greatly. In the first year of life as much as half of the new chicks will die. The next year another 25% will die. If a bird can survive to 3-4 years, then they are likely to breed and live as much as 7-17 years. Birds in captivity can live twice as long.
Until the 1960s it was other breeds such as Peregrine falcons and Goshawks that were popular for falconry. But in the last 50 years the preferred bird has been the Harris hawk. Whereas other breeds have proven to be solo flyers, Harris hawks were found to actually work together in family groups, much like wolf packs do. This has proven to be popular with falconers because they can then fly Harris hawks together versus having to take turns with other breeds.
One of my classmates asks about hooding and Marden explains that the eyesight of the birds is so acute that they can easily get overwhelmed with information overload. The hoods are equivalent to us putting in ear plugs - a way for the birds to calm down and get away from all the "noise".
Barkley describes how birds' feet work. She compares it to zip-ties which ratchet down and get tighter and tighter but can't release without being cut. Birds' feet will ratchet tighter around their prey in order to keep a firm grip and kill. After they have a chance for the adrenaline to ebb and relax, they can eventually let go of the prey.
Each of us are given thick leather gloves for our left hands and then are instructed on the proper way to hold our arms to catch a bird - out in front, slightly raised. Once we catch the bird, we can draw our arm down to our sides, elbows bent so that the bird sits high. At any other time we are to keep our arms down. Marden has the meaty morsels which she puts a bit into the crease of each of our gloves to entice Teeka.
We form a circle and Teeka happily flies back and forth across it, collecting tidbits from each of us.
Next Barkley holds up a training perch and Teeka takes position. Marden shows us how they train the birds to catch something mid-flight by tossing the morsels up into the air. We each take turns counting 1, 2, 3 before pitching the meat as high as we can. Teeka swoops and tries to grab the treats with her talons. Several times she misses or makes several clutching attempts before catching it, landing, and gobbling it up.
Lastly we are shown how they use a training lure made out of leather. They swing it and Teeka grabs onto it like it's prey and brings it down. Here you see how Teeka protects her prey with her wings to say "this is MINE!"
Falconers will approach the birds and their kill and quietly get beside them. They start feeding them tidbits to distract the birds from eating the prey. The bird will eventually loosen its grip from the prey and go after the easy tidbits so that the falconer can grab the kill.
|The bulge on her throat is her full crop.|
I asked when we would know that Teeka was full. Marden says that the food is actually kept in the crop as the first stage of digestion. Teeka was full when her crop starts to bulge out, as seen above.
It was time for our photo-ops and Barkley brought out Cowboy. Cowboy is also a Harris hawk, but less than a year old. You can see he has different colored feathers as he is still a juvenile. He's just starting to be trained and needed some exposure to people.
West Coast Falconry offers a variety of activities for anyone interested in falconry. I took the very basic introductory class. Next are Apprentice courses and Hawk Walks as well as full hunting experiences. WCF also offers educational experiences and some specialized services such as events and pest bird abatement (pigeon control). There are certainly activities for all interests and price levels. I'm hoping to do a Hawk Walk next.