As promised, here are a few highlights from my day with Texas falconer Lynne Holder, her hawk Dart, and her dog Max.
First we toured Dart’s mews. Just like horses have stables, trained hunting hawks live in mews when they are not working. Dart’s mews is a free-standing building in Lynne’s backyard, in the shade of an Osage orange tree. It has a vestibule, so a person enters the building, closes the outside door, and then opens an inner door to get to the area where Dart lives. The extra security provided by the vestibule minimizes the chance that the hawk will escape and also keeps the atmosphere inside comfortable for him.
Inside the outer vestibule, Lynn reached into a small freezer to pocket a little bag of frozen rodents. They are a training tool for Dart, as well as a treat with which to lure him away from inappropriate prey. Then she put on her heavy leather glove, or gauntlet, to protect her hand and arm because Dart’s talons can exert a pressure of up to 200 pounds per square inch per talon. In fact, just the day before, he had gripped her bare hand too tightly and torn a nasty gash in her thumb.
When we entered the large, airy room where the raptor spends most of his time, Dart was settled on a large perch high up in the corner of the room, where he can see through three good-sized, vertically-barred screened windows.
He took a moment to cautiously observe us, but I could tell he obviously felt he was still in charge. I, on the other hand, was awed by his silent presence. I could sense his raw power—the nature of his being a raptor was palpable—and kept a respectful distance. I did not attempt to touch him at that time. We were on his turf, after all.
Lynne held the bird and talked to him, describing to me what it was like to be the partner of this magnificent bird. When Dart flew back up to his high perch, Lynne reached down to the floor of the mews and showed me a bleached-looking hard white lump about the size of her thumb. This was a casting—a lump of indigestible leftovers like hair, feathers, and bones which Dart had regurgitated after his digestive tract had removed all the nutrients. A falconer can regularly study a hawk’s castings to keep tabs on certain aspects of the hawk’s health.
Dart also has a second, small perch attached to a digital scale, and as soon as he had finished checking out his strange visitors, one of the first things he did was to fly to his perch above the scale. Smart boy. He has learned that he cannot go outside to hunt unless he has first perched on that contraption so Lynne can record his weight.
Why? Lynne explained that only a lean bird wants to hunt. A bird who has been eating too much in his comfortable mews will feel no need to hunt, so his weight is monitored to see when he will be an active hunter. Sometimes only an extra fraction of an ounce in a hawk’s weight will determine if he is ready to hunt or not.
The good news is that on the day of my visit, Dart was in top shape and ready to hunt. Although I mentioned in my previous blog that not much about basic falconry has changed since the Middle Ages, there is one area where technology has made a huge difference. When Dart goes out to hunt, he wears a special radio transmitter. It’s fastened to a “backpack” which is made of small straps carefully wrapped around his body so as not to interfere with his movement or damage his feathers. This way, if he goes after some prey and travels for a long distance on his powerful wings, Lynne can track him and make it easier for him to find her again.
I did not try hunting with Dart from my fist, but during part of the hunt, I was able to hold a tall pole with a perch on the top where Dart sat. This is called a T-perch and it’s a fairly modern (as in, not medieval) American invention that gives the hawk a better view of the surrounding area. Lynne mentioned she always wears a hat to help protect herself from any possible droppings while Dart is on the perch. After she mentioned that, I started wishing I had worn a hat that day, but fortunately, I stayed clean.
Lynne and Dart also tandem hunt with a charming black Lab named Max. Max works with Dart as his “flusher.” Max runs around excitedly, nose to ground, tail wagging, sniffing for cotton rats, field mice, or other small prey. All his running and sniffing spooks Dart’s potential prey into moving so that Dart can see the movement and strike the prey. Most of the time during the hunt, Dart impassively watched Max carrying on like, well, like a black Lab. But the second Max’s body language indicated that prey was near, Dart moved like a bolt of lightning. He swooped noiselessly and with great economy of motion to take down first a small bird, and later a cotton rat. His attack was instantaneous, precise, and deadly. He moved so fast on his first kill that all we saw were a couple of pinfeathers hanging out of his beak as evidence of the meal.
It was fascinating to see the interaction between Dart and Max. Max was in it for the good time—believe me, if you got a chance to see Max, you’d know this was the best fun he could ever imagine. And Dart? It’s hard for a novice like me to read a hawk’s body language, but I thought I could sense a certain satisfaction from Dart with the outcome of the day’s hunt.
Check back next week for my interview with Lynne about modern falconry.