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Cisco is the killer king of his field

Published August 4, 2007

Cisco is a fearless hunter. The 2-year-old red-tailed hawk will fly into brush in pursuit of prey. Once, he even dove into a thick rose bush for a kill — a sort of ramble in the bramble.

“(Red-tails) are very aggressive,” said Chuck Redding, Cisco’s handler.

“They’ll hit hard. It’s almost scary to watch them sometimes. They do it with reckless abandon.”

Redding, who has been involved with falconry since he was a youngster, trapped Cisco in December 2005, near Fort Worth. It didn’t take him long to train the hawk.

“I could have had him flying loose in two weeks and hunting with him,” said the 56-year-old Redding, who lives in west Houston.

But the engineering supervisor at Baker Hughes waited three weeks for a radio transmitter that would allow him to track Cisco in case he strayed. Redding had lost his three previous birds — two kestrels and a red-tail — the previous year.

Although raptors are caught in the wild, they learn quickly to rely on humans.

“They associate you with food,” Redding said. “You start feeding them on the fist. Then they start flying to the fist.

“Harris hawks actually bond to you as a buddy. I think red-tails orient to you because you’ve been feeding them.”

The birds also learn to rely on their trainer for safety. Cisco stays outside, covered and tethered to a perch during the day. At night, he’s put inside a covered house, called a mew.

“He relaxes when he’s in his mew,” Redding said. “You can tell he’s in a more comfortable state.”

It’s not a bad deal for a guy like Cisco. In the wild, Redding said, he would have had a 30-percent chance of surviving his first year. Redding said only 5-percent of red-tails survive the first five years in the wild.

Despite all the amenities of home, Cisco loves getting out and hunting. Redding said the bird gets excited before a hunt, especially once Redding pulls up to a hunting field.

“Once he hears the sound of the (car) door opening, he’ll go completely crazy,” Redding said. “He’ll start jumping around, throwing himself around the box.”

Once out of the box, Cisco will tour the terrain and fly back to Redding to begin the hunt.

“He waits for me to get my gear on,” Redding said. “He looks at me as his dog. I kick up the game for him.”

In fact, Cisco relies on Redding quite a bit when it comes to hunting. Redding and other falconers will walk the field, scaring up prey such as rabbits.

“When people are in the field, he watches the people, Redding said.

“He also watches the area away from the people. Rabbits will stay under cover. When people move away from them, they’ll move.”

Cisco rarely hunts on the wing. He likes to scan the area from a perch, usually a tree or a tall T-pole Redding carries around.

He will hunt any small mammal — rabbits, mice, rats and squirrels and also go after snakes.

His favorite prey?

“Cotton rats,” Redding said. “They’re easy to catch and they’re soft and tasty.”

Cisco has caught rabbits more than twice his weight and he recently added squirrels to his hit list.

“As a hunter, he learns as he goes along,” Redding said. “I didn’t start chasing squirrels with him until this year. It took him a while to get the hang of it. Once he did, he suddenly snapped to what the game was. He’s pretty deadly. Every time he goes out, he gets a squirrel.”

Redding has his favorite hunting fields in the Houston area, but he sometimes takes Cisco to a new field.

“It takes him a while to learn the terrain at a new field,” he said. “But, you take him back there, he knows exactly how to hunt it.”

Cisco gets to eat a majority of his kills, although a few of his rabbits have been served as dinner at the Redding household. The cotton rats, however, are all Cisco’s.

Redding’s bird is more of a hunting/working animal. Most falcons, except for Harris hawks, which can have a dog-like demeanor, don’t exactly like to nuzzle.

“He’s sort of a borderline pet,” Redding said.

“He’s somewhat aloof. He’s not affectionate. But he knows who I am. When I show up, he’ll kind of chirp in sort of a friendly way. He’s very relaxed around me. But he doesn’t like being scratched or anything.”

Still, as falcons go, Cisco is pretty people friendly.

“Some red-tails are footy,” Redding said. “They’ll snatch your hand just for the pleasure of it, and it’s pretty painful. He won’t do that under any circumstances. He’s got a very mellow personality toward people.”

Redding said Cisco is comfortable around even newcomers when he’s hunting, but he’s suspicious of new faces around the house.

“If somebody new comes in, he’ll get really stiff and stare at them,” he said.

However, red-tails — considered the top dog of raptors — don’t like other raptors. Cisco once killed a Cooper’s hawk while the Cooper was hunting doves and he also tangled with a larger, dangerous Ferruginous hawk.

“Cisco is a superb athlete,” Redding said.

“I think the fact that he can regularly catch a tree squirrel, a master of that environment, is testament to that. Red-tails can appear to be big and clumsy but also can be amazingly quick sometimes.

“Although it was distressing, his catching that female Cooper’s hawk was quite a feat, as Cooper’s have tremendous acceleration and agility.”

It’s that athlete on the wing that draws Redding to the sport. Cisco is a tenacious, yet graceful hunter.

“I enjoy the beauty of it, the flight, the closeness of nature,” Redding said.

“It’s sort of a violent sport at times. But it’s such a primal, interesting thing. It hooked me 40 years ago and I never lost it.

“There’s something about the intensity of watching these things go after game that’s not like anything else.”

And it’s cool to be part of the hunt. Cisco often relies on Redding in the field, especially after plunging into the brush and coming up empty.

“I’ll run in with the T-perch and put it in front of him so he can hop out of the brush,” Redding said.

“There’s an almost impatient look — like, ‘C’mon let’s go.’ He’ll have just missed a rabbit and the rabbit’s run 40 yards. He’ll be chirping and he’ll leap onto that perch ready to go again.”


Popular Raptors

• Harris Hawks — The most popular with falconers. Chuck Redding said they’re extremely versatile birds, but not as powerful as red-tails. He said they accelerate quicker and are more maneuverable in the air. They’ll catch anything from sparrows to jack rabbits.

“They have an almost dog-like personality about them,” Redding said. “Some falconers don’t like that about them. They don’t think they’re a true hawk, but more like dogs with talons. They’re really nice.”

Harris hawks are about 18 to 24 inches long, with a wingspan of 42 inches.

• Red-tailed hawks — Another popular bird with falconers. They’re about 22 inches long, with a wingspan of 56 inches. Fearless birds that will dive into brush for prey, 67 different species are considered good eating to these guys.

• Peregrines — Powerful and fast birds. They hunt medium-sized prey, including ducks. Peregrines are about the size of a crow.

“What you get out of them is a spectacular, open-field flight,” Redding said. “They’re hunting mostly birds and diving at them at up to 200 mph.”

• Gryfalcon (pronounced Jeer-falcon) — Another big falcon (20 inches long, 48-inch wingspan). They like to hunt other birds, including ducks and geese.

• Kestrel or sparrow hawk — A small falcon (8.5 inches long, 21-inch wing span) popular with falconers. “You can catch a lot of game with them,” Redding said. “People literally catch hundreds of starlings and sparrows with them in a year. But they’re vulnerable to attack by every other bird out there, and the weight control is very tricky.” For falconry beginners, Redding doesn’t advise starting with a kestrel.

• Merlin or pigeon hawk — A small but clever bird that’s a spectacular flyer. It can catch prey similar in size to itself. Females are about 13 inches long with a wingspan of 25 inches. Males are slightly smaller.


Man has used raptors for hunting for thousands of years, and it’s considered the sport of kings. There are an estimated 4,000 falconers in the United States, with roughly 5,000 birds.

Texas Falconry Laws

You must have valid state and federal permits to take or possess a raptor in Texas. You also must be age 14 or older, pass a state test and find a sponsor to begin your two-year apprenticeship. Texas Parks and Wildlife must inspect and OK your bird’s home environment. Novices can only begin with an American kestrel, red-tailed hawk or red-shouldered hawk.

For more information, go to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Web site,, or go to Redding’s Web site,