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Falconry Birds

 

Please note that weights shown are pulled from a variety of sources, and are approximate.

Genus Falco - The Falcons
In the US these birds range in size from the three pound plus gyrfalcon down to the tiny, blue-jay sized American kestrel. Not shown are the many hybrid falcons, which have been captive bred. Many falconers fly hybrid birds. These include prairie/peregrine, peregrine/merlin, gyr/peregrine, just to name a few.


Gyrfalcon (Falco gyrfalco or alternatively Falco rusticolus or Falco canadensis)

The most prized and largest of the falcons, the gyr is a determined and powerful flier that often catches prey through pure persistence and stamina. In level flight the gyr is probably the fastest of the falcons. Living in the arctic regions, it preys on ptarmigan, and grouse, but supplements its diet with waterfowl, ground squirrels and lemmings. In weight it averages heavier than a red tailed hawk. The gyr is generally docile, very tame and easy to train. Their lack of fear of humans makes them vulnerable sometimes when they migrate south.  They are very susceptible to a condition called "bumblefoot."
Weight: 1.5 to 4.5 pounds


The Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

The classic bird of falconry, the peregrine has a worldwide distribution. It is almost exclusively a bird hunter, rarely hunting terrestrial prey. Its style of flight, where it naturally takes a position in the air above the falconer, dramatic dives, plus a usually agreeable nature, make it an ideal falconry bird. In a dive it is the fastest of all birds, having been clocked at over 240 mph, though in level flight the peregrine may be out flown by a good racing pigeon. Weight: 19 - 56 ounces


Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus)

The prairie falcon is the best US representative of the desert falcons, which are characterized by large heads, long tails, and soft plumage. The prairie is a fierce bird which hunts both birds and mammals, even jack rabbits. A somewhat difficult, but very successful falconry bird, trained by many US falconers. Weight: 15 - 39 ounces


Merlin (Falco columbarius)

The merlin, though tiny, is often compared to the gyrfalcon, in both its powerful style of flight, and its determination in pursuit of game. In the wild the merlin feeds on small birds and insects. As a falconry bird, this tiny falcon covers an enormous amount of sky. Notice the telemetry transmitter on "Rose" flown by Eric Edwards. She has a sparrow in her talons. Weight: 4 to 8 ounces


American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

Even smaller than a merlin, the kestrel is a stealth hunter, not particularly fast over long distances, but with very strong feet for its size, and very good in cover.  Kestrels eat everything from small insects to birds larger than themselves. In addition they prey on mammals and reptiles. In the right hands they make formidable little game hawks, but are not a beginner's bird, although it is legal for apprentices to fly them. Matthew Mullenix, an accomplished falconer, caught nearly 700 birds in two seasons with a tiny female kestrel trapped in Florida. Weight control is critical. Like merlins, they have a tendency to carry sparrows, but starlings can be an excellent quarry. One major problem with flying kestrels (and merlins as well) is that they are vulnerable to attack by accipiters, especially Cooper's hawks. In the south this may be alleviated by flying them in the spring, when there are fewer accipiters - and an abundance of sparrows and starlings. Biologists and falconers Frank and John Craighead considered the kestrel to be the smartest of all the raptors that they trained. However, they did not train Harris's hawks. Weight: 3 to 6 ounces


Genus Buteo - The Buzzard Hawks
The buteos have long rounded wings and soar superbly. In body confirmation they resemble small eagles. In the US there are a number of species ranging in size from the crow-sized broad-wing hawk to the ferruginous hawk, the largest American hawk, bigger than either the redtail or gyrfalcon. The redtail is the buzzard most often trained for falconry.

Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis)

This is the largest of all American hawks. A powerful bird with small but extremely strong feet. Ferruginous hawks live in open country in the western US. They often nest on the ground. Generally preys on mammals, such as ground squirrels and jack rabbits, but falconers have had success flying them at game birds as well.
Weight: 2 to 5 pounds

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensus)- Photo by Steve Oleson

The most successful raptor in North America, the redtail is now the most widely flown game hawk in the US. Because of the inaccurate comparison with its cousin, the European common buzzard (Buteo buteo), the redtail was formerly considered just an apprentice's bird. In the last few decades, however, the redtail's reputation has grown considerably . Redtails are versatile and will take a wide variety of game, ranging from rabbits, hares, squirrels, and rats, to the occasional sparrow, goose, pheasant, grouse or quail. Gary Brewer, a squirrel specialist, wrote that over the years he has inadvertently caught raccoon, opossum, feral cats, nutria, mink, herons, rattlesnakes, and wild piglets. The redtail is the definitive squirrel hawk, with great foot strength, heavy toes, and it apparently has some natural immunity to squirrel bite infection. Recently Vince Strauss in Oregon trained his passage tiercel RT to catch flying ducks, and ended the season with 11 mallards and 4 wood ducks. European falconers fly red-tails (they call them "red-tailed buzzards") at  the enormous European hare. Mark Reindel told me that in Maine, as falconry birds, RT's appear to be even more effective than goshawks on snowshoe rabbits. Martin Cray, of "Hawking in Wales," wrote that while they preferred the group flying Harris's hawks ("more fun"), "the occasional blustery, damp, Welsh winters day can be a bit much for a desert bird" but
the RT could be flown.  He also wrote that while lacking the acceleration of Harris' hawks, red-tails had the speed over long distances to fly down hares that escaped an initial attack, while their Harris's hawks usually could not.  

If red-tails have a fault, it is that they are not as tenacious as either the goshawk or Harris's  hawk.  Red-tails tend to put all their effort into a single explosive, diving attack, which is efficient, but if they miss, the hawks will sometimes stand on the ground watching a rabbit run over the horizon.  With a particular type of lure training, red-tails can be trained out of this behavior.  Interestingly, when squirrel hunting they tend to recover quickly and will attack repeatedly and tirelessly. 

Though often flown by experienced falconers, the passage redtail is the preferred apprentice's bird. She is h
ardy, determined, generally easy to train, and takes considerable abuse in stride.   Flown in an area with plenty of game the apprentice falconer should have good success.  My apprentice, Lynne Holder, caught a rabbit within 20 minutes on her first field outing with her first red-tail.

The fine looking redtail in the picture above is Greg Thomas' 21 year old intermewed passage female, "Lady." She is shown with a black-tailed jack rabbit caught near Abilene, TX in January 16, 2006.

A little historical note. It is likely that the very first redtails flown in the British Isles were the two birds sent by Doug Pineo to Jack Mavrogordato and Tony Huston in England in the late 1960's. Jack got very attached to his bird, called Zip, which lived to be 31 years old. Zip became an accomplished hare hawk.

Weight: 1.5 pounds to 4 pounds.




"Lucky," passage redtail once flown by Cody Fields, attacks a rabbit in Amarillo, Texas in 2005. In this case it is the rabbit that appears to be "lucky." In his second season, this bird was released in the early winter of 2005-2006, as he became very uncooperative and aggressive toward  his falconer.

Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)

Seldom trained in falconry, these woodland birds are common in some parts of the United States.  They are a little more than half the size of a red-tailed hawk, and not nearly so robust.  The strength of a red-tail enables it to take large prey well beyond the reach of a red-shouldered hawk. Red-shouldered hawks have a reputation for being difficult. I know two young falconers who attempted to fly red-shouldered hawks; both hawks flew off. One of the falconers previously had excellent success with two red-tailed hawks, while the other falconer was a tyro. Nevertheless, a number of falconers have had success with red-shoulders.  Barry Davidson in Pennsylvania has had consistent success with them, mostly hunting pigeons.  His erstwhile sponsor at first scoffed at Barry's hunting with a red-shoulder; he saw the bird in action and got one for himself.  I believe the birds were eyasses.

Red-shouldered hawks can have some advantages. They are plentiful in the eastern US and into the mid-west. They are a small hawk, quite maneuverable, and can be good for hunting small birds such as starlings, sparrows, pigeons, and even quail. In addition they will take rats, and small cottontails, and in the wild are regularly observed taking tree squirrels.

As of 9/25/2010, my own experience with one red-shouldered hawk has been good.  Essentially a brancher, the bird was not difficult at all. She was very smart, curious, and had an engaging personality. Most importantly, she quickly took to hunting wild game and soon put a number of birds in the bag.

In the wild they take mostly small mammals and birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and even fish.

8/28/2010 - My red-shouldered hawk, "Ms. Elbert" on usual prey

 
Genus Parabuteo - Harris's Hawk
Closely related to the Buteos, the genus Parabuteo consists of the Harris' hawk
.

3/1/2006 -Adult Captive Bred Tiercel Harris' Hawk (Parabuteo unicintus), "Chucky" Flown By Roger Crandall (Photo: Krys Langevin)

3/11/2006 - Ft Worth - Jeff Catoor's immature tiercel Harris', Blackjack, chasing a very elusive cottontail. BJ was one of the last Jennifer and Tom Coulson birds sold before Hurricane Katrina, which decimated their breeding project. (Photo: Krys Langevin)

Almost unknown as a falconry bird until the 1960's, the Harris' hawk is now trained in large numbers. For a number of reasons they are very popular around the world, from the US to the UK and into Japan. In many ways they have changed falconry, especially with the group hawking of Harris's. Frequently captive bred, the Harris' hawk is probably the most versatile and productive bird in all of falconry.
This may be especially true of tiercels, which have the quickness and agility to capture small birds, but sufficient strength to handle larger prey like rabbits, even holding jack rabbits. The females can be excellent squirrel hawks. While considered by most to be easy to train, some Harris' hawks can be difficult.

I saw a demonstration of the Harris's versatility during a weekend in March, 2005
. Matt Mullenix's tiercel, "Charlie," caught seven sparrows, three starlings, a quail, a rabbit, and a cotton rat. He was flown out of a car window, off of a portable field "T" perch, from the fist and from a tree. The same weekend, on Sunday, Matt Reidy showed up with his female Harris' hawk - she caught nine (sic) sparrows that day. Click the link below to read Mr. Mullenix's story about this event. Mr. Reidy's bird could also catch geese. How's that for versatility? Click Here  Oddly enough, the second season that same female "went bad," caught little game and Reidy released her.  As a rule Harris's are consistent year after year.

Harris's hawks are sociable among themselves and with people. They are very intelligent, being one of the very few hawks that hunt in packs in the wild.
Falconers have taken advantage of this trait to group hunt with these birds.  Five Harris's hawks hunting together is not unusual, though fights can break out, which can be serious.  They seem to enjoy the falconer's company.  Steve Martin wrote that one morning his female Harris's hawk flew to a light pole, and discovered the remains of a rabbit, leftovers from a horned owl kill.  Martin turned around to go back to his car, expecting to get his lure to try to get the hawk back back.  To his surprise, the Harris' picked up the rabbit and flew to Martin's fist, to eat the rabbit leg in in his company.  Martin thought to himself, "This is what falconry is about!" or so he wrote later.
Weight: 18 to 58 ounces (1 to 3.5 pounds)

Genus Accipiter - The True Hawks
There are three accipiters in North America. They all prefer forests and woods, where they hunt birds and mammals. Their numbers have apparently increased with the termination of DDT deployment as a pesticide. Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks are frequently seen across the US.

Adult Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)

Though redtails and Harris's hawks are now more popular in the United States, the goshawk was the large game hawk of classical falconry.  The largest accipiter, goshawks are fast, maneuverable, and have great acceleration. Typically
much more persistent than a redtail, and faster than a Harris's hawk, when pursuing game the goshawk is amazing to watch.  Once called "cook's hawk" because of her ability to provide food for the kitchen, the goshawk takes a wide variety of birds and mammals. Tremendously athletic, they can out fly an accelerating duck, something very few Harris' and no red-tail can do. Toby Bradshaw wrote that he once saw a goshawk catch a rabbit, release it momentarily so the bird could punish an encroaching dog, then quickly caught the rabbit again as it tried to escape.  They are less tolerant of warm weather than either the Harris' or redtail, tend to be more high strung, and probably less disease resistant. 

Because of the scarcity of redtails in Alaska, apprentices there legally fly goshawks and have good success.
One tends to see them replacing Harris' hawks in cold climates.  Goshawks prefer the cooler climates, rarely seen in the southern US, though competitive pressure from the larger and more aerial redtail hawk may contribute to their absence (Beebe).


Adult Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperi)

A crow sized forest hawk. A fast, maneuverable and courageous bird that that takes a wide variety of prey, from small birds and can hold cottontail rabbits.  Tremendous ability on foot and in cover, they can be excellent quail hawks.  Mark Reindel commented to me that every falconer should fly at least one Cooper's hawk during his/her career. The Cooper's hawk winters in Houston, and is beginning to breed here as well.  The abundance of white wing doves is an attraction.  In the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, there are many nesting pairs  These hawks have evolved in the last thirty years to tolerate humans; they live in cities where they catch doves and pigeons.


Adult Female Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)

Smallest of the American accipiters. A sometimes difficult bird to train, the male (musket) may be the best sparrow hawk, and many falconers have good success with them. Mike McDermott claims that a musket is almost as easy
to train as a redtail.  Prey is mostly small birds. Winters in Houston, and is seen regularly.  A female "sharpie" drove off my kestrel, Alex.