Hunting Blue hares in Scotland L-R Andrew Cordi Joe and Neil
by Joe Atkinson
Flying and hunting golden eagles in the United States has been around for many years. People like Morley Nelson were flying golden eagles many years ago with great success but only a very few falconers have consistently taken game with a golden eagle in the US. In the last five or six years, however, eagle falconry has started to gain in popularity as more US falconers are realizing the potential of the golden eagle as a falconry bird. So much so, that we now have our own club, the International Eagle Austringers Association, or IEAA. Nonetheless, despite the growing popularity of eagle falconry in the US, the hot bed for all things eagles remains in Europe, particularly in Czech Republic and Germany, with one particular eagle falconry meet being held each October in the small town of Opocno in Czech Republic. There, the sport of eagle falconry is steeped in tradition, going back hundreds and hundreds of years. So for me, a lifelong US eagle falconer, to go to Opocno and see, firsthand, eagles flying at hares and roe deer, was to be a truly amazing adventure.
I think most falconers have seen the photographs from Opocno — the huge lawn with dozens of eagles perched out everywhere with a good, healthy sprinkling of falcons and hawks mixed in and, of course, the beautiful castle in the background. I can recall looking at those pictures in disbelief, seeing so many trained eagles in one location. My eagle falconry experience has been one of flying alone or with a few friends watching, but never, until just recently, had I seen another trained golden eagle hunted in the field. So, for me, going to Opocno was a trip to wonderland . To see that many eagles and eagle falconers in one location and to be able to compare equipment, handling, flying and hunting techniques was too good to be true.
Flying golden eagles in the US has been an on-going learning experience for me, even just in figuring out all the things that eagles require to get them into the field. Take, for example, finding an eagle glove. Nowadays you can buy some very nice gloves from the many falconry suppliers out there but trying to find a good eagle glove in 1974 was a different matter it wasn’t going to happen and a welder’s glove had to do. As a young man living on a remote cattle ranch with a very aggressive female imprinted golden eagle, just trying to figure out how long the jesses should be was a big challenge. My first thought was that they should be just slightly longer than on my red tail hawk. Wrong the answer is: much longer, up to fourteen inches, in fact, because you need to be able to control those feet. After all, this is not a Harris hawk or red tail you’re holding, it’s an eagle! But there was nobody to call for help and consult with. And I wish I had had someone to tell me things like: when your female eagle is a pin dot way up in the sky, don’t stand directly underneath her, calling her straight down to the fist to see if she will come down, because she will and you could die! Or that female goldens can pair bond with you, and don’t share well, and will think nothing of flying your wife down and pinning her on the side of a hill. Things like that. Now, I admit that that female was imprinted completely the wrong way, but nobody told me! Or that eagles, unless properly introduced to dogs, look at them as food, regardless of how big the dogs are. Of course, the more eagles I flew the more I figured things out; however, it was truly trial by fire. If there was a mistake to be made, I made it, sometimes more than once. Unfortunately, there were no masters to learn from.
I have flown eagles in two particular styles, from the soar and off the fist. Watching a golden eagle come from a dot in the sky, stooping at a jack rabbit or, in some cases, ducks and pheasants, is spectacular. However, my favorite method of hunting eagles is off the fist at jack rabbits, or hares. I feel that off the fist hunting shows the true power and strength of the golden eagle and forms a stronger bond between eagle and falconer. The eagle figures out that you are hunting just as hard as it is and sees, firsthand, your value to the hunting team; whereas from the soar, yes, you are flushing game but the eagle’s sole focus is not on you and it may begin to self-hunt.
Our first day in the field in Opocno was filled with great excitement, and the first thing I noticed was that eagles are eagles no matter which side of the big pond they are on — they look and act the same. I was pleased to see that much of the equipment was the same as mine and it was interesting that, with no outside help and having to figure out what worked on my own, I had come up with almost the exact same style of equipment. I guess having an eagle get a little cranky while coming in to the fist transcends all languages and the need for long jesses and strong cuffs are clear.
Even though the eagles look the same, their backgrounds are completely different. The European eagle is one of two things, either an imprint or parent raised in captivity. In the US our eagles are, for the most part, wild-trapped. There are one or two imprints around, my four-year-old male being one of them, but they are the exception. We are not allowed to captive breed eagles for falconry in the US, and the differences between passage vs. captive raised are significant. The captive raised European eagles, whether parent raised or imprinted, are all socialized, passed around from falconer to falconer so they become very comfortable around lots of people. And just the fact that they are raised in captivity means they have seen people their entire lives; this is a huge advantage for the falconer. In the US, we are dealing with, as I said, wild trapped birds and we are not allowed to have anyone other than another licensed eagle falconer handle our eagles. In Europe that might not be such a problem but in the US, finding another eagle falconer can be nearly impossible. So the idea of socializing our birds like the European falconers do is not an option at this time.
While out in the field in Opocno, I was struck by the way the falconers handled their eagles on a kill. Moving in and opening up the hare while the eagle was feeding, bare handed offering of food, with no aggression from the eagles. This is a testament to the early training the eagles have received as young birds and the efforts put into socializing them with people. Passage eagles trapped in the US act completely differently around a kill, the main reason being that they have had to defend their kills from other eagles, coyotes, bobcats and probably a mountain lion or two. So, in the early stages of hunting your new passage eagle, you might not want to make in too fast — the passage golden eagle does not share well. In time they will allow you to go in and open up the animal, but in the beginning, like I said, it’s not a good idea. A good example of how a passage eagle protects its kill came in the form of a small 6 lb male I was flying some years ago. He was quite the jack rabbit catcher but, in the beginning, would not tolerate me coming any closer than ten feet. I called it his circle of tolerance . If I, or anyone for that matter, entered his circle he would leave the kill and fly straight at your face! By standing my ground and therefore not allowing the eagle to gain control of the situation he did get over this rather unpleasant behavior and was a very nice bird to hunt, allowing me to go right in, as close as I wanted. It’s not hard to see that somewhere out in the wild he had to defend his meals and, being a smallish male, probably was robbed more than once and had to learn at an early age to defend his kill very aggressively or go hungry.
Hunting in the fields with multiple eagles, like I saw in Opocno, is also something I have never done. There simply are not enough other eagle falconers around, so that part of the Opocno eagle meet I could not relate to. However, it was interesting to see how the whole system worked. A hunting line of spectators with eagle falconers spaced among them was formed, and walked through a field designated by the landowner. When game was flushed, the closest eagle to the slip was unhooded and flown. If there were two eagles close to a slip, a prearranged agreement determined who went first, and so forth. All went smoothly. Only one time did two eagles get released at the same time.
One question I have been asked is: why do I fly my eagles unhooded? While at the Opocno meet, I turned the question around, and asked why their eagles are flown out of the hood. While it is true that some are flown unhooded, far and away, the majority of eagles are flown out of the hood. I was told that this is done for two reasons: 1) safety — with that many eagles in the field at once, the chances are good that more than one bird will be launched at the same time and that is never a good thing, and 2) to give the rabbits a sporting chance. Now, the first reason, too many eagles in the field, is obvious and hopefully someday, here in the US, we will have to deal with that as well. Reason number two I took special interest in, having caught my fair share of jack rabbits (hares), including the mighty white tail jack rabbit, the mountain black tail jack rabbit, and the one I consider the fastest of all the hares or jack rabbits we have, the desert black tail jack rabbit.
Just to clear up one thing, all our jack rabbits are actually hares, not rabbits. We do have rabbits and the cotton tailed rabbit is the most common. Somewhere someone gave our hares the name jack rabbit and it stuck and, while I was in Europe, this was a constant point of confusion. I should have used the name black tail hare or white tail hare, that would have been better for all. Having flown thousands of slips on jack rabbits with eagles off the fist, I feel I have a good sense of how fast they run and how quickly eagles get to them. Nothing I saw in Europe can compare to the sheer speed of the desert black tail. They are built to run. They are the smallest of the jacks we have over here and they run, and run faster, that’s all they know and they go forever. The first difference I saw between the hares I fly and the ones in Europe is that the brown hare, for example, does not have the long range endurance as our jacks. The brown hare, after being chased for 60 to 100 yards, is winding down, running out of gas, if you will. I saw several brown hares, flushed way at the far end of the hunting line, come running past us just about out of gas and, if it were not for thick cover, would have been caught by the eagle. Our jack rabbits have long range endurance and will run out of sight at full speed. I think the blue hare that we saw in Scotland is the closest to our jack rabbit that I saw in Europe. It will run long distances like our jacks and go up some incredible mountains.
Getting back to the giving the hare a fair chance statement. The European hares that we saw hold very tight and, on many occasions, can be spotted and the falconer waved over for the flush. The falconer would then try to walk around to the back end of the hare, hoping the hare would flush away from the falconer, thus giving a cleaner flush. Any eagle experienced on hares, if flown unhooded, would catch the hare before it was even flushed and that is not very sporting. In just the mere time it takes to unhood the eagle the hare has time to get away and get up to speed. This makes for a much more exciting flight and tests the eagle’s abilities. So, safety and giving the hare a sporting chance are the two reasons eagles are flown out of the hood.
I have flown eagles out of the hood but found it very difficult to unhood my bird fast enough to keep the flight within a reasonable distance form me. The desert black tail, the jack rabbit that I am most familiar with, normally will not hold like the European brown hare. It will flush many yards in front of you and is at full speed in seconds. Your eagle must react quickly or the flight can go for a long distance. However, despite the great speed of the desert black tail jack rabbit, a well conditioned golden eagle can make catching them look easy.
So, in comparison, eagle falconry in Europe and the US are quite similar in regards to the equipment used. I found it interesting that the current eagle glove that I am using is identical to some I saw at the Opocno meet. Comparing quarry, our hares in the US are faster but what the brown hare lacks in speed it more than makes up for with cunning moves, making it a very challenging quarry, and the mountain blue hares that we saw hunted in Scotland act very much like our jack rabbits. Flights on roe deer are exciting and very challenging for the eagles and, I would say, for the eagle falconers as well, but in the US we are not allowed to hunt deer with eagles. In some states hunting deer with eagles could be a possibility; however, the deer we have in the US are as much as two or three times bigger than the roe deer and could pose a serious risk to the eagle. Our jack rabbits and the hares in Europe all have the same jump move where they jump straight up at the very last second and the eagle goes flashing under the airborne hare. From what I saw, the hares in Europe seem to use this escape tactic much more than hares in the US. It is interesting that I have never witnessed any of our cotton tail rabbits, which are a true rabbit and not a hare, do this maneuver. The black tails that live in the higher elevations will use the sage brush as a method of escape. They will flush, start to run, and the moment the eagle closes, they duck under a sage bush and stop, ten feet away or a hundred, it does not matter, they stop. When the jack rabbit stops, the eagle looses sight of the hare and the flight is over, at least for the trained eagle. Wild eagles will continue to flush and harass the hare by landing on the sage bush and will continue working the hare until the hare panics, makes a mistake, and gets caught. So, for me, unless I can find the mountain black tail jacks in short sage, meaning knee-high or less, flying them is not much fun. They do, however, feed in hay fields and that is great fun speed on speed!
This, then, has been a comparison of eagles flown using much the same techniques and flown at similar quarry but with vastly different backgrounds and flown under different flying conditions. On the one hand, there is the European golden eagle, fully humanized, domestically produced (either parent raised or imprinted), flown in sometimes large hunting parties with many other eagles, where manners from the hunting eagles are a must. Compare that to the wild passage golden eagle flown in the US that is aggressive and not fond of sharing food with anything, let alone another eagle, and has grown up in an environment where you protect your kill or go hungry.
In the US we have so much game, so much land to fly our eagles on, and I can only hope that, as eagle falconry grows, we show the same level of respect for the game and the land that is shown by our brothers and sisters in Europe. The European eagle falconers fly their eagles at the highest level. They have been flying eagles at game since the dawn of falconry and we, here in the US, can learn much from them.