I started to condition our two eagles for the upcoming trip to Kansas back in mid- September. This year was going to be a very interesting meet because, aside from bringing Jackhammer, I was bringing along a young male eagle that was raised in captivity and had never flown very far, let alone ever laid eyes on a jack rabbit. We call him Davis. I trained Davis in my method of reduced stress and he progressed nicely. At first he was somewhat reluctant to jump to the lure. I have video of me holding him just inches from the lure and he is not interested in leaving the glove. Davis is typical of the young eagles we get — he is a blank slate, he knows nothing about anything, very tame but has no idea about life. It took a few tries but he eventually figured out jumping to the lure and from there his training progressed smoothly, ending with him flying thirty feet to the moving lure. At this stage of his training he was put up for the molt. He is exceedingly tame so perching him out during the summer was not a problem and his molt went without incident. Other than to perch him out I did not handle him at all, which is my normal routine. Many falconers mistakenly believe that eagles must be worked with all the time — fed on the fist, hooded and unhooded — in order to reduce aggression. This could not be further from the truth. Unless my eagles are at hunting weight I do not handle them other than, like I said, to perch them out during the day. They are fed simply by tossing them food and they eat on their own. The idea that one must work through aggression issues or bad behavior is, in my opinion, causing more harm than good. Let me explain……If you train your eagle to come to the fist before you hunt him/her you are setting the stage for an eagle that is going to be aggressive. Here’s why. By calling the eagle to the fist and calling it to the lure you are designating yourself as its only food source. So what happens is you have your eagle coming to the fist nicely (good fist response it’s called, I think) and then you go hunting. The eagle does not chase well or show much interest in jacks so you reduce its weight to make it hunt or chase harder. But what you have done is make the eagle more aggressive towards you because that is where, in the eagle’s mind, the food is supposed to be. Introduction of the lure and, most importantly, a lure that is moving away from you, changes everything. The fact that the lure is moving away from yourself and the eagle is the key; that starts the eagle looking out in the field for food. So now all you have to do is make a slight tweak in the eagle’s weight to increase the hunger, actual weight reduction is not necessary, and your eagle will hunt more aggressively. Take Jackhammer (JH) for example, all he knows is hunting jacks off the fist and I fly him at a higher weight because if I were to drop his weight, say from 8.6lbs down to 8.0lbs, he would be killing everything that moves, nothing would get away.
All I had ever done with Davis was to feed him, that’s it. When the lure was introduced he went to it, I walked up, and gave him some food. As the distance was increased the amount of food on the lure was decreased until there was no food on the lure at all. Davis built up to flying at the moving lure at speeds of 23 mph or faster and I would still walk up and trade him off. This process was repeated three times…. end of training for the day. I did this every other day with both JH and Davis; the off days they got no food. However, on the training days they were fed enough to maintain their weights. JH was at 8.8 lbs and Davis was at 8.5 lbs. Yes, both big male eagles. I did lower their weight slightly the closer we got to leaving for the meet. I did not know what Davis was going to ultimately fly at so that was a guess but JH needed to be down some to have his full attention; 8.6lbs is good.
So I headed out to Kansas with two eagles and our good friend Andrew Knowles-Brown from Scotland. Andrew is one of, if not the, most respected eagle falconers and eagle breeders in Europe, and a nice guy. Davis, at this point, had never flown back to me or seen a jack rabbit so this was going to fully test my training method. I did have some things working in my favor. First off, in Davis’s mind, he had no reason to fly away because he was conditioned to know that when the hood comes off he is looking for that furry looking thing that moves fast that he can catch and then he gets fed. So when he misses a jack, and he will, he’ll do what all the countless other eagles I have trained do, just sit there and watch me come up and offer him a tidbit on the glove and jump on the fist. The scary part is I’ll be in Kansas, not in the hills around Vale, so if things went bad it could get interesting.
Andrew and I arrived almost a week early before the GOE, mainly so we could finalize the contacts with land owners and check out the many fields we had to fly. We arrived on Wednesday in time to make a dash to a nearby field, hoping to get the birds out before the sun went down. JH wanted to fly so he came out first and flew in his typical style, fast and explosive. To be honest, sitting here at this moment, I don’t recall if he caught a jack or not, though I think he did. I wanted to just get the trip out of his system and mainly wanted to get Davis out and show him a jack. With Davis on my fist I walked into a cut wheat field looking for a slip. Davis was acting very much like the young inexperienced eagle he is. He was looking for the lure and when nothing appeared, his patience wore out and he bated a lot — not unexpected. A jack flushed and Davis launched. Not a great slip, a little far, but he closed on it nicely and then lost sight of it in the cut wheat. Davis then kept flying a long ways and landed in the next field of short winter wheat just an inch or two tall. Things went downhill from there — each time I approached, Davis wanted nothing to do with me and flew farther and farther out into this huge field. At this point I was thinking I’d have to run him down. The problem with that was he was in descent condition and, believe me, I was rethinking the whole conditioning thing as I jogged after an eagle across the wide open Kansas plains with no end in sight. The other problem was that the little darling was flying off so far that by the time I got close to him he was well rested and ready to fly off again. I would repeat the whole thing again, get close, whistle, show him a nice tempting morsel of food and he would turn away from me and fly off. I was starting to question my lack of training with him. Then fate smiled on me, as it often does in falconry, and Davis flushed a jack. He chased it, closed on it and missed. I was not terribly far behind when he landed and this time when I whistled he turned to face me, ran over to me and jumped up on the glove as if to say what’s going on? I was greatly relieved, to say the least, so I hunted the spot where I had seen the jack stop and, sure enough, flushed it once more. Davis went after it, missed, and came walking back to me. There, see, he’s trained!
I was, I admit, just a little reluctant to fly Davis again as I did not need another two mile chase on foot after a bird that was not interested in me at all. However, I had brought him there to hunt and, by golly, that’s what I was going to do. So the next morning I walked out into a field with Davis on my arm. Again, he was doing all the stuff I would expect — bating, losing focus, not hunting, getting pissed because I wouldn’t let him go after every jack that got up€¦. stuff like that. After a few slips at least it was clear that he was not going to fly away. After he’d land he would look for me, which is normal in my training method. It was very interesting to watch his learning curve. At first he wanted to go after any and all jacks, regardless of how far off they were. It is very important for the falconer to not let a young eagle fly itself out by keeping the slips close but that is easier said than done. When Davis would fly out after a jack and miss he would get back in the air and go after it again, which is a nice trait to have in an eagle but, at this stage in his development, a waste of energy. I knew from experience though that he would soon realize that this was not productive and, as the days went on, Davis made all the necessary adjustments.
Andrew and I moved slowly cross the area looking for that one perfect slip, that one jack that would break in just the right way and Davis would react correctly and catch it. We were walking in a cut wheat field that seemed to go on forever. Not far from the truck we had flushed a couple of jacks that Davis flew well at but had come up short, and after walking another half mile or so we had not flushed another jack. That was pushing Davis’s patience to the max and ours frankly. It was asking a lot of him to remain still with nothing happening for that long but we kept walking. The flush finally came somewhere between Andrew and myself. The jack was running at a very slight angle to our left. Davis came off the fist clean and with power. He closed on the jack as it accelerated into a full burn out, grabbed it with both feet and had it, just like that. All of the preparation and time had just paid off. What a sight!
Davis would not catch another jack for a couple of days, mainly due to high wind which I saw no point to fly him in. We spent a lot of time looking for perfect fields to fly him in and finally found one, a field we would come to call the mother lode field. The mother lode field is, in my mind, the perfect kind of field — 640 acres of CRP (conservation reserve program) native grass (if there is still such a thing as native grass left), about 6 to 10 inches tall and full of jack rabbit signs; trails, pellets, and clamps, as Andrew calls them. Over here we call them hides or lays or sets. I call them starting blocks for jacks. Anyway, this field was covered with sign. The jacks seem to be in concentrated areas in these kinds of fields. Once you flush one jack you can count on several more within ten feet or less. This was good and bad for Davis. Good in that I wanted the shorter slips and bad because his re-call is still a work in progress. After a flight I would have to meet him halfway and pick him up which meant I’d be risking flushing jacks as I went. Most of the time Davis would not fly after those I’d accidentally flush which is good but on occasion he’d be off after one and trail it for some time. Then I would go get him, walk back to the hot zone and continue to hunt. The learning curve goes up significantly when you are in a hot zone because your eagle quickly realizes that each time it gets on the glove another jack is flushed, and it did not take Davis long to figure this out. He would fly a jack, land, turn and come back, either by running to me or by flying, and this improved hourly.
Andrew and I had been moving very slowly through one of the many hot zones of the mother lode field when from seemingly nowhere a jack popped up and was off. Davis came off the fist with attitude, pumping hard after it. He closed and footed the jack on the head and back and had his second kill of the meet. Davis trades off like a champ, way better than his idol Jackhammer who might just learn a thing or two from his minion. We ended the day for Davis with him being rewarded with a jack rabbit front leg. He was a happy eagle.
Jackhammer flew exceptionally well, most notably in the days leading up to the GOE. The weather was very challenging, cold, wet and very strong winds, sustained at 25mph with gusts over 35 mph. We had been checking out possible hunting fields and were not overly encouraged about the numbers of jacks we were finding or, better yet, not finding. So we changed our tactic and began hunting the corners of pivot fields which are not farmed. These corners are not overly big but are, for the most part, undisturbed and can hold lots of jacks. We pulled up and braved the wind, lining up with the wind at our backs, and marched across this one particular corner where we flushed a couple of jacks that ran out in front of us and immediately turned upwind. JH had little chance at those. With the wind howling in our ears, unless you saw JH leave you would not know anything had happened, so my group of so-called friends, Andrew, Scott and Chase, were all getting on me for not yelling’ when JH left the fist. Apparently they were not paying close enough attention. I am not used to hollering’ or anything else, for that matter, mainly because I usually hawk alone or with Cordi and she is alert enough not to need an announcement that JH is off. But under these conditions I said I would work on it. Having covered half the field we figured the best way to get to the end where we started from and again have the howling wind at our backs was to walk single file out of the field, go down the road and start at the top. Did I mention the wind was howling?? We turned and started walking in a single file line following a jack rabbit trail. My buddies were all in front of me and maybe six feet separated each of us. All three guys had passed and I was just taking a step when a large jack flushed right between me and Scott, not more than 4 feet from the trail. JH reacted so fast that he came off the fist and had the jack ten feet away, upwind. I only managed to yell’ well after JH had the jack. Everyone turned around to see JH holding a jack rabbit and then looked at me.!’ I said. Hey, at least I tried. Okay, a little late but it’s a start.
We continued to hunt each day, mainly flying three eagles, my two and Chase Delles’ eagle that has no name. I think he should name his eagle Dexter after the serial killer on TV. Chase’s eagle did extremely well, taking, through the course of the entire three weeks, 51 jacks. That is a number that will stand for awhile, well at least until next year.
For me it was a great pleasure to see the new eagle falconers that took the time to prepare their eagles properly for hunting jacks off the fist and it paid off. They all caught jacks. You don’t just walk into a field and catch a black tail jack rabbit with an eagle or any bird for that matter. Many a falconer has watched his or her bird get blown off by the speed and moves of black tails. Eagles, I believe, have their size working against them, mainly for the obvious reason that they are easier to see by the jack rabbits. But they make up for this with speed and power, which is why I fly them. Speed and power. that is a golden eagle.
With the many folks from all over the world attending the GOE it is becoming a global meet. Russia, Scotland, UK, Germany and, in the past, Austria and France have all been represented. All of these folks have made the GOE the best meet going. See you next year!
Me and Davis with his frist kill
Jackhammer 37 jacks
Davis 4 jacks, including his first double in the field
Total over 18 days 41 jacks