Hunting Golden Eagles In the Most Unlikely Places

by Joe Atkinson
Clements, Cal, USA

Published in American Falconry Volume 37

No matter what kind of bird you fly, perlin, goshawk or, in my case, golden eagles, the hardest thing is to find game to fly your bird on. Here in Northern California game can be hard to come by, but even more difficult than game is finding suitable fields to hunt. And some of the places I end up hunting golden eagles are out of the ordinary, to say the least. In the sport of falconry there are only a few things that are for certain, things that you can take to the bank, if you will. I know, for instance, that I’ll have to look for my bird at some point, and when flying an eagle I know that I stand a good chance of losing some of my own blood. But there is one rule that I believe is the single most golden rule that all falconers can go by: the amount of game your bird is flown at will directly reflect how good your bird will be; the more game, the better the bird. One can use all the fancy training methods in the world, but get the birds flying after game and things fall into place. So the bottom line is, I go where the game is. People are always asking me why do you fly in this place? and I say because this is where the game is simple. Sure I have flown up in the rolling hills with breath-taking views but there is no game to fly an eagle at up there, and for me, watching my eagle fly from tree to tree gets a little old after awhile.  Flying eagles in the soar is also very enjoyable, but that’s another story.

The black tailed jack rabbit is a fast, open field hare that is hunted by many different trained raptors. These jack rabbits range from 3-10 pounds with the 10-pounder being a large jack rabbit. The black tailed jack rabbit does not run down holes, or go hide in thick cover, they run! Their means of escape is speed and many a falconer has stood and watched as their bird has been blown off by the speed of the black tailed jack rabbit. Harris hawks, red tailed hawks, and goshawks are all flown at these very elusive hares, but the golden eagle I believe is the perfect match for jacks. The black tailed jack rabbit can be found throughout California and in other states, except in the higher elevations. They seem to thrive in industrial parks where large companies build huge warehouses used for shipping goods out by freight trucks. In between these huge buildings are large fields that are fallow, gone wild, and perfect for jacks. When hunting in one of these fallow fields, flights can come fast and furious. Sometimes black tailed jacks will jump up with each step you take. With each new warehouse that is constructed the jacks are condensed into smaller and fewer fields and that makes for unbelievable jack rabbit hawking.

Very often the fields are surrounded by a lot of activity, big trucks moving about, workers going about their jobs. The more I would fly a field the more people I would start to notice gathering in the parking lots, wanting to see the bird fly. Most had no clue what kind of bird I was hunting with, they just wanted to watch.  At one particular field I began to realize that trucks were pulling off the road and the drivers were gathering in a group watching me hunt my eagle. With each flight I could hear the group cheering, and when a jack was caught I could see the truckers jumping up and down with their fists up in the air. I do find it funny though, that many more times people don’t notice me at all. Here I am walking through a flat field with no trees, in open space, with a golden eagle on my fist, and most people have no idea I’m there.

I am always looking for new fields to fly, like every other falconer in the world. Not to long ago a fellow falconer said he had found a good field, lots of jacks, he said. But I began to have my doubts as we were driving to this new field. We drove through a large housing tract with dozens of new homes being built and lots, and I mean lots, of activity. Trucks, tractors and builders everywhere and by the time we reached the field I was all but convinced that there was no way I was going to fly here. The field was about five soccer fields in size with houses bordering one complete side and a corn field on the other. At least the ends of the field were clear. In order to reach the field we had to climb two fences which are not easy with an 8-lb. eagle on your fist. And ripping my pants on one fence was not making this place look any better to me. I decided to give it a go though, and while walking out into the field, when my friend said you better get your bird ready before you go out into this field he was right. I unhooded Jackhammer (that’s my eagles name, JH to his friends), and he began to talk to me as was his normal routine and was looking at my two bush beaters, trying to get a read on them. I no sooner stepped into the field then up jumped three jacks, and I could see five or six more running around up ahead. These got JH’s attention real fast, and mine as well. We had not gone more than fifty steps into our hunt when a jack rabbit jumped up right in front of us and was moving out. Ears pinned and dust being kicked up from behind, this jack was at full throttle. The timing was perfect between JH and me — as he launched off my fist I threw my arm forward giving him as much help as I could. With a clear launch JH was cranking hard and building speed with each stroke of his wings. The jack was running dead straight down the middle of this field and JH was closing fast. For me, time seems to go into slow motion, like some sort of dream state or something. But not for the jack rabbit, because at that point hell came crashing down on him. As the dust settled I could see JH putting the finishing touches on another black tailed jack rabbit brought to bag. I also noticed some people watching from their new back yards and I’m sure they had no clue as to what they just saw.

You gotta go where the game is!