Notes from an Eagle Falconer

Notes from an Eagle Falconer
By Joe Atkinson
Published in The Falconers & Raptors Conservation Magazine issue 81 2010

I get asked this question a lot.. Joe, what’s it like to fly a bird like that?  A question like that cannot be answered in one or two words, like awesome or unbelievable; flying a golden eagle is all of that but so much more..

Long before falconers were able to fly golden eagles in the U.S., I was flying and hunting rehab eagles to prepare them for release back into the wild. Not just any rehab eagles, but the young ones, eagles that had not had a chance, because of injury or sickness, to develop hunting skills on their own. Adult rehab eagles, once healthy, can be released and smoothly resume their life in the wild without any additional help from man, but a first year eagle that has not had the opportunity to naturally follow its parents around learning the necessary skills to survive,  are a different story. Those are the ones that need some help. I have flown, hunted and released dozens of golden eagles over the years and in the course of hunting them I have caught hundreds of jack rabbits and a few miscellaneous things like coyotes, ducks, pheasants, a badger and more than a few feral cats. I believe that if a young eagle can fly down a jack off the fist and catch up to 20-30 jacks, it’s ready to do it on its own in the wild. Like all predators, eagles need to develop a go to move, one that they can count on to produce a kill, and after catching 20 plus jacks I can see them perfecting their move and know that they will have a chance to be a wild eagle.

Years ago I started emailing my falconer buddies with eagle updates and tails of my eagle flying experiences. Things like chasing a partially trained eagle that was flying two feet off the ground right down the middle of a very busy two lane street with me running after it waving cars out of the way, or running through backyards in a rather rough housing tract, asking if anyone had seen a large black bird anywhere. Things like that, which seemed to happen to me all too often. You may be wondering why I was trying to fly a golden eagle in places like these. Well, it’s simple really, these areas were surrounded by and encroaching on agricultural fields teaming with jack rabbits and one has to go where the game is. Over time, as the word spread about my eagle hunting adventures, my little email group took a major jump to include 15 different countries and falconers from all over the world. In the process, I started to receive some interesting emails from people, including ones accusing me of faking the photographs of my eagles on kills, that I was not telling the truth about catching game with eagles because you can’t catch game with an eagle, and that eagles were slow and not worth training as a falconry bird. Of course, this was all completely untrue and in some cases rather hurtful, and frankly, it were these kinds of attitudes that motivated my wife, Cordi, and myself to produce our first eagle hunting DVD, Eagle Journal, The Movie. This DVD was produced with one thing in mind — to show what a well conditioned golden eagle can do in the field hunting jacks off the fist.

So what is it like to hunt with a golden eagle? First off, they are extremely quick and super fast. I have been told by more than a few well known go’s hawkers, one in particular being Mr. Daryl Perkins, author of Understanding Goshawks, who has been in the field and witnessed Jackhammer (JH) that he is faster than a goshawk. This past November Daryl and I, along with Scott Simpson, were hunting a field of wheat stubble in Kansas and Daryl saw JH chase a jack into a very stiff wind with the jack zig- zagging back and forth many times, JH matching the jack turn for turn, and then reach out and snag it. This was a very nice flight, so much so that Daryl’s reaction was to start howling like a wolf! I guess howling is a go’s hawkers thing?

The golden eagle is very intelligent and demands that the falconer go to another level in the training process. Golden eagles are not big red tails or Harris’ hawks. Many a falconer that has treated them as such has had little, if any, success. In fact, rapid weight reduction, along with traditional manning methods, coupled with high stress, has been proven, time and time again, to be the wrong way to train an eagle and, in a high percentage of cases, has proven fatal. Passage golden eagles are very prone to aspergillosis and if the stress level is too high they will succumb to the disease and die. In order to be successful hunting with an eagle the falconer must take the relationship to a new level, one of hunting partners on nearly equal grounds where food is not the primary motivation, hunting is. Once this level is achieved between eagle and falconer, a whole new world will open up because once your eagle looks on you as a means to get to hunt stuff, the sky is the limit. Golden eagles can fly down anything in the field — distance is not an issue and they can overcome winds up to 30 mph. As an example, what other raptor in falconry can you hunt in 90’ heat while in the middle of the molt, take 5 jack rabbits and would still keep going except that the falconer (me) was tired out? Not the eagle, mind you, he still wanted to hunt, I was the one that was done. What other falconry bird could average 3.5 jack rabbits over the course of 7 consecutive days in heavy wind, from 18-30 mph? This is what a golden eagle can do. Having success hunting an eagle requires two things..your eagle must be in condition and you must have game to hunt, it is that simple. If you live in an area that has nothing to hunt or is not suitable to fly an eagle in, you should not have an eagle. It will be a huge waste of time.

The temperament of golden eagles varies greatly. I have had some that are very gentle and a pleasure to work with, never footy, and just as nice as can be. Then there are others.. that are not so nice. Some eagles I have trained were downright nasty and would try to foot me at any and all opportunities, and did! Over the years I have found myself having to handle eagles that have, let’s say, a high degree of hatred for people, having been poked, medicated, chased down with nets and been examined for all sorts of reasons. All for their own good, of course, but the eagles don’t know that, so all this does is to make them that much more resentful towards people. And then I come along and want to be friends with them and, frankly, they don’t care and are looking for ways to show me they don’t care. Make no mistake, eagles are extremely powerful. If they get just their little toe on something, they have it and it is not getting away and, unfortunately, this includes the falconer! A golden eagle can drive its front or rear talon right through your hand — in one side, sticking out the other side. When this has happened I could pull the talons of a male golden eagle back out of my hand but I couldn’t even budge the talons of a female golden eagle. You are at her mercy until she decides to let go. After all, when the prey list includes coyotes, foxes, deer, and prong horn antelope, you better have some powerful feet! In short, if you handle eagles you’re going to get grabbed at some point, usually in the early days of training. Once they are trained and hunting the chances are less and less as their aggression diminishes. Like I said, most golden eagles are very gentle and there is little danger of being footed, however, I would be foolish not to point out that the possibility is very real that you could get grabbed.

Notes from my eagle journal from this year’s eagle meet, the Gathering of Eagles (GOE), that took place in Garden City, Kansas:

Wind 18-25 mph
Temperature 38’
Clear sky
Jackhammers wt.: 8.5 lbs.

Jackhammer was on his game, as good as I’ve seen him, flying at a very high level and maintaining it throughout the entire meet. I won’t recount the day by day flights as there were simply too many to remember but I will just give some highlights.

One of my goals was for Jackhammer to show what he can do to our friends from overseas because the last time they hunted with JH he did not do well. He was slightly overweight (my fault) and was put off by people in the hunting field, which I told myself I would correct at all costs, and I have done. People in the field hunting with JH have not been an issue for a couple of years now; so much so, that he is a veteran of two Nat-Geo programs and will now hunt in front of anyone.

It’s a funny thing about JH some fields just don’t hold his attention, and these fields, more times than not, don’t produce very many jacks or none at all. However, I can tell the second I step into a good field as JH is very focused and that is when things get fun..
With many folks in tow, Cordi and I drove out into the main ranch outside Garden City, looking for a field to fly. I remembered an area on the outermost edge of the ranch that had caught my eye the few times I drove past it. The field is a cut wheat field with a pivot in the middle and patches of tumbleweed that have grown after the wheat was cut. This area of cover was, for the most part, out in the middle of the field, far away from any other heavy cover and made for a dramatic landscape with the light tan of the wheat stubble and the very dark, almost black, of the tumbleweed stuff growing out in the middle of the field. To me it just looked like it should have a jack or two in it and this is the perfect JH field, wide open where the jacks can hit full speed.

We walked out into the field, positioning ourselves in a way that we could work the prime area in sections, keeping the strong wind either at our backs or in a crosswind direction. As I moved into the cover JH suddenly became very focused and I could sense that something was about to happen. I don’t know if he saw some slight movement of a jack or what, but he was going to explode on the fist, flinching at anything. I heard the slight rustle of the cut wheat and felt JH reacting before I ever saw the jack flush up from its hiding spot. Being out in the open, this jack was in a full burn, ears down and moving out on some predetermined escape route. JH exploded from my fist with big powerful wing strokes, turning over at a rate that seems impossible for a bird so big. I stood and watched as JH closed in on the jack that was now running for its life. I could see the very slight directional changes JH made as he built speed and tracked his jack rabbit. I say his because, over the years and thousands of flights, I can tell the second JH leaves the fist that a jack is going to be caught. As the flight built in speed and distance, the jack realized it was in serious trouble and, in a desperate attempt to shake JH; it turned upwind and reached for what speed it had left. Already with considerable speed and momentum built up, the wind now was not a factor. JH closed on the jack like a runaway freight train and simply overpowered it.. Jack rabbit flushed at 15 yards away, jack caught at 30 yards out.

Mid week of the GOE:

With 17 cars following us I found a previously unflown field that looked like a Jackhammer type field, low cover with big areas of open space. Earlier in the morning I had stopped in and gained permission to fly this whole area and many fields looked good. But I chose this one and boy did it pay off.

The wind was at 25 mph with gusts up to 30 mph so it was going to be a factor again. All I could do was keep it cross- or downwind from us and hunt, that’s it. JH was in prime condition so I knew he could handle many slips in all directions. My first indication on how this field was going to be was that jacks were already flushing as I was wiring up JH at the truck. I had everyone, some 30 plus people, walk off my right side and I stayed just slightly in front of the line. Sometimes, if the line gets even with me, JH and I cannot see the jacks flush and, in strong wind like we were in, that is a factor. I don’t think we had gone 20 feet and up popped a jack and JH had it, just that fast!  We continued to walk and another jack got up. JH just missed him due to an outstanding move by the jack rabbit using tumbleweeds and the wind to its full advantage. I’ll try and set the scene as best I can recall off to my right were 30 people walking in a straight line and I was keeping maybe 10 yards in front of the line. Up in front of us all, on the left side, was the photo gallery consisting of Cordi, Rob Palmer and Mark Williams. So, what we had done was to create an alley for the jacks to run in, effectively funneling them in a crosswind or downwind direction. We were walking slowly because many jacks were flushing way ahead of us and, with the wind, those would have been very difficult flights and out of the cameras range.  I asked everyone to stop so I could work the cover just in front of them to look for the close, fast slip that JH loves. I took maybe 5 steps and a jack was up and running straight upwind. JH was on it just as fast, closing regardless of the strong wind. The jack went left, then right, with JH matching it move for move and he slammed into the jack. number two for the day. With tons of field left and no other birds ready to fly I traded JH off and we continued to hunt, working our way back to the trucks.  JH went on to catch two more jacks, making a total of four for the day. The last two flights were just the kind I like, speed on speed, with the jacks running in full burn-out mode and JH cranking all the way in fantastic!

Throughout the course of the meet we saw many great flights with the jack rabbits using all manner of escape tactics, particularly the jump high in the air over the eagle, very effectively.

GOE meet game total for Jackhammer:

23 jack rabbits
1 cotton tail
1 rooster pheasant

So, what’s it like to fly an eagle? For me, it’s like no other bird I have ever flown. The bond that forms between eagle and man can only be compared to that of you and your dog. Golden eagles will challenge the falconer to think outside the box on all levels, unlike any other bird in falconry. Walking into a field with a golden eagle on your fist is a feeling like no other. You can clearly feel your eagle’s unbridled excitement to hunt, its power and speed is unmatched. Sitting on my fist, Jackhammer is like a coiled spring just waiting for the slightest movement. With this comes a great deal of responsibility because anything that dares to move is going to be caught and it is my job to make sure it is only a jack rabbit.

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