by Joe Atkinson
After nearly an hour of scouting livestock ponds I finally found what I had been searching for — a small pond roughly the size of a backyard swimming pool. I could not see the water from my truck so I needed to scope the pond to see if there were any ducks on it. With my young falcon Blackie on my fist and dog Maggie at my heels I ever so slowly inched my way up the bank. Before I could see anything I heard the unmistakable sound of a hen mallard no need to look any further. I crept back down the bank and prepared my falcon for flight. As I struck the braces on the falcon’s hood, that familiar knot returned to my stomach. This would be this young falcon’s first flight at wild game and I was nervous.
I have been a falconer for more than 30 years but each time I release a newly trained falcon it takes me back to when I was a teenager standing on the side of a grass covered hill with my first bird, an American kestrel named Thor, on my fist. After days of building up the courage to fly him free, I had convinced myself that he would indeed return to my glove. I untied the jesses on his legs that in the past kept him from flying away, turned and faced the wind, and off he went, up and over the trees, never to be seen again. The difference between Thor and my current falcon Blackie, besides years of experience, was that back then I had merely hoped that Thor would come back and in falconry hope doesn’t count for much. Blackie could just as easily fly away like my first falcon had, and I still hoped that Blackie would come back, but these days hope has a little more weight to it. Now, instead of just hoping that he’ll return, I hope that he will draw on the hours and hours of training and conditioning I have invested in him and not only come back but hunt as well.
A good hunting falcon will, once released, begin to climb rapidly in the sky gaining height until it has reached a commanding height over the pond. From this moment on it is the fastest living creature on the earth, capable of a diving speed in excess of 200 mph. Nothing can out-fly it. Confidence is everything with falcons; they must have the confidence that you will release them over something they can hunt and, in their mind, eat. By releasing a falcon too many times with nothing under it to hunt, it will loose confidence in you and go off hunting on its own. In order to build confidence and trust in our hunting partnership I need to select the best hunting situations possible and produce game that Blackie will hopefully catch. Yes, the falcon is the fastest living creature but that does not mean life is easy. Ducks are full of tricks designed to allow them to escape. So, for a young falcon with no hunting experience, ducks can seem almost impossible to catch. Flying in a mass of confusion with swirling wings, as well as using the water as a safe zone, can be very intimidating, if not overwhelming, for a young falcon My job is to create a strong flush driving the ducks far out away from the water, thus giving Blackie as good a chance as I can. Along with Maggie, my German Shorthair, who is a great duck flusher, the two of us should be able to give Blackie a good shot at a duck.
I removed Blackie’s hood revealing those unmistakable big brown falcon eyes, and I wondered, Is this the last time I will ever see him? With trained falcons every time you cast one from your fist it might be the last time you see that falcon. Will he be killed by another hawk or eagle, or will he go diving after a duck or pheasant at ground level and hit a wire fence? These dangers are always lurking with any flight, but especially with young falcons who are still figuring out the ways of the world.
Blackie looked around taking in his surroundings, rousted, which is a falconry term for a full body shake, and launched into the air. With the sudden appearance of a falcon flying over the pond things got real quiet. The duck chatter that I was hearing before was gone. Blackie is a powerful flying young falcon. He has, in his young life, shown that he can gain height quickly and, in the blink of an eye, become the size of a fly speck in the sky. Once Blackie left my fist I could no longer see him due to the pond bank that I was hiding behind. If I stood up to see my falcon I’d flush the ducks too early and that wouldn’t help Blackie’s confidence at all. So, with my heart in my mouth, I waited for what seemed like an eternity. Would he come over the pond looking for me? He knows from past experience that if he comes and finds me good things will happen, which in his mind means food. So there I was, kneeling down in the wet grass, waiting and hoping that my young falcon would come into sight. As Blackie flew past the pond and began to climb up into the sky the ducks had begun to make noise, but now they were all quiet again. I looked up and there was Blackie flying in a tight circle directly over the pond. Now I could stand up with little fear because the last place any duck wants to be is in the air when there is a falcon overhead.
Now I had to time things just right. With an experienced hunting falcon all I would have to do is send Maggie in and watch the show. But this was Blackie’s first flight on wild game and timing would be critical. My eyes were glued on a dark speck up in the blue sky that was Blackie. For young falcons I like to flush when they are facing the pond. That way they can see everything unfold under them and hopefully go after one. Well, this was the moment of truth. I ran up on the bank of the pond, sent Maggie around on one side, and I went on the other. With Maggie barking and me waving my arms the entire pond erupted into mass confusion. Ducks were flying everywhere, mostly mallards but also widgeon, ring necks, and gadwall, a nice mixture of birds. Using confusion to their advantage the ducks gained speed and looked for any escape path that would take them out from under the falcon. In the meantime Blackie flew in tight fast circles over the unorganized flock of ducks. Some ducks that are slow fliers tried to return to the safety of the water, but with Maggie and me making tons of noise they continued flying. That was precisely what I was hoping for, a single slow-flying duck.
Somewhere in this maze of birds flying around me was my falcon. The ducks had now bunched up and were in a large group swirling in ever growing circles, gaining height and speed. This is one of the defense tactics that ducks will use, flying higher and higher, remaining over the pond and acting like they will dive back to the water at any second. Young falcons will become discouraged by this and drift out of position, loosing their advantage. Experienced duck hunting falcons will dive or stoop at the flock and cause one or more of the ducks to make a break for it, thus singling out an individual bird they can catch. Blackie was many hunts away from mastering that technique. For now I was hoping for one of the diver ducks to make a break for it.
As the mass of ducks, in unison, started a sharp turn, a drake ring neck broke away from the flock, was unable to make the sharp turn and headed for open air and some unknown pond. I looked to the sky for my falcon and could not locate him anywhere. Had he become overwhelmed by all the commotion and drifted off, something not out of the ordinary with young falcons? Had he stooped on a duck? No, there he was, still flying in tight fast circles. My hope was that Blackie would recognize that he could catch the single ring neck and then indeed go after it. For what seemed like forever, I watched as Blackie did nothing. Then he did the classic falcon wingover and folded up his wings, doubling and tripling his speed. Faster and faster he came until my eye could no longer track the stooping falcon. Experience told me to switch my gaze from the falcon I could no longer see to the drake ring neck flying at full speed across the field. The sound made by a falcon in a high speed stoop is unmistakable. Once you have heard it you will know it forever. I watched as the ring neck, realizing that it had made a horrible mistake, tried to make a turn and come back to the pond. Blackie, acting on total instinct, made a slight adjustment and struck the ring neck duck at full speed, sending the hapless diver cart- wheeling to the ground. I was already running out to where Blackie was busy plucking feathers off his prize when Maggie shot past me to do her job by getting to the falcon and, with her presence, keep away other predators.
Falconers have a saying that Murphy’s Law loves falconry and that what can go wrong usually does. But on this day, at this pond, everything came together.