by Joe Atkinson
Published in Falconers & Raptor Conservation Magazine 2010
Falconry is a funny sport; what I mean is, when things go right it looks easy. As an example, you load up your dogs and falcons or hawks or eagle, whatever bird your flying, and head out for an afternoon of hawking. Everything just clicks. You find a great slip and your dog goes on point, you flush and, just like that, your bird has caught something. Looks so easy. I have had folks in the field with me when things go right and they say, “Wow, you could fill your freezer and feed your family doing that”! Naturally I do my best to explain that things don’t always go this smoothly, giving them reasons such as weight control of the bird, experience of the bird, and I go on to explain that the prey is not going to just give itself up; there are lots of factors that go into hunting with a trained raptor. I’m not sure how much of my explanation actually sinks in, probably most of what I say doesn’t compute anyway, but the truth is when things all come together falconry does look easy. Like I said, falconry is a funny sport and things can turn from good to bad in a single moment. Tinkerbelle is my five year old female perlin; she is a fantastic game hawk. Tinkerbelle routinely catches game and does so from a very nice pitch.
In Tinkerbelle’s early days she hunted game that was found out in wide open fields. Keying in on my dog’s point she would come over and the flush was made. But that was back while I lived in California. Now that we have moved to Eastern Oregon things have changed and Tinkerbelle has had to make adjustments in her flying style and game catching. In addition, I have had to figure out all the little things that went along with finding game in flyable situations. Here in the high desert of Eastern Oregon there are good opportunities for game to hunt Tinkerbelle on. We have Hungarian partridge, starlings, doves and valley quail, all of which Tinkerbelle is quite capable of catching. The most numerous are, by far, the valley quail which Tinkerbelle prefers to hunt. Valley quail are just slightly smaller than Hungarian partridge and very difficult to hunt with a waiting-on falcon. Valley quail are masters at finding cover and are never very far from it, which can be very challenging. Tinkerbelle has had to make some adjustments in her pitch as well as how she strikes the prey. To be successful your falcon must bind to the quail, rarely is the quail caught when simply struck down. They run off in an instant, never to be seen again. Once she figured out that holding onto the quail was the way to go, Tinkerbelle’s game catching numbers began to climb quickly. So, as I said, falconry is a funny sport; the moment you think things have settled into a good routine…. think again. I was going through a slump where I was picking bad slips and misjudging the good ones. I try not to hit the same area too many times in a row for obvious reasons, although the winter weather sometimes dictates where I can and can’t go. Snow is not an issue but mud is and this year we have had lots of rain. With all the mud, slips were becoming harder to come by, and at times I settled for ones that were not very good. The temperature had warmed up just enough to melt the snow and ice which, like I said, made getting to some of my better spots impossible. Not having access to many of my regular spots, Tinkerbelle and I found ourselves in a stretch of a few weeks where nothing was clicking. The quail would flush too soon or Tinkerbelle would get distracted by some other raptor, it just seemed like something always came into play. But, like all slumps, they run their course and finally things started to turn the other way. I started to find quail in better situations and, more importantly, Tinkerbelle was getting more focused on her job. And as I thought back on the times when something had gone wrong they all seemed to have one thing in common — I was in a hurry to get in the field, racing the sun for that last slip of the day. And because I normally fly in the mornings, my birds, after waiting all day, were just that much sharper. Plus, when hunting late in the afternoon, predators want to eat before night fall so they try just that much harder and that can lead to some bad things happening.
January 2, 2010:
The day was shaping up into one of those days when things just kept piling up. My wife, Cordi, and I have a large ranch and there is always something that needs to be done. As the day went on I could see my hawking opportunities dwindling and the late afternoon was looking to be my only chance. My cut off time to fly was 4:30 pm. Much after that and the sun, or lack of it, became a real issue. It was now 3:00 pm and time was running out! Flying too late could mean Tinkerbelle spending the night outside, exposed to very cold temps, coupled with a wide assortment of hungry raptors willing to eat her. Right at the top of the list would be the northern goshawk which, despite the fact that we really don’t live in what would be considered a goshawk area, we have. They come up into the ranch following the arroyo canyons which finger into our ranch. I used to think goshawks were a really cool, neat bird to see flying around; not so much anymore. They are very aggressive and come from seemingly out of nowhere and chase Tinkerbelle or “assist” in our hunts. And not just Tinkerbelle. One day I was standing right next to my male gyr/peregrine who had just caught a pheasant not more than 2 feet away, when a goshawk came in low and fast trying to grab my falcon! Charming birds these goshawks! Finally I rushed home, loaded up Tinkerbelle and the dogs, and headed down the road looking for a quail slip. I found a nice group of quail in an area I have flown many times with much success. I released Tinkerbelle and turned the dogs loose. Vegas, my English pointer, went on point almost instantly and I glanced up to see Tinkerbelle coming over. I flushed the quail and Tinkerbelle came in with a rush of air and made a sharp turn, closing quickly on a quail. She flew past me and behind a small tree and as near as I could tell was going to bind to the quail..when I heard the sound. My first thought was that I just killed my falcon because the sound left no doubt of what had just happened. Tinkerbelle hit a fence! I ran over to the spot where I had last seen her and found her sitting on the other side of the barbed wire fence on top of some tumbleweed. The quail was knocked out cold, but as I reached across the fence for Tinkerbelle, the quail regained its faculties and flew off. My first thought was to check her wings. As near as I could tell both seemed still attached and unhurt. I then looked her legs over and they also looked undamaged. As I lifted Tinkerbelle back through the fence I could tell she had definitely had her bell rung and was not quite all there. Walking back to the truck I felt nearly sick to my stomach, because what I meant when I said. I think I just killed my falcon is this……. To me, falconry is a team effort. My team is made up of three parts, the falcon whose job it is to fly and catch the game, my dogs whose jobs are to find and point or retrieve the game, and me.
My job is to find the game in good safe places so the rest of the team can do its job. I am supposed to be the brains of the outfit and I take that responsibility very seriously because the safety of the team depends on my judgment. Yes, things do happen that are totally out of the control of the falconer for sure and I understand that. And there have been times when I looked at a possible slip and said “I don’t think so” and drove past because sometimes it is better to not fly and live to fly another day. Walking back to my truck I was looking at Tinkerbelle intently and I noticed she was holding her right wing just a little funny. The wing was just slightly hanging down and, with all things considered, I felt lucky. I also noticed that her tail mount was missing so I tracked it back to the fence and found it had been ripped off from the impact of hitting the fence. The mounting bracket was all bent up and twisted, rendering it almost unrecognizable. I fed Tinkerbelle up and returned home. Because of the very cold temps at night I thought it best to keep her in the house that night as she was, in all likelihood, in shock. Soon after placing Tinkerbelle on an indoor block I noticed blood dripping ever so slowly off the right wing up near the shoulder area. I immediately called our veterinarian and took Tinkerbelle in for a closer look. By the time I had arrived at the animal hospital.
Tinkerbelle was holding her wing almost normal which I took as a good sign, but the blood was still dripping and that was not a good sign. With me holding her, our vet gave Tinkerbelle a thorough examination finding a half inch long cut just between the arm pit and the elbow of the wing. I was starting to relax somewhat, thinking that maybe all she did was cut herself on the fence and hoping that Tinkerbelle had dodged a major bullet. But as the vet continued to check over Tinkerbelle’s wing things suddenly went downhill fast! As the vet followed along the bones in her wing I heard the unmistakable sound of the two ends of a broken bone clicking against each other. X-ray’s confirmed that, indeed, the bone was broken. In my mind this was a death sentence to this wonderful falcon.
My stomach instantly knotted up and I felt sick. Falcons that break bones in their wings are doomed to breeding or display and since Tinkerbelle is a hybrid, breeding was not an option. At any rate, her flying and hunting career was all but over or so I thought. Small things began to turn in Tinkerbelle’s favor. Yes, she had broken a bone in her wing but it was the smaller of the two wing bones which, as it turns out, was a huge stroke of good fortune because the larger bone would act as a natural splint for the smaller bone. This was critical because no surgery was required, just rest and keeping the wing immobilized for three weeks by taping it to her side. Once again, falconry had taken me on a roller coaster ride, from the high of seeing Tinkerbelle stooping on a quail to the low of finding her in the fence; from the low of thinking that her hunting times in the field were done, to the x-ray of the broken bone and then the high of being told she would recover fully…. all in one afternoon.
As a lifelong falconer you would think I would be somewhat used to these ups and downs, but I’m not! And I admit that I did have my doubts for a full recovery. Having been around birds my entire life I have found that nothing good comes from a broken wing. I contacted a friend who is one of the leading raptor veterinarians in the U.S. to further discuss Tinkerbelle’s situation and, much to my relief, she confirmed that yes, in 4-6 weeks Tinkerbelle would once again be terrorizing the local valley quail populations. In fact, I was told that many trained falcons that have had the same injury as Tinkerbelle recover without the falconer ever being aware of a broken bone in their wing, something I would have found hard to believe before having first hand experience. If Tinkerbelle would not have started dripping blood I don’t think I would have taken her in for a closer look. She was not showing any other signs and holding her wing normal. I would have simply put her in her mews and rested her.
I was told that as long as she was not overly active she would heal up just fine hard to believe. I placed Tinkerbelle on a low block and since she is not a bird that bates I felt confident she would be just fine. After three weeks I removed all the tape and gave her full range of motion. The only real danger would come if the wing was kept immobilized too long and stiffness set in, this could cause trouble. So I carefully unwrapped her wing, placed her on the block perch, and removed the hood. I was just a little anxious to see how she would, first, hold her wing and second, would she use it. Tinkerbelle is not an active falcon on her block, she doesn’t bate a lot, actually not at all. She jumps around some, to her bath and such, but not like some falcons that are all over the place. I stood and watched her for quite a long time hoping to be reassured that the injured wing was all right. Tinkerbelle didn’t do a whole lot at first, she preened and rousted and stretched both wings, then suddenly jumped into her bath and soaked herself. For the next two days I did not see her do anything other than jump here and there, but on the third day all doubt was erased. I went in to feed her and was greeted with a bumble bee-like hover three inches over the top of her block perch. I was smiling from ear to ear! The next test would be actual flying and the pursuit of game, but from all indications everything looked good. As would be expected, Tinkerbelle was very fat, so bringing her down to flying weight took more than a few days.
Finally the day of the true test arrived and I drove straight to the spot most likely to produce a quail slip, looking for any sign of quail feeding in the more open cover. I told myself not to be overly hopeful, as I prepared myself for seeing some sign that the wing had been injured and was not the same. I told myself that it was likely that Tinkerbelle would favor the wing as she flew or not have as much strength in the injured wing. Any of the scenarios I just mentioned could show up and in any combination. All of the questions I had been agonizing over would be answered soon enough, the second I found a quail slip. As I drove on I saw five quail run across the gravel road and dive in the low cover on the side of the road. I unhooded Tinkerbelle and held my breath. She looked around and launched, quickly disappearing behind some trees. I jumped the dogs out of the truck and headed for the spot where I had marked the quail. I looked up to find Tinkerbelle coming over showing no noticeable sign whatsoever of being injured. The final test would come in seconds….. could she stoop and chase game? The quail exploded in five different directions and without the slightest hesitation Tinkerbelle did a wing-over and stooped on a quail, leveled off and closed fast, just barely missing. Watching her stoop with her old speed and determination caught me a little by surprise. I could see no difference in her flight other than her condition had dropped off somewhat. She looked exactly the same as she did before the injury! I have spent my entire life around birds of all types. You name it and there is a good chance I have done something with it, and it does not matter what type of bird it is, nothing good can come from a broken wing. And this takes on a much more significant meaning and impact when the bird is a raptor depending on speed and agility to catch game. I flew Tinkerbelle another six weeks in which she caught several more quail in superb style and consider myself (and her) very fortunate.
Tinkerbelle is now happily in her mews and getting fat, starting to drop feathers in preparation for next season. As for me……. I am reliving her great flights from this past season, knowing full well that next season will bring a whole new set of highs and lows.