Sunday, January 25, 2009

Raw Dog meets Green Dog!

Raw Dog is on the ground in Portland! We’re absolutely more than thrilled to announce that as of January 2009, Green Dog Pet Supply in Beaumont Village, Portland is the newest retailer of Raw Dog Gear. Green Dog is currently stocked with a selection of black and brown leads, ¾” and 1” collars.

If you happen to be in the area, I highly recommend you visit (and support!) this fine little shop. Focusing on eco-friendly and durable product lines, they’ve got a fantastic selection of toys, treats, and gear all hand-selected for quality, and for being environmentally low-impact; though leather may not necessarily fit the traditional “green” model, durability is one component of eco-friendliness. A good leather lead well cared-for should last at least a couple human generations. Additionally, many of their product lines are locally or domestically hand-produced. One thing among many to love about this shop is their great selection of ultra-premium foods, including support for RAW feeders (hooray!).

Just poking around this shop was a blast... for one thing, the entire interior including fixtures and displays was built from recycled and reclaimed materials from demolished buildings. The displays are so clever and attractive it makes me want to go scour Bring Recycling and start building stuff!

Something else to love: Green Dog employee Julie started and maintains the Portlanders Against Breed Bans web group at, an online resource for local residents to monitor, disseminate information on, and help combat breed-specific legislative movements in Portland and surrounding areas of Multnomah County. We remain fairly diplomatic regarding most topics political but there’s just no better way to say it;
BSL Sucks (being a totally inefficient, more or less completely useless way to reduce the incidence of dog-related injuries and fatalities).

Green Dog Rocks, we’re honored to be a part of their business.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rathawkers extraordinaire!

The last week has been great! I put out a notice on Craig's List the other day for private property on which to fly, but the response hasn't exactly been overwhelming. I've got a few areas I can fly her, but there's nothing in the way of critters to chase. There's really not much in the way of a cottontail population near by, so mostly we've been practicing the mechanics of "following on", a behavior pattern in which the bird stays even with, or slightly in front of, the handler and dog(s) so as to be in good position for the strike when quarry is flushed.

She's doing well, I just wish I had better hunting ground for her. We did manage to make our first kill as a team yesterday; she took a packrat in an absolutely spectacular dive out of a tree. We'd tried to hunt her early in the morning, but I'd fed her a bit at dawn in a clumsy attempt to course-correct when I was worried about her weight dropping too low due to an unexpected freeze overnight. We put her up into a tree and proceeded to flush three rabbits right under her, which she appeared to enjoy watching as they zoomy-zoomed right on by, so at that point I called her down to the glove and put her back in the box while we flew Chris' gos, Harlot and Sabrina's Redtail, Aala. Both birds made kills, although Aala unfortunately snagged herself a mouse or meadowvole which she swallowed in two quick bites, ending the hunt for her for the day.

Later Mr. Hoyer took the two of us and my friend Laurie to a quiet farm road with a row of trees and packrat nests lining the easement. Apparently Mr. Hoyer has been poking these same rat warrens for over twenty years--those industrious little critters will continue using and adding to their community nests generation after generation. We tried flushing a few of them, but it looked as though they'd been hunted earlier in the week, as we poked four nests without dispensing a single rodent. A few minutes later, Gaia took herself across the road and a few trees down; we followed and sure enough, flushed a rat in a nest under the tree she'd gone to.

Falconry isn't much about training a bird. You don't teach the bird really anything, their entire evolutionary history has shaped them to be the finely-honed predators they are. If you are to be successful as a falconer, you must train yourself to work within the bird's parameters; often the hawk is a better "bird dog" than the bird dogs themselves are. She'd spotted prey, and it was our job to put it somewhere she could get it. We turned out the rat, which dashed along the underbrush and scaled the next tree over--a heavily brushy, willow-sort of tree with a dense tangle of thin, limber branches. Gaia hesitated just a moment then moved to the top of the tree about fifteen feet above the rat, which was crouching on a branch just above the brush level. My heart sank; the tree was too thick, brush too dense, and the rat was one solid leap from the safety of his nest. She was hesitant enough earlier in the day that I sort of assumed she'd take a good look at it, and watch it scamper off to safety.

A heartbeat later, she tucked her wings and did a head-first dive, what they call a "teardrop stoop" dropping like a rock. The rat jumped and the two of them fell straight down, where Gaia, crashing brush like a veteran, nailed the rat mere inches above the ground! I was so stunned with the flight I didn't even have the presence of mind to have the camera at the ready, and just tossed it to my friend Laurie as I bolted by to help her if she needed assistance with the dispach. Mr. Hoyer was yelling and cheering, jumping up and down like kids at a football game, we all were. Laughing, he told us that at 75, that was one of the best rat stoops he'd ever seen, he couldn't believe she did it. It was fantastic!

The two of us, Mr. Hoyer and myself, made into the brush on our hands and knees where she was mantled over the rat. I picked the two of them up together, and she filled her crop as we made our way back to the cars. What an adventure. I'll need to put some more bunnies in front of her, but entering her to rats is sure a fine start!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Watch out bunnies... here we come!

Well, I can definitely count our first hunt a success. We didn't catch anything, but they say the first few times just coming home with your bird on fist is a success ;0).
And actually, we did much more than that.

For our first hunt, I planned to meet up with Chris Fox and Mr. Richard Hoyer. Chris is an incredibly meticulous falconer; he has taught me a tremendous amount in the past couple of weeks, particularly in the realm of weight management.
An aside on weight management--it might just be the most important skill to learn in the sport of falconry, and is easily the most difficult to master... if you're wondering why I keep mentioning monitoring Gaia's weight, this is why. Precise weight management is more or less key to every element of your bird's behavior; a bird at combat weight is in a keen state of alertness, ready to hunt and kill. Hunting is hard work, and dangerous. A falconry bird is not a hunting dog, doing a job for the joy of it and to please his human hunting companion; a hawk hunts for one reason only: survival. When her immediate needs are met, she will always prefer to sit snugly on a high branch, one foot tucked, percolating her last meal and waiting for a convenient snack to mosey along immediately underneath her. As I've mentioned before, birds of prey don't work with and for you because they like you or enjoy your company. They do what suits them and only for as long as it continues to be profitable. An article I read recently described the relationship between handler and hawk like so: "The truth is, she would eat you alive while you begged for mercy, if she thought she could hold you down." Yikes!
But it's true that they return to the glove because they expect that there's something in it for them. They hunt with you because there's inherent profit to it--I provide her with better hunting than she's able to find on her own. She eats better and more consistently by hunting with me, but if ever she decides I'm not holding up my end of the bargain, she's able to sever the relationship at any time with a few quick strokes of her wings. I stack the deck in my favor with careful weight management, ensuring that when we're in the field, she's always keen and ready to hunt.

We can predict and induce this keenness for the hunt by careful weight management; a plump and comfy bird has no reason to hunt. When we enter the field they are lean and hungry. We look for a state of what we call "yarak"--a keen, alert, and aggressive bird who is... well... watching the world like a hawk. Timing this keen state requires the ability to calculate nutritional requirements navigating a complex framework of variables including type of prey, hours until the next hunt, air temperatures, predicted weather patterns, previous calorie requirements, casting pattern, and any expected variables, such as spectators or new dogs. Feeding a falconry hawk is an art and science in and of itself; and with each bird we have to learn a new set of nutritional needs, every bird is an individual. Principles are generally the same, but different birds burn different foods at different rates, and calorie consumption is affected by all the above variables and more.

Overnight lows were hovering close to freezing--they burn more calories in cold weather, a helpful variable this time, as she'd eaten well from the lure the day before and in warmer weather might not have hunted at all the next day. She was about 30g up when I weighed her first thing in the morning, but by the time we got up to Corvallis and had hunted Chris' goshawk, Harlot, she was dead on key at her flying weight.

It's too bad I didn't manage to get any good shots of Chris and his gos, they're neat birds. Goshawks are killing machines--agile forest hawks game enough to tackle any- and everything and with plenty of skill to back up their nerve. Harlot took a cottontail and two packrats in just over a half hour with the help of a beagle posse, one master falconer, one general falconer, and one apprentice.

After Harlot's flight, we took Gaia to a farm field with a convenient row of trees bordered by a hedgerow of wild blackberries for her first training hunt:

One of the major perks of this whole falconry thing is spending my time in places like this.
Setups like this are good bunny habitat, but also an ideal setup for the training of a young falcory bird. In their early flights, we set them up in such a way that we can predict which directions they'll move by the terrain, and so that we can flush prey directly below them. Their first hunts are less about catching things, and more about teaching them the mechanics of hunting over dogs and with a human companion. We want them to make a connection between the actions of the other players and the appearance of game, and to learn to move along from tree to tree, staying in good position to strike when quarry appears beneath them. All that said, the first hunt is considered a solid success if you can just get your bird down out of the tree--plenty of times once they're up high it's a real challenge to get them back down for the first time. Here she is up in her first tree:

She spent much of the time hunting on her own, without paying much attention to what we were doing, which is typical. She had two great flights, crashing down into the brush after some critter or another. She missed both times, but that she even took a shot was pretty great. At one point after we'd worked the brambles in both directions without producing any bunnies she struck out across the field, and I had another quiet moment of panic, envisioning her soaring off into the wild blue yonder without a glance back... but she landed, and far more importantly, she came back a fair distance across the field to the glove.

It was a real honor to hear Mr. Hoyer say that her glove response was better than he'd seen in a passage redtail in quite some time.

After she came back down to the glove, we tossed her back up into the same tree, and threw the bunny lure for her in order to finish the hunt with a net positive experience: exposure to and feeding from a cottontail. We scooped her up, bunny and all, letting her eat a fair amount as we headed back for the truck. All in all, a fantastic success.

We packed up then, had a quick bite of lunch, then hunted Mr. Hoyer's Harris' Hawk, Conchita, over the whole beagle posse, along a set of abandoned train tracks. Following is a series of photos that shows something more of what goes on in a "real" hunt.

Beagle posse, setting out down the tracks, warming up their noses and gearing up for action:

Setting off--Mr. Hoyer and Conchita with 14 y/o Tana in the lead:

Working the briars; the hawk is up high, both brush-beaters working the briars behind and moving any prey forward to flush underneath the bird. The beagles work their way straight through the thick of the brambles, singing all the way:

See if you can spot the happy beagle, doing what beagles do best:

Here we see Mr. Hoyer working a packrat nest. Dusky-footed woodrats are busy little critters; that nest is just about taller than any of us. Often, poking the base of the nest will dispense a bunny along with the packrats.

In this case we got no bunny, but did flush a packrat, who made the poor decision to go up into the next tree, where Conchita was waiting. You might be able to pick out the unfortunate rodent, about two-thirds of the way up the tree on the left-hand side:

Mr. Hoyer assisting with the dispach:

Harris' Hawks are also called "bay-winged hawks" for obvious reasons as seen above. They are the only birds of prey who hunt co-operatively in packs. They are "wolves of the sky," employing very similar hunting tactics, using teams to flush prey for other birds strategically positioned for the strike, or running down prey in pre-arranged relays. The first raptor I ever handled was a Harris' Hawk; I carry a reminder of her on my hide to this day. I have a tremendous admiration for these birds.

I'll leave you with this image, one last sweep before the light failed us.

Onward and upward... more to come!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

First free flight!

A success!
Callan and I met up this morning, north of Creswell in a field near the area where Arion was trapped last year. The weather was gray and cloudy but with light winds, and only the occasional half-hearted drizzle... in other words, perfect Oregon mixie-habitat.

I'd checked her condition and weighed her first thing in the morning and she was weighing about 20g heavy--fine for creance work but a shade heavy for an early free-flight, so we waited a couple hours and met up a little later than we'd planned. We got out to the training fields and set her up on the creance line, pressing into service the roof of my car for lack of a handy field perch... so that's my own beloved Honda you see in the background. I flew her once on the creance just to test her glove response; she was fine, if a little slow to respond. In more distracting surroundings we'd have waited another day, taking her weight down another 10g or so; on these wide-open fields there's little danger of her striking out for the next county, so at that point we took her off the creance, removed the hardware from her jesses, and, with a moment of quiet internal panic, I called her to the glove from about 200ft out. After a moment's hesitation, she came to me and all was right with the world:

Look closely, that's her wayyyyy down there, just above the horizon and to the left of the car. Here's a closer-cropped version of the same image:

We flew her a small handful of times, and though her glove response was fine, it wasn't as sharp as we'd have liked, so we called it a day with a throw of the rabbit lure.

As I'd mentioned earlier, it's important to introduce her to a rabbit so that she gets the connection between bouncing bunny and her noonday meal, as many young hawks may never have caught a rabbit and may not immediately recognize them as quarry. This step isn't strictly necessary, but it saves quite a bit of time and frustration for both of you when you're both after the same prey. Chris Fox was kind enough to provide me with a (frozen/thawed) eastern cottontail the other day which we threw for her in the yard for the first time. She immediately leapt from the training perch, showing a very encouraging aggression though she sort of footed it from afar. It was clear she knew there was food to be had, though I'm not sure she's terribly confident about the mechanics of the strike and hold. It makes me think she's eaten rabbit before, though not actually participated in the catching--perhaps as an eyass or early fledgeling.

The next day we took her out to a training field; I held her on the glove while Chris set up our "volunteer" in a clump of grass in a ditch. When he was ready, I turned and walked with her on the gauntlet toward him. As we got within about five yards, he took off, dragging the lure up out of the ditch and into the field. She launched herself off the glove and nabbed it, in a fair simulation of "hunting off the glove", where they're launched from the gauntlet in pursuit of close ground quarry. This time she was a bit more confident with her footing, and as before we let her break in and eat a fair crop full in order to "wed" her to cottontail rabbits.

Anyway, we wrapped up today's session with a drag of the bunny lure, wherein she accidentally spotted it before it was quite thrown properly and Callan and I both had to make a fast dodge to avoid a speeding flurry of wings and talons (yikes!). Although a bit disconcerting to have to scatter so unceremoniously, it's an awesome sign: she's clearly quite sure she wants that bunny (hooray!).
It was a good session, no doubt. At some point, Callan managed to grab this great shot of fast-incoming artillery:

Right about the time we wrapped up with the bunny, Callan's husband Burt showed up with his birds, Magic the gyrfalcon and Stormy, a juvenile peregrine falcon. With the recent de-listing of the peregrine as an endangered species, an extremely small number of peregrine capture permits were issued in Oregon (the first state to open peregrine take) and Stormy is one of the first wild-trapped peregrine falcons in the country being trained for falconry purposes. It's all very exciting!

Here you see Magic, the gyrfalcon, on the left, with Stormy the pere on the right, both hooded. Incidentally, I am way jealous of Burt's rockin' falconry rig. That perch is permanently affixed on rollers along the side window; you can open the side window for air or access, or roll out the perch as in the photo. Slick!

Seeing a hawk wag their tail makes me smile every single time =).

Longwings are trained a little differently than broadwing hawks; part of their flight training involves stooping to a baited kite for the purposes of teaching them to seek elevation and stoop to their prey. Peregrines are famous for high-speed stooping, having been clocked at upwards of 250mph in free-fall. Watching these birds work is something pretty special, they put on a high-speed aerial display of the most incredible kind. Here's Burt lofting the kite in preparation for Stormy's flight:

After the kite flight he did some lure training. For Gaia, we drag the lure on the ground to simulate the action of a running cottontail. With birds being trained for feathered prey the lure is swung in a varying orbit; the bird makes a series of fast stoops and dives in an effort to make contact. Stormy's moving so fast all you see is a feathered blur:

Gaia is wicked fast on the strike, but in comparison to the pere on the wing it's like seeing a lion next to a cheetah; brawn vs. blur.

Lure training wraps up with a nice, fat hunk o'quail:

At that point the light was starting to fail, so we were treated to one quick shot by Magic over the kite. These are about the only good photos I got; there really wasn't enough light to get much on the flight itself:

In case you're wondering, those widgets poking out are radio telemetry antennae--bird-locating equipment. In the event he gets lost you can turn on a receiver which picks up a signal within a certain distance.

So, that's my story. We did well today. With this nice showing, Gaia and I will out for our first training hunt in the morning. I'll try to edge her weight down another 10-20g tonight to sharpen her glove response, so keep your fingers crossed for sub-freezing temps tonight and hordes of bunnies in Corvallis!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Makin' progress

Just a couple of photos and some Gaia updates, as always you can click on any photo for a bigger and higher-res version.

Here's a (slightly fuzzy) photo of her first short creance flight, set up in my back yard. We did one session in the yard of ten or twelve jumps of approximately ten to twenty feet from the training perch to the glove, to cement the concept that whistle + raised glove = food. Also, that returning to the glove without a recall whistle, glove, or lure does not result in food.

People are always really amazed that we're able to have these wild birds coming to us within such a short time frame after trapping, but they're predators and opportunists to the extreme. Once they come to realize that 1) they're not going to be eaten, and 2) that food comes from the gauntlet, it's not really very difficult to bring about an extremely reliable glove response. Although handling and working with a wild predator is very challenging, the actual "training" parts are surprisingly easy... much less complex than training a dog, in my opinion. As you may know if you've ever trained a dog, food rewards work best when delivered randomly. In this next photo, you see her as she's just come to the glove; the first thing she does is check for food to have appeared.

One thing I have to be reeeeeallllly careful about is that she never, never, never learns that food comes from me--it always "magically" appears in the glove. I must never allow her to make the connection between my moving hand and the appearance of food, or that my pocket is where food comes from. Those talons are wicked sharp with a tremendous gripping strength, and they are faster with their feet than you can even possibly imagine. She moves with such speed that my brain and eye cannot track the motion of her foot during a strike; she can (and has) footed me, putting a talon through my hand, before I ever even saw her move. You develop a pretty decent sleight of hand, or else you end up with a badly mangled paw or a flapping mess of wings and talons latched on to your vest pocket.

We do our long-creance flight sessions in a large park near my house. If I get there at dawn there's never anyone around, and there are several good places to work. Yesterday we went out an hour or two later in the morning than usual so I'd have good light for shooting. I set her up on a large tree stump; as she was "airing herself out" with a good rouse of her feathers someone walked by with a barking dog somewhere on the other side of the park, so in this photo you see her all fluffed up (the rouse) and with her hackles up (the dog).

We had a great session of creance work, it was a (rare and precious) gorgeous day.
Here she is coming in for a landing:

Trivia: every single wing and tail feather has a name and number designation.

The next step after teaching the recall is reshaping the glove response and transferring the predatory focus from the gauntlet to a lure and from the lure to the particular game I'm after. She's still a baby, and probably has spent most of her short life eating mice and meadow voles, packrats and whatever other little critters happened to be kicked up by passing traffic. Since I can't be sure what game she's tried and succeeded at finding and catching on her own, I'll need to demonstrate that rabbits are food--so that when we get out into the field for the first time, we're both hunting the same quarry.

I also need to ensure with good lure training that she knows where and how to target the animals for the most efficient catch and kill. One of the reasons she'll choose to stick around is because I'm (hopefully) able to provide and assist her with catching larger, better-quality game than she's able to hunt on her own. In the wild, she'll eat the game that is most plentiful and poses the least risk of physical harm in catching, but one of the reasons redtails make such fantastic falconry birds is that they are serious gamehawks with tremendous courage and ability. Typical game is cottontails and black-tailed jacks, but there are folks hawking redtails over everything from ducks and pheasant to foxes and geese--all are quarry large and powerful enough that in most cases she'd have trouble killing them on her own. I need to demonstrate how and where to catch and hold large quarry in order to best subdue her prey and hold it immobile while I catch up and can help with the dispatch when I arrive. Of course, these are things she'd quickly pick up in the first attempts at live quarry in the field, but if I can cement the notions first with a lure then we're several steps ahead when I flush that first cottontail, and with a hopefully substanially lower risk of broken feathers or lost quarry.

We are progressing beautifully, and hopefully will be out in the field by late this week. Stay tuned!