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Modern hawk hunting keeps falconry soaring in North Georgia

originally published 3/11/2010

 

When a pair of red-tailed hawks and one Harris’ hawk were brought out to fly a demonstration during a recent state park falconry class, the majestic, winged raptors brought oooohs and aaaahs from a rapt audience. But as one Buck Shoals squirrel learned the hard way, hunting hawks are still kept today in the same spirit that moved falconers of the middle ages––to take down small game.
“They are not pets,” falconer Emory “Buster” Brown told the class. “If you keep these birds, you owe it to them to hunt them. You have to get out there and hunt.”
The one day introduction to falconry, put on by Smithgall Woods State Park, took place on the 400 acres of the now-closed Buck Shoals State Park near Cleveland.
In Georgia, there are more than 170 licensed falconers and two falconing groups, (the Georgia Falconry Association and the Georgia Gamehawkers). 
The falconry day in early February began with a brief rundown of what it takes to become a falconer. This introduction was followed by a real hunt at Buck Shoals.
According to information presented by Brown, capturing your first hawk is one of the smaller challenges when getting started as a falconer. Other requirements are more difficult. The sport is regulated at both the state and federal level. By the time you get your permit, you will have passed a “fairly difficult” written test, found a sponsor (also not that easy), served an apprenticeship, and constructed a Mews to house your bird, a structure that must pass inspection by the Department of Natural Resources.
Both Brown and his apprentice, Brian Kurtzman, said the sport’s regulations make it a tough hobby to get started with. Kurtzman said finding his sponsor hadn’t been particularly easy, but with the Internet, hooking up with people is simpler.
A variety of raptors are used to hunt in Georgia. Most beginners favor red-tailed hawks because of their ease of capture. Among the myriad of regulations, one specifies that apprentice falconers must capture their first bird. Brown, who is licensed, bought his Harris’ hawk from a breeder. 
Kurtzman has been an apprentice for two years and has captured a red-tailed hawk each year. He said, when shown how to use a lure and trap, the capture was not difficult.
According to Brown, young red-tailed hawks have a high mortality rate and are often hungry, so tempting one into a trap isn’t difficult. He showed a video of a capture. In the clip, the hawk was on the trap as soon as Brown had walked to the edge of the field where he had placed it.
Food and care provided to trapped and trained hawks gives them a much better survival rate than a young hawk in the wild. This benefit to the birds is a real positive for the sport, Kurtzman said. He said he had previously pursued other kinds of hunting, but sitting in a stand doesn’t compare to working with a hawk and moving through the woods.
Raptor training involves doling out food to hungry birds on a regular basis so they learn that working with a falconer makes life easier than going it alone. Kurtzman said there is a fine line between feeding enough frozen mice and squirrels to keep a bird’s trust and feeding a hawk so many it won’t hunt. Kurtzman said he may have over-trained his first bird. That hawk reached a point where it just perched in a tree when released for hunts. ‘Twas a better hawk Kurtzman released for the demonstration––better fed and healthy and with all its natural instincts still intact.
A well-trained hawk will follow its falconer through the woods much like a dog on a walk. The bird flies tree to tree with the general idea that the falconer can flush squirrels or an occasional rabbit. Flushing a raccoon or opossum is not desired, as these larger critters can prove too much for the birds.
Rabbits may be the preferred quarry, but low bunny numbers in North Georgia mean most falconers rely on the more steady stream of bushy-tails taken from native woods and a few well-stocked house yards.
In the field that Sunday, the class divided into two groups with a Rambler reporter and half the class following Kurtzman and his red-tailed hawk, Madeye, while the other half followed Brown. 
Johnna Tuttle, interpretive ranger from Smithgall Woods, said this falconry experience is one of her favorite events to host, as it gets participants active in the woods.
“It gets people from six to 80 running through the woods chasing the birds,” she told the class. “Even if you don’t like hunting, it is amazing to see the relationship of the people to the birds.”
It went much as Brown described. The group walked along, kicking or knocking on trees that in their upper limbs held squirrel nests of promising potential. An occasional shot from a falconer’s slingshot rattled nests to see if occupants might rouse. On this particular outing, slingshots did not appear to offer any advantage.
As often goes with hunting, a portion of the pursuit came up dry. The half of the classs with Kurtzman didn’t spot a single squirrel. But a woods walk watching the hawk swoop around made up for the missing quarry. I kept wondering if at some point the hawk would fly off or misbehave in something of the way most dogs do, but this apprentice’s bird created no drama that day.
Hawks are equipped with bells, so keeping track of them in the field is much easier. Some more high-dollar gear available includes a transmitter-receiver set to pinpoint a bird’s location. A common saying among those who hunt with hawks is that coming home with your bird means you’ve had a successful hunt. Apparently raptors occasionally end their hunting partnerships without advance notice.
During the hour or more of walking, red-tailed Madeye didn’t stay directly overhead but was never far away.  Being close is not necessary as, according to Brown, a study has found that a hawk’s eye site is sharp enough to read a newspaper at 100 yards.
Kurtzman twice called the bird in close when a pair of wild red-tailed hawks showed up. And, unlike most pets, the bird came fairly quickly to its owner’s gloved hand.
The absence of squirrel quarry might have led to a day spent in meditative contemplation of this noble sport from the middle ages until Brown cell-phoned his apprentice to report an abundance of squirrels on the other side of the park.
When the two groups met, Brown stored his red-tailed hawk while Kurtzman removed Madeye a second time from the bird’s traveling container. Two hawks generally don’t get along in hunting groups.
On the second outing, it wasn’t long before Madeye came plunging to the ground with a scampering squirrel giving him the slip by just inches. During the next hour, Madeye made dives at a number of different squirrels.
Much of the time, the bird would sit at the top of a tree while squirrels took cover on the opposite side of a large branch or simply disappeared into a hidden getaway hole.
One of the more dramatic attacks by hawk drone involved the squirrel free-falling down a huge oak while plunging hawk, wings folded, closed right behind that bushy tail. At one point, the hawk hit the ground hard enough to appear dazed a few moments before it flew back up.
Rather than flying wild uncontrolled swoops, it looked like the raptor was patiently waiting on squirrels to get where she wanted them before launching or dive-bombing. Brown said no two successful hunts end the same, with some birds being more aggressive on some days and more calculating on others. 
As the park was closing, the hawk had come up with nothing but spectacular chases and was given a few more minutes. Again a squirrel dropped/ran from the king-sized oak, hitting the ground in front of a dive-bombing bird. But this time, the hawk’s talons (with 250 pounds-per-square-inch gripping power) hit the squirrel dead-on.
Both falconers rushed to the bird and prey, in case the hawk needed backup. It didn’t.
Due to the construction of the raptors’ talons, it takes some time before a bird can release its prey. This physical trait is why hawks can sleep in trees without requiring muscle strength to hold on.
If any member of the class (ranging in  age from pre-teens to seniors) had any reservations about the explicit hunting portion of the day, none were expressed.  The group, hailing from North Georgia and metro Atlanta, all applauded Madeye’s last minute success.
The squirrel taken that day would be used to feed Kurtzman’s bird later in the year. Brown said he had collected 36 squirrels so far this year, and all would be used as raptor food.
The season for hunting with hawks begins in the fall, but Brown said with leaves still on the trees and some summer heat lingering into early October, most falconers wait until mid-October to hit the woods. The season runs through mid-March.
 
 
More information can be found at www.georgiafalconryassociation.com
 
THIS BIRD MEANS BUSINESS -  Falconer, Buster Brown, and his red-tailed hawk. Brown presented a class and led a hunt with this bird in February.