September 9, 2004 - MONADNOCK LEDGER

Falconry a sport that demands patienceRed Tail Hawl

Training and license needed to hunt

By Eric Poor – Monadnock Ledger Staff

TEMPLE - Biology teacher turned dairy farmer Martin Connolly is a hunter who doesn't hunt any­more. Now he takes someone else hunting, and he de­scribes his role in the process as something akin to a soccer mom.

That someone else he chauffeurs to the hunt is The General, a red-tailed hawk he captured four years ago as a "passage bird" about to start its first migration.

Connolly is one of a handful of licensed falconry hunters in New Hampshire.

"It's a way to still be out in the woods hunting," Connolly says. "It's the ultimate challenge."

A big part of that challenge is actually becoming licensed to capture, train and hunt with one of the two varieties of raptors falconers are allowed to use here - red-tailed hawks or American kestrels. The process involves a lot of federal and state regulations and includes a two-year apprenticeship studying with a master falconer,

It's not easy. A lot of would-be falconers start and then drop out once they find how difficult and time consuming the process is. And it's only right that it should be a hard task that requires patience and devotion to the bird, Connolly says.

"These birds are so precious and unique."

Connolly had tried his hand at falconry as a teenag­er in upstate New York. Back then it was a trial-and­-error system that was "rough on the bird." Now it's a regulated process that starts with a written test and requires a final review and field test before the falconer can move out of the apprentice category.

Connolly put in a lot of study beforehand and as­sembled his equipment and constructed a "mews," the housing for his bird, all of which was inspected by state officials. He took a written test that consisted of more than 100 questions.

"You have to get a minimum 80 percent score to get your license as an apprentice," Connolly says.

You also have to be accepted as an apprentice by a master falconer. Due to the small number of falconers, this can be difficult.
With the test and prep work done, Connolly began what became, for him, a three-year apprenticeship with master falconer Michael Ballou of Amherst. The first year was a simple waiting process, because he failed to capture a bird during the capture season, which starts on Sept 1.

"You have to capture it," Connolly says. "You can't buy it and no one can give it to you."

The capture season occurs during the annual mi­gration. The second year, Connolly went out on the first day with his master falconer and studied the ways to find and capture the birds. They found them along the highway, perched on poles and looking for roadkill. They found them at a fairgrounds with open, mowed fields where the mice fed on spilled popcorn and the hawks fed on the mice.

On the highway the traffic interfered and at the fair­grounds the mowers kept the birds shy.

Then they went to a golf course in Salem. Here, us­ing a live pigeon for bait, they trapped a passage bird - one that had learned to hunt on its own and was about to undertake its first migration south.

The regulations don't allow taking older birds that have earned their survival and are wilder. They can't be trained. The mortality rate from starvation, electrocution and oth­er factors is astounding for the pas­sage birds, however. Taking one out of the wild generally has little effect on the overall population.

With the bird in the trap, the fal­coner then runs up, which causes the bird to roll onto its back to pres­ent the talons for defense. The fal­coner places a towel over the bird's head and then tapes up the talons to prevent injury to the falconer. A "sock" is then slipped over the body of the bird to keep the wings still and prevent the bird from in­juring itself.

The falconer puts leather an­klets called aylmeris on the bird and puts it in a dark box for the trip home.

At home in the mews that has been built for the bird, thongs called jesses are attached to the anklets and the bird is restrained on a perch, which is designed so the bird can be trained to tether on the perch without injury.

Many hawks require a hood, but The General has never been hooded.

Martin "Marty" Connolly

"He was calm to begin with," Connolly says.

The next step in the process involves training the bird to get on a scale to be weighed. Falconers weigh their birds often to determine their condition. Connol­ly found that his bird had a full crop, indicating it had eaten recently. That was a good sign; the bird was a hunter, motivated by enjoyment of the hunt as much as by hunger.

"Manning" is the next stage of the training process. This involves putting the bird on a leather-glove pro­tected fist and waiting for it to get comfortable and re­spond to the trainer. Called the "great endurement," it is a process of patience that the trainer must continue until the bird accepts food. It is done when the bird's crop feels empty. Manning takes anywhere from six hours to two days.

"It took about 16 hours and then he accepted a little piece of chicken and I became like a parent," Connolly says.

At this point, the key to training is spending a lot of time with the bird and working fast, so it doesn't forget. The next step involves releasing the bird on a creance, a 50-yard braided line that allows flight, but not escape. Early training is done with a thrown lure designed to imitate prey and provide a treat of meat, like chicken or venison. The bird is also trained to return to fist when called.

Bells, designed to help the falconer locate the bird during hunts, come much later.

About a month from the moment of capture comes the moment of truth. At this point of no return, the bird is released to hunt, with the falconer trusting it will re­turn to fist. The hunting jesses used at this point are leather thongs that the bird can remove itself in the event it decides to flee.

The trainer throws the bird in the air and it circles or perches while the trainer walks through the cover to kick up some game.
When the bird flies to make its kill, the falconer responds to re­trieve the prey. "You have to get it away from him without hurting his feelings," Connolly says.

To do this, the falconer puts his hand in a sack and uses it to cover the prey, while feeding the bird a treat it likes and getting it back to fist.

The falconer has to have a hunt­ing license and can't take game that is out of season. The bird, of course, knows no restrictions, on prey. If the bird takes a prey animal that is out of season, the bird will be allowed to eat it because the fal­coner can't possess it. That usually ends the hunt for the day, because the hawk tends to lose interest in hunting once it is fully fed.

The most exciting hunts involve snakes and cock pheasants, Con­nolly says. The hawk will pin a snake and then let it coil around its talons. The hawk will take the snake to a perch, pinch the head off and peel it like a banana before eating it.

In the case of a cock pheasant, which will weigh three times as much as the hawk, there is an aerial battle. The two birds become locked together in a way that resembles a biplane in flight with two sets of wings going.

Connolly and The General have been hunting together for four years now. An incident involving some friends who tried to save an injured barred owl has led him in a new direction. Connolly discovered that most wildlife rehabilitators know how to heal birds, but not how to teach the young ones how to hunt. Now he's involved in the long learning process of raptor rehabilitation in an effort to teach hunting to the birds that have healed. Both his 110-acre farm and more recently the Shattuck Golf Course in Jaffrey, where food is easy to find, have be­come release sites for rehabilitated raptors.