Photo by author
From where she comes I do not know, but I do know she has never been touched by another's hand. I already like her. Every time I hold a freshly trapped hawk or falcon, these are probably the first thoughts that go through my mind. I wonder where this bird comes from, what has she been eating, if she is a good one. There's only one way to find out take her home, jess her up, and let the manning begin.
I'm amazed at how many falconers are lost when it comes to passage falcons. They may have been flying imprints and chamber birds of various kinds for years, but when they get wild-caught passage falcons on their fists, many are not sure what to do next. They need to learn something new. This means investing time and making mistakes, but that's how one progresses at anything. If you're not learning new things, you're not moving forward in the art of falconry. This article, I hope, can save you some time and reduce mistakes if you decide to trap and train a passage Gyr.
Photo by Diana Broadbent
Trapping. I'll start at the begin-ning. Falconry has become a little stagnant for you for whatever rea-son. You've been thinking about a passage Gyr for some time - months, years. You've gotten to the point where "I've got to try one!" You're thinking to yourself, "I'm not go-ing to stop looking until I get one!" That's a good attitude to start with because passage Gyrs are not easy to find. To me the best way to find a passage Gyr to trap is to quit looking. It seems like you're out in the field or heading to it one midwin-ters day, when you glance out your window. There she is sunning herself on a tele-phone pole! This is the only opportunity you may have to trap one this year. Where are your traps and bait? Hopefully not at home. I've caught more Gyrs just by al-ways being ready with traps and bait at hand where ever I go to the store or most of all hawking.
If you're planning to take a trapping trip to another state that offers non-resident permits for Gyrs, take your falcon with you and fly it often. Make a hawking trip out of it too. I believe the best way to see a Gyr is to have another falconry bird in the air, especially if it is a trained Gyr or Gyr-type. Such a bird is more apt to suck a wild one in than a pure Peregrine. Gyrs like to come in and take a look at their own kind. If you have success in doing so, say in mid-December, you probably found a wintering territory of a Gyr. Then you have a good chance of seeing her again for a set. Another good place to look for Gyrs is where a food supply for them is abundant. They like areas that are busy with game such as flicks of waterfowl, gamebirds, or where a rodent population cycle has peaked. Gyrs are probably the easiest falcon to trap, but the hardest to locate.
I assume you have some experience using traps. Pigeon harnesses are probably the most commonly used trap for falcons. Make sure the drags you use on your harness are heavy enough to prevent the Gyr from flying off with your trap. I use a one pound weight attached with a surgical tubing shock absorber between the weight and the pigeon. This whole drag line is about six feet long. I am aware of only one Gyr caught by a dho-gazza. Many Gyrs come in and land a few feet from the bait and look at it for a bit. Then they may run over and grab it. Personally I wouldn't bother using a dho-gazza for trapping Gyrs unless it was all I had.
The chances of catching a Gyrkin are much slimmer than a female. One theory is that the males tend to stay up north and defend territories. Who knows for sure what the reason is, but they are seen much less than falcons.
Manning. I assume you have had some experience manning wild caught hawks. Maybe some chamber raised birds too. Most passage Gyrs man every bit as easily as any of the above. I personally like to have the bird on the fist, hooded, as soon as possible. Usually the manning begins when the bird is in the sock before she is jessed up. At this time, she's allowed to look at me, but she can't bait. All she can do is lay on the car seat and look at me. When I get home, she is jessed, leashed, and hooded. She is then placed on the fist. Many Gyrs will bait with the hood on and spin. Simply place your hand on her back and lift the bird back to the fist.
This Gyr was banded and released Photo by author
Passage Gyrs must be kept cool. If she starts to pant, take her outside into the cold. Most birds, unless they have an extremely large crop, will eat by the next evening in the privacy of your company only. She doesn't need to see more yet. The sooner the bird eats, the better for stress reasons. You want to keep her blood sugar up while she's getting used to you. They man better, and it helps to keep them from going into shock. Before the time they eat on their own, I give them water. Use a squirt bottle, syringe, or teaspoon. I prefer a teaspoon. Soon in the manning phase with the hood off, most freshly trapped falcons will look at you with their beaks open. Simply fill the teaspoon with water and pour.
During the time she isn't in your presence, hood her and put her on a safe perch. She needs to see you or nothing. To place such a bird out of your presence unhooded and alone could be very harmful to the manning process. Also, she could injure herself trying to escape. Use a hood that can not be thrown. If you do not have one, learn how to make one. An Indian style hood with Dutch braces is what I prefer. They fit well around the beak and are quick and easy to make. An added benefit is that the bird can cast while hooded. You're not trying to impress anyone with your craftsmanship, only keep your hawk safe and comfortable. I don't think the hawk really cares how it looks just how it fits.
A pole perch is also a very use-ful piece of furniture for manning. It takes up little room. On it the bird can view you from a different perspective than she can from the fist. From the pole perch, she can see you as she would when you are in the field. Remember, no hawk should be kept on a perch from which it can hang while unattended, especially a freshly caught hawk. A hawk should always be supervised on such a perch. When you're gone for the day, keep the bird hooded in a pitch-black room. Keep her on a perch system where she can not hang. She can be kept
in a pitch-black mews unhooded after a few days. She will then be more comfortable. The main thing is to keep the bird safe from injury to herself and her feathers.
Weathering. Weathering passage Peregrines in the hood is what E.B. Mitchell suggests in his book, The Art and Practice of Falconry. Unhooded, a passage Gyr is just going to bait too much and exhaust herself. Excessive baiting will also set her up for foot problems. Later the falcon can be weathered unhooded for short periods of time 10 to 15 minutes, or until the bird gets too restless. Then she needs to be hooded up again. A bird that is conditioned to weather with the hood on will show no effects of this when flown in the field. My once intermewed Gyr spends most of the time weathering with the hood on. She gets restless and baits too much otherwise. I don't want to take
the chance of developing foot problems. Passage Gyrs are prone to foot problems. With a gorge or very full crop, she is more content and seldom baits.
Star, once intermewed passage Gyr. Photo by author
Training. Depending on how much manning you've done and the appetite of the bird, you should have a bird hopping to your fist within a few days of being trapped. I don't drop their weight down for serious training till I've had them for at least a week and a half. Before then, I let the bird eat all it wants. I do not use a leather lure on passage hawks. They respond better to a carcass. If you use a leather lure, garnish it with duck wings to make it look as real as possible. Once the bird is coming instantly from fifty yards in to the lure then I fly them free. A healthy 53 ounce (1503 gram) trapped Gyr, empty crop, will probably fly free at about 43-46 ounces(1219-1304 grams).
Waiting on. The main thing passage falcons need to learn is what you're all about. They don't need anything from you. You want to concentrate your training on keeping their attention on you. For awhile they are going to have one eye on you and the other on the horizon looking for other options. Always do your training in areas where there are no distractions from wild game that they may be tempted to go after. Field ducks are such a
distraction. I use homing pigeons as a tool to teach passage Gyrs to wait on well. The pigeon is usually too dodgy for the Gyr to catch. They also help keep the falcon in shape. Flushing when the Gyr is a little out of position or wide helps to keep their pitch up where you want it. If you flush or throw pigeons when they're directly overhead, they can get in the behavior of lowering their pitch. Gyrs learn to anticipate when you'll serve the quarry. Always try to serve a falcon when it is pumping and climbing into the wind, not hanging over your head.
Carrying. Something should be mentioned on this sub-ject. A Gyr can carry a partridge or pigeon. Passage Gyrs are more apt to carry if they're a little high in weight and not serious about eating right away. Right after catching something and before the plucking begins is when a Gyr is most apt to carry. Most passage Gyrs take a light-weight quarry to a place where they feel comfortable eating. Once they settle down, they can usually be made into rather easily. Don't make in until both feet are on the quarry and the bird is plucking. A bird with one foot on the quarry and one foot off is unsettled and apt to carry. Read the chapter on Merlins and dealing with this behavior in Art and Practice of Hawking by E.B. Mitchell. Merlins and Gyrs are similar in many ways.
First Slips. Once the falcon is trained to wait on properly, it's time for first slips on wild quarry. Usually they chase anything you flush. I've had Gyrs refuse waterfowl even though they were eating them in the wild. In all cases, a slight weight reduction was the answer. Make sure your passage Gyrfalcon is waiting on patiently before you slip her on wild quarry. She must be maintaining her pitch and staying with you until you can flush and then some. To push her to wait on longer than she is ready for could cause her to rake away and self hunt. If a dog is being used for the first slip, she must never be allowed to approach the falcon on a kill. As time passes, the dog can be brought in, assuming your dog is respectful of falcons. The dog must be under total control. Conditioning to the dog should be done prior to hawking with it by feeding the falcon with the dog next to you. Quarry. Pheasants, grouse, partridge, ducks in the water, and ducks in the field all produce interesting flights. My least favorite flight for Gyrs is sage grouse because most flights simply seem to end in tail chases. Using your telemetry to find your bird every time gets old. Also, eagles are a threat. I know of some passage Gyrs that have been killed by eagles. Usually they are more "eagle aware," but they still are vulnerable when on the ground struggling with quarry. Most passage Gyrs eat extremely fast. They can catch a grouse and be gorged within fifteen minutes. They don't bother plucking; they just eat big mouthfuls. So, get there quickly. My favorite flight is field ducks that are flushed before the falcon is unhooded. These flights are the most enjoyable flights I've had with the Gyr. You get to see herding, stooping, and chasing up high. You get to see the Gyr open up and enjoy all her qualities. This type of flight puts predator and prey on equal terms. I like to see ducks chased 1000 feet high or more. The best way to see these flights is to slip the falcon on ducks that are circling high overhead looking for a spot to come down to feed. Ducks are downplayed as a quarry by many for Gyrs. They are easily caught by a Gyr waiting on, but ducks are one of the fastest quarries out there. They are a challenge to a Gyr when put on equal terms. The flight lasts much longer than a stoop. No two are the same. This flight is very natural for Gyrs. This is the way they were traditionally flown, off the fist. And for good reason, this is where they shine.
Once intermewed passage Gyr with Jill, English pointer, who provided the slip. Photo by author
End of the Season Moulting. Most passage Gyrs don't moult cleanly during their first moult. For example, they may moult only ten of the twelve tail feathers or not drop all of the secondary feathers.
During the moult is when most passage Gyrs encounter foot prob-lems. It usually starts as a callous at the ball of the foot. This comes from landing too hard on the ball of the foot. The best treatment is prevention. Gyrs are extremely restless birds in the mews. In a chamber that is 8' x 12', Gyrs "hop" rather than really "fly" from perch to perch. This causes them to land hard. Therefore, they need extra padding on their perches. I cover all my perches with four-inch thick soft foam that is covered by heavy toweling or similar material. There is a lightweight astroturf that is similar to toweling in flexibility. I also cover the entire floor with the same materials. Swinging perches have been used by some falconers successfully as well. The perch swings with the bird as it lands absorbing the shock of landing.
It is also a good idea to keep a fan running in the mews for warm summer days. I use two fans one fan blowing cooler air in from a vent near the floor and the other blowing air directly on the Gyr's favorite perch. Air circulation is important to help keep the bird from overheating. On extremely hot days, 95+ degrees, I spray the outside and inside walls of the mews with water. The evaporation with the fans going cools the air in the mews dramatically. I also treat for malaria during mosquito season. It is an easy and inexpensive pre-caution.
Food. High quality food is best for passage hawks. I'm not talking good quail, but natural food things they eat in the wild: ducks, sparrows, grouse, pigeons, ground squirrels, and mice. I've fed pigeons to passage Prairie falcons for over twenty years. I've also fed them to passage Gyrs. I've not lost one yet to the herpes disease. I know of other people who do the same. Some veterinarians agree that wild Gyrs could have natural antibodies built up to give them more resistance to the disease. But conclusive studies have not been done. It is not uncommon to see wild Gyrs living on wild pigeons. There is a Gyrkin wintering at a dairy for the past three years. He shows up on the same phone pole every year. He lives on the pigeons at the dairy. I doubt he is catching the healthy ones. He is an older haggard with a pumpkin-orange cere and feet. A lot of people say I'm lucky for not losing a bird to the disease. Maybe wild caught hawks do have more resistance to it. Right now I choose not to worry about it. Pigeons are too important of a training tool for me and a food supply for my birds. You decide what is best for you and your bird. Just try to stay with a food supply that is as natural as possible.
Conclusion. When seeking the advice on caring for passage Gyrs, seek the advice of those who had experience caring for and training them. Do not seek the advice of individuals who had experience with eyas Gyrs only. No matter how good their intentions are. Passage Gyrs and eyas Gyrs are two different birds in the area of care. When you take advice from someone you feel confident in, follow it to a "tee." One would not call someone who trained only Goshawks all his life for advice on training Peregrines to wait on or vice versa.
Hawking quarry that is naturally in harmony with the hawk or falcon is the foundation of the extended season we enjoy. A pure Peregrine on a duck or red grouse, a Gyr on a ptarmigan, or a Cooper's hawk on a Bobwhite quail this is in harmony with nature. Traditional falconry is based on this harmony.