Untitled Document

Hawking Snowshoe Hares in Alaska

Article and Photography by

Don Hunley

Anchorage, AK


Adult female Northern goshawk on a snowshoe hare.

The snowshoe hare sits silently in a burrow formed by snow piled up on willow branches. The weight of the snow eventually pulling down the branches, creating a hollow which is enlarged by constant use from the hare. Outside, sitting on a nearby tree branch is the hare's mortal enemy, the Northern goshawk. It glares at the hole that its most recent potential meal bolted down, narrowly missing the opportunity to be the hot lunch special of the day.

The hare has played this game before, knowing patience is the key to survival in the frigid North. Aware that it is secure in the burrow, it settles in for the afternoon. It will go out after dark, after the hawk retires for the evening. As time goes on, the goshawk twiddles its tail and settles in for a fairly lengthy and likely unproductive, wait. Once again, a game of strategy, involving life and death, goes on as it has since time began.

When the gos adjusted its tail feathers, however, it sent a signal to another participant in this game. Sure enough, once the bell sent out its sweet notes, the portable perch, AKA the falconer, slogged his way through the knee-deep snow. He arrives, steam rising off him in great clouds. Quickly he assesses the situation. Of course, he automatically checks the story written on the snow and sees the new tracks going to the hole that his bird is so patiently guarding.

As the falconer moves in for the reflush, the bird's casual demeanor changes, and it starts leaning forward, occasionally shifting its feet in nervous excitement. It's obviously done this before. The falconer walks around to the rear of the hole, so the hare's exit won't be blocked or impeded. A couple of vigorous stomps to the rear of the burrow launches the hare in fullblown flight. However, it doesn't storm out of its entrance hole, but has moved through an under the snow passage to exit its "back door." As happens pretty regularly, the falconer is not aware of the hare's exit and is made aware by the bird's swift bolt off its perch.

The hare is on its home turf and appears to have a plan of action all worked out. It streaks across a small opening and darts under another snow laden tree, which effectively picks off the gos as it tries to bind to the rabbit before it makes a new refuge. While the bird is hung up in the snow, the hare simply keeps on running through the tunnel and heads for a dense stand of young birch trees.

The gos leaps back into the air and continues the chase. Again, the goshawk closes, the hare slows and then with split second timing, accelerates and darts to the left through a hare sized passage way through some small willows at the edge of the birch trees. Crash, the gos slows again, but fights its way through and continues its relentless pursuit. The falconer is no longer a participant but a silent, awe filled spectator to this grueling duel between predator and prey.

The hare is running with its ears down, flat out down a narrow corridor in the trees. The gos is following, half running half flying, clawing its way through the thicket. The hare is speeding toward another large area of snow laden cover with interconnecting tunnels, which is known locally as a "labyrinth." It darts to the left again, choosing the shortest distance to its new haven. The gos senses a real opportunity to close before the hare makes cover and cuts the corner and turns on that burst of speed that the accipiters are famous for.

About 8 feet in front of the burrow, the gos whips into the hare with a crushing bind to the back and the head. Even though struck and impeded, the hare's strength and determination are evident. It tows the clinging bird to its burrow and dives into it. The bird is wadded up in the mouth of the burrow, somewhat resembling a feather duster with a head. The falconer trudges up to the scene and trips on an unseen branch beneath the snow and performs a perfect face plant in the snow. After the obligatory expletives and a quick brushing off of snow, he continues on to the bird's aid.

As you can see, the snowshoe hare's feet are well suited for getting around in deep snow.

The gos looks up at the tardy falconer with a look that would seem to say "it's about time you got here!" The falconer carefully reaches under the snow and secures the hare's feet, then digs out the gos, being careful not to pull the bird out too quickly. Often the hawk will shift its grip while in the hole and straddle a branch. Unwittingly jerking the bird and quarry out of the hole could accidentally break the bird's leg. He also takes care to keep his hands away from the excited goshawk's well-armed feet. The falconer dispatches the hare quickly to avoid the needless suffering that the hawk would normally inflict. Goshawks don't intentionally torture their prey, but there is nothing attractive or necessary in allowing the hawk to eat the still living hare.

As the bird plucks and takes its pleasure on the quarry, the falconer removes his arctic hat amid a cloud of steam and unzips his jacket to cool off. Another highly rewarding flight, the falconer reflects on the moves and counter moves just played out before him. Then his thoughts return to the more practical thought of "O.k., now which direction is the truck in?"

Hawking for snowshoe hares in Alaska is a rewarding and aerobic experience. The fall quickly fades away into full-blown winter, and the migratory birds leave for greener pastures. Only the creatures that have adapted to winter's harsh reality will continue to remain and even thrive on the shortening days and plummeting temperatures. The snows continue to pile up and accumulate, providing a different type of cover from falls long grass and dense foliage.

The snowshoe hare is perfectly constructed for this environment. Its extra large, extra wide feet provide superior traction on snows of any consistency. Its quick change from brown to white further camouflage and protects it from the many perils that try to catch and eat it. Yes, there are a large variety of predators that try: lynx, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, and wolves to name a few. Even with all this predatory pressure, the hare continues to thrive to the point that it has a large population swing that even all the predators cannot keep in check. Then it has a huge crash that kills the hares off so effectively that one is hard pressed to even find a track, not to mention a hare. (This is generally a 10-year cycle.)

In Alaska, habitat is the most important aspect of finding good numbers of hares. Key elements are spruce thickets (for cover) and willows or young birch (for food). Sometimes hares don't use spruce for cover, but instead use small brush or trees that the weight of the snow has bent over. The hares do a little tunneling, viola, Hare Condo! I also look for tracks and droppings, but the sign that is most obvious and easy to see from a distance is willow trees or brush that the bunnies have been girdling. If you can see the peeled willows, don't bother scouting harder because when they are eating the bark off the willows, there are lots of bunnies competing for food.

This goshawk knows that hares hide in snow burrows.

Dealing with the local environment is integral to success when hunting snowshoe hares with hawks. Not only is the falconer the concerned with normal aspects of hunting with raptors, but one also has to take into account weight management of the bird during the extremes of cold weather. You need to bundle up and yet not dress so warmly that you will go into meltdown while slogging (slogging is a perfect word, whether you wear snowshoes or not) after your sometimes errant bird. Then there is trying to get your flights in before the shortened day closes in on you. It all makes for some rather interesting hunting. Oh yeah, you also need to keep your eye's peeled for the occasional antisocial moose. The flight mentioned above really happened and is fairly typical, if you can use such a word for hawking hares with a goshawk.

There is no special equipment "required," although I would highly recommend a couple of items. Snowshoes are one that comes to mind. If you don't have them and the snow gets over knee deep, you will pay for it in sweat! One simple addition is a tail bell for the bird. Often, the bird binds to a hare and gets drug about, usually down into a hole in the snow. A leg bell gets clogged up with snow and sometimes buried under the snow so it doesn't ring. The tail bell (a neck bell would work well too) is nearly always clear of snow, and any struggle by the quarry results in ringing and eventual location of your misplaced hawk. Telemetry is another option you really want. If your bird gets dragged into a snow cavern and you don't see the direction it flew in (because you were buried in cover flushing bunnies), there is real potential to lose the bird.

A normal hawking day on the weekend usually starts like this. Rrrrring, rrrrrring "Yello" "Man, I just poured my first cup of coffee, gimme a second." "Yeah, I'm flying today." "O.K., O.K. What time is it? 0945. Hmm, still dark out. Yeah, we're gonna fly; what time are you figuring on?" "2 o'clock! Eric, it's gonna be dark again by three, that only gives you an hour of daylight; less if it stays overcast like it's been and it gives me no time to fly." "O.K., how about you fly first; meet me at the Rabbit Patch at noon. That will make sure we have plenty of time to work my bird after you're done." "I'm bringing the beagle; she hunts fine with my bird." "I'll call Dave and see if he wants to go. He will probably want to fly his gos too; I'll call ya back." So starts the day.

Eric Fontaine, my apprentice, and I meet at a large chuck of undeveloped real estate in south Anchorage that we refer to as the "Rabbit Patch" and for good reason. Historically, it has provided the local falconers with 20 to 40 kills a year since I started hunting it in 1992. Eric's bird will be hunted first. She doesn't like hunting with dogs, so my beagle, Jazz, will be staying in the truck. A first year redtail, "Zeena" flies at 36 ounces (1021 grams). She has already notched a large number of kills and is getting steadier each time she goes to the field. The flight/hunting style of the redtail hawk is completely different than that of the goshawk, and I'll try to describe the difference.

Typically, the redtail follows along quite nicely, as it eventually learns that those human flushers chase those tasty bunnies out of the deep cover and into more vulnerable positions. A redtail is at its best in a tree, as it can see those hares that sneak out far ahead. One skill that the good ones learn is to "point" the rabbit. What happens is the bird sees a hare, but won't fully commit to a stoop because of cover, so it checks, then lands in a nearby tree, turning to face the hare, awaiting the reflush. Again, generally the redtail learns to overfly the hare a bit and point from a distance away. Because the trees aren't that tall, they don't get up enough speed to effectively catch the hares. So they learn to point from a more distant tree that will enable them to get a good head of steam underway before they commit to their crashing vertical wing over.

Again nothing is really typical, and since the Rabbit Patch has such a large area and a variety of cover, you see all kinds of flying maneuvers used to catch the elusive quarry. I have hunted cottontails, jack rabbits, and snowshoe hares, and the snowshoe is the most consistently difficult to flush away from cover of any of the rabbit species I have hunted.

Fighting with a gos in deep snow can work to the hare's advantage

Today is no different, Eric's bird takes a commanding perch and shifts perches once, then crashes in on a rabbit. We listen in vain for the telltale scream of a captured hare. Soon, the redtail rumbles out of the spruce to another perch and rouses its feathers back into their proper places. Eric calls her down for a tidbit, carries her to another island of spruce and casts her to a new perch. We thrash the thicket with sticks, and she bobs her head and launches, then throws up, hovers momentarily, and then flies to a nearby spruce and points.

We obediently reflush the bunny, but this bird is learning to fly with her brains and not just her wings. She again follows and points the bunny, but fails to commit. We are now able to track this particular rabbit and stay after it. A small hollow under a spruce tree is kicked, and the hare bolts out. In its panic, it runs into a more open area. This is the opportunity the redtail was waiting for, and she lunges off the tree, pumping all the way. She closes the gap, then folds up, and pounds the rabbit deep into the snow.

Eric and I catch up as best we can; our breath billowing in the cold air. The redtail is mantled out on the powdery snow; the hare invisible beneath her. Her crest is up and she is panting; visibly excited about her catch. Eric makes in to finish the hare, but his help is not needed; the hare is dead.

This is a pretty consistent format for hawking snowshoe hares with a redtail. A redtail trained to follow along and shown that bunnies are good to eat will be successful if given plenty of opportunities to learn the game. Their style is a single, all out commitment because they don't have the speed or maneuverability to get back up and chase the hare after a miss. Certain types of cover are very difficult to hunt because of this flight style. Generally, dense tight willows or birch are the toughest because the hare has good visibility, and the bird has difficulty penetrating the cover and maintaining the speed it needs to connect.

Eric and I went back to the vehicles and picked up my 3x intermewed gos "Fussy" and the beagle. We hunted in a new direction and in short order the dog opened up on the fresh scent of a snowshoe hare. Since it was a fairly small patch of cover and hoping the hare hadn't left it yet, I quickly unhooded and put her up in a spruce. She had no sooner hit the top of the tree when she bolted to the east after a hare. She made a short twisting stoop, then landed in the top of a small spruce, pointing hard at the hare.

Eric and I slogged (there we are slogging again) along in the knee-deep snow, and 20 yards out from the bird, she bolted downward and disappeared among the intervening spruce trees. Sure enough, the eerie wail of the captured hare told me of my hawk's success and enabled us to locate the bird. Eric said, "That was quick!" I was in hearty agreement and because of the previous flying with Eric's bird was ready to quit. We picked up the bird, quarry, leashed the dog, and called it a day.

As you can see from the flights, the goshawk is a horse of a different color. Where a redtail excels at penetrating down through cover, most gos's will point the hare and wait for a reflush, relying on its acceleration to fly the hare down before it can gain the safety of cover. Goshawks are relentless in pursuit, once they realize there is purpose to staying on the hare no matter what. They will follow along as best they can till the hare takes cover of some sort. Unlike the redtail, on the reflush, they want to be as close as possible to the last known location of the bunny. I have even had my bird run into a snow burrow after a bunny and as the hare ran out the opposite side, she chased it out of the hole on foot and continued the flight!

This hare's attempt to escape by diving into the snow almost succeeded.

The most fun occurs when flying in a fairly tight thicket of willow or birch. The gos follows like the shadow of death until she can close and bind or runs the hare to cover. On the reflush, the hares come out like they are shot out of a gun. Short and well-spaced spruce trees are interesting cover also; the bird follows along, trying to stay close and get a shot at the hare as it crosses a small opening to get to the next tree. Very interactive flying. The dog (beagle) adds another dimension, since I can leave the bird hooded, then fly the hare out of the hood as it runs by, much as you would hunt with a shotgun. The dog moves the hares out of the thickets and into vulnerable spots for the hawk to fly. It is really interesting to watch the dog and the hawk start to work together as a team.

No question, a rabbit dog of some sort helps immensely. They free you up to watch while the dog works the thicket. Beagles, dachshunds, or Jack Russell terriers are breeds that could be used with success (keep in mind, deep snow will affect how well the dog is able to work for you). Often, I will have the dog moving a hare and as the chase turns my way, I walk that direction, unhood the bird, and then put the bird in a tree. She will spy the hare long before I will and the chase is on. As my gos gets older and more experienced, she gets better and better. Her footing is now, simply put, amazing. Another benefit as the gos gets more experienced and learns to fly quarry to cover and point, I am able to get closer to the flight and am able to see more of it.

I was, once upon a time, ready to name the female redtail as the ultimate snowshoe hare hawk. I think I'm ready to change my mind and give the goshawk the nod of numero uno. One good reason is that redtails quite simply will not hunt when the temperature gets below -5° F. They are more concerned with covering their feet and staying warm. The gos, on the other hand, actually hunts better in the cold weather, at least as cold as I can stand to go out in. I can take -15° to -20° F, colder than that is no fun for me (the bird could probably take it). This isn't too much of a problem; we seldom have temperatures below -20° F in the Anchorage area. Yeah, it gets colder, but you won't see me out there!

Another reason I believe the gos to be slightly superior is that their acceleration and maneuverability enables them to be more successful on reflushes than the redtail. Redtails are great; they just aren't as consistent catching hares on the reflush. This said, on the negative side, goshawks can be more neurotic than any redtail. There are certain situations where you can hunt a redtail that would blow a goshawk's mind. The redtail's tractable personality will, on many occasions, overcome its relative lack of talent, and the end of season head count for the redtail will sometimes double or even triple the goshawker's bag.

Obviously, there are some situations that I haven't covered. I also opted to not cover training the birds, since most is rather basic training and has been described in detail in many other places. Finding information about hawking snowshoe hares is difficult, and hopefully this will give some of you an idea of how to go about it. As to what can be done with a hawk, a local falconer, Ken Colley's female 3x intermewed redtail took 58 hares in one season (a head count record, in Alaska anyway). Not bad; my current gos is quickly closing in on that number and I have plenty of season left to hunt. No matter which bird you choose, superior flying, some success, and outstanding physical fitness will be the final result. Good hawking!!

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