By M. Ashley Evans
First published here: https://henoutdoors.com/blog/a-girl-and-her-hawk/
I had the privilege of interviewing Sarah Molnar recently. Sarah is a sweet lady and an enthusiastic hunter. It was such a joy getting to talk to her about falconry! (Falconry: the sport of hunting with falcons or other birds of prey)
Sarah started the conversation by telling me how she got involved in falconry. “I fell in love with falconry several years ago. I have always been a hunter and fisher, but falconry has forever changed my life. My first boyfriend was just starting his journey in falconry, and it became something that we both enjoyed. I got to see him and his friends work with different birds of prey, mainly red-tails, and I fell in love with the sport. It was one of those things that on our off days, we were out hawking. Every chance we got, we were flying his bird, hunting rabbits. It was a completely different way of hunting for me, and to see the bond between the falconer and the bird was simply amazing. I began my own journey a couple years later and found a sponsor to teach me the sport, and ever since, I can’t envision my life without it. I am constantly looking forward to going out hawking and hunting with my bird, and I get sad when the season ends and we have to wait until the next season to hunt. I am always looking for birds of prey, especially red-tails as I drive from one destination to the next.”
(Sarah’s hawk, Ella)
Sarah shared a picture of her hawk. “I have a juvenile red-tail hawk. She was born this past spring in 2017. As a falconer, we can only trap immature red-tails. Our trapping season here in Michigan starts in September, and this is when the birds have been hunting on their own for awhile, and are proof that they can be good hunting birds. My red-tails name is Ella, and she will be a year old this upcoming spring. She hunted the small game season up until March 31st, and then I began fattening her up for the molt so she can grow out her red feathers. As an immature bird, she has a brown tail, a dark brown belly band on her chest, and light eyes. As she molts into a mature red-tail this summer, she will grow a red-tail, her chest will become whiter, and her eyes will get darker. Once the hunting season starts again in September, I will re-train her some, and we will be hunting again.”
Ella is a beautiful red-tailed hawk with very large feet. Sarah explained that having large feet is a huge plus in the falconry world! Large feet are one of the signs to look for when trapping a new hunting partner. Birds with large feet can hold onto the smaller game well, and often their grasp will kill them instantly. Ella is very even-tempered and doesn’t rely on Sarah as her primary food source.
In falconry, the birds need to be taken out on a hunt about 6 times a week, weather permitting. Windy days and stormy days are generally avoided and area treated as days to recuperate. It’s very important to exercise and train your birds as much as possible. Interestingly, the female birds are larger. Immature birds are called “Passages” and the mature birds called “Haggards” Small game is hunted during the appropriate season, typically beginning in the fall and ending just before spring. Small game hunted includes squirrels, rabbits, and occasionally a pheasant. Other small animals have been harvested by birds of prey including opossums, snakes, and voles.
Sarah continued, “I grew up hunting rabbits and squirrels with my .22, but I have found more joy in hunting these animals with my red-tail. It is a more intimate bond because my bird has gained my trust, and she follows me from tree to tree as I beat brush and try to spook out rabbits or squirrels, and she is able to chase and hopefully connect, giving us a successful hunt. And if Ella doesn’t catch any game, it still is good for her to get out because it allows her to use her muscles, and get exercise as if she were out in the wild. I enjoy seeing my red-tail chase either game because she is a really good hunter. Ella follows me and is right with me if I was to spook something, but a lot of time as I’m walking through the woods, I may spook something way ahead of me that I may not see, but my bird will see it and will chase it. It is important to always make sure you know where your bird is in the woods and whether it’s down on the game or not. While hunting, our birds wear bells and a transmitter. The bells allow us to hear where our birds are, and if they go down on the game, we can hopefully locate the bird on the ground. The bird also wears a transmitter so if she was to fly further away towards an animal she saw in the distance or was to get bumped out by a resident red-tail, we would be able to track her down and locate her.”
(Ella with a rabbitbit kill)
Sarah walked me through the process of how to get started. (Although different states and regions will likely vary) “In order to get into falconry, you need to take a test through the Department of Natural Resources in your state. You must pass this test with a score of 80%. The next step is to find a sponsor. A sponsor is a person who has been a falconer for 4 years, and willing to teach you their ways of falconry and is there to answer questions. Once you find a sponsor, then you will build a mew, which is their hawk house. There are certain requirements for a mew such as windows and perches, and once the falconers’ mew is complete, the mew must be inspected by a game warden. Once the game warden passes you, then you are eligible to get your permit to trap. Here in Michigan, we have to pay $100 a year to maintain our license. Once all the big things are taken care of, then you can gather up the gear you need, and be tying nooses and making your trap, as anticipation of trapping begins. As an apprentice falconer, you are allowed to trap an immature red-tail or a kestrel (here in Michigan). Once you become a general, you are able to have different types of birds and more than one at a time. You then become a master falconer after 5 years. A lot of states require apprentices to have at least 12 months of experience (2 seasons) before they become a general. As a falconer, you can keep your bird however long you want. If your bird turns out to be a good hunter their first year, a lot of falconers will keep their bird the next season because the bird will be an even better hunter because it knows what to do. I knew a falconer who kept a bird for 21 seasons before he retired the bird back to the wild.”
Training a wild hawk sounds impressive and difficult. Sarah explained how to do it in a step by step fashion. “Like any other opening day, the start of trapping is a big day for the falconer. We have prepped all summer by locating where the immature red-tails are hanging out. As the big day finally comes, you will find all if not most of the falconers out trying to locate their bird. We create a trap called a BC, which is a style of a throw-able trap that can we throw out the window. It consists of some type of mesh that we can put gerbils or mice in, and then we tie nooses that are created from fishing line, and this traps the bird. A lot of times, the birds will be sitting on telephone poles or trees close to the high way, so this allows us to drive past them, pull our binoculars out, and identify whether an immature or a mature red-tail. Once we identify that it’s an immature bird, we throw out the trap, drive and turn around, and a lot of time once you turn around, the bird will already be on the trap. We wait for the bird to dance a little on the trap, and once it tries to fly away and can’t, that’s when we go in and get the bird off the trap. We inspect it to see if it’s healthy and if it’s a bird that we want to keep.
“Once we determine that it’s a bird we want, we then put equipment on the bird, and sit with it right away so the bird can know that we aren’t here to hurt it. The goal is for the bird to eat from us, and the earlier the better. Once the bird has eaten off the glove, we then continue this for a few days, gaining the birds’ trust. After the bird gets used to feeding off the glove, we then do jump-ups. These consist of jump ups where the bird is lower than the falconer, and the bird has to jump up to its food. A few of these, and then we move to tidbits, which is training with little bits of meat. This allows us to call our birds down to us while hunting and we reward them with tidbits, then we move on to creance training. This is where the bird is tethered to a rope and the bird flies anywhere from 50-100 yards in an instant. The goal here is for the bird to be hungry and to come to the falconer with no hesitation. Some days the bird may be too fat and may not respond to come right away, and this lets the falconer know that the bird needs to lower its weight. The whole objective for falconry is based on weight management. Our goal as Falconer is to find that weight that the bird will respond too. If the bird is too heavy, the bird will not be interested in hunting or flying and will just sit like a bump on a log. Once the bird does well with creance training by flying right to the falconer, we then know it’s time for the birds’ first free flight.” The idea of a chubby hawk made me laugh. I had no idea that a bird could eat enough to make it weigh too much to fly.
Sarah continued to explain the training, “We then train the bird to come to the lure. This is a big piece of meat that is used in an emergency. This consists of a big meal indicating that the bird will come down. Sometimes a resident bird may come into the hunting area and your bird may not like it, or the bird could be aggressive, or something else could go wrong, that the lure is our safety net. The lure is also used if the hunt was unsuccessful and we have to call our bird down after a hunt. We then throw out the lure, and our bird is rewarded for its efforts. Also, a lot of falconers birds catch game after each and every hunt, and then the lure is used for a trade off to get their bird off the kill and onto the lure so the fresh kill can be placed in our vests and stored away for a later time for food. This is when the bird is not connected to the falconer in anyway. The bird is perched and could fly away at any time, but the goal is for the bird to come instantly. This is always a scary time for the falconer because this shows whether our training has paid off or not. Once the bird comes to the falconer, with it being free, we then know we are ready for hunting.
“Training takes between 3-5 weeks, depending on the attitude of the bird. Falconry is based off rewards. Like dogs, the birds come to us because of food. We reward them for their training, their work, their trust. And there are times that we don’t reward them because of bad behavior. Myself, as a falconer, I have a whistle that I blow that indicates that I have tidbits, or that I’m calling my bird to me. I also use a whistle to indicate to my bird that I am calling her to the lure. This is a long blow, and often times the bird sees me get the lure out before I blow, and the bird is already on her way to me. Once the bird lands on the lure, I then go and clip her in and attach her back to her rope. If I wasn’t to attach to her to me, and she was to eat the lure and fly back into a tree, she would be too heavy and wouldn’t come down to me. I would have to wait overnight and try and go back and get her in the morning. Generally, red-tails stay in the same area overnight. She would burn off energy overnight, and would be hungry enough to come down to food in the morning.”
Sarah said that often landowners will ask her to come onto their land and will join in on a hunt, happy to see pest species like rabbit and squirrel numbers toned down. It’s important to hunt from several different areas and to rotate frequently. This helps to ensure that prey numbers are sufficient and that the prey doesn’t get too used to having such a skilled predator right at their doorstep. Frozen food is used also. Hunters will keep frozen food on hand to supplement during the offseason. Also, some hunters will take the kill, give the bird a reward, and save the harvested animal for food during the offseason. This provides essential nutrients that help the bird plump up and molt during the offseason.
Falconry is a beautiful partnership that is beneficial to both sides. As a hunter, you benefit from the experience and the superior hunting skills of your bird. And the bird benefits too because you are helping to train him to be a better hunter. Up to 80% of red-tails don’t make it during their first year in the wild, so keeping a bird for a couple of seasons is an excellent way of helping nurture the population and providing healthy mature birds to repopulate. Some falconers release their bird after each year, some after two, and some keep their birds up to 20 years. “Each bird has their own attitude and will react to things differently, whether towards colors, or other birds. They may pick up on things they don’t like. I have a falconry friend whose bird is extremely picky and wont hunt with men who have beards. The bird seems to fly away when he is near or when he out hunting with them.”
“The bird itself is very intelligent and it shows while out in the field. The bird follows well and stays with me as I’m pushing game, and a lot of time, the bird sees the game before I see it. As falconers, we have a game call that we say when we spook game, “Ho, Ho, Ho”. And the bird responds and moves up if needed, or chases.” Falconers listen for the squeal of the rabbit to know that the bird has managed to make a catch! “Once the bird itself has caught a rabbit or a squirrel, it’s our job as falconers to run and dispatch the game immediately. The squirrel can do damage to the birds’ talons or body so it is important that we kill it fast and humanely.”
A lot is involved in having a hawk as a hunting partner: daily weigh in, almost daily hunting, daily feeding, cleaning the mew, sitting a minimum of an hour each day with the bird to gain trust, etc. Sarah says “It’s a great hobby but it is a big, big responsibility!” It is a little pricey to begin with. Constructing the mew, the fencing for the weather yard, hoods, jesses, anklets, receiver, transmitter, permits, frozen food, etc – but the bond with the bird is priceless and is an investment into conservation and wise wildlife management.
“You do develop a bond with your bird. It is a trust bond. I am out hunting with my bird, and she is free, up in the trees following me as I am the brush beater down below trying to flush out game. She can fly away from me at any given time, but she decides and continues to stay with me because I act as her mate. We are working together. It also is amazing to see a falconer, bird and dog work together. And the sport has allowed me to gain lifelong friends, and share the sport of kings that we all love so much.”
(Sarah Molnar and her hawk, Ella)
If you would like to follow Sarah and Ella on their hawking journey, check out her Instagram and give her a follow!