Photo Gallery: Deputy Editor Anthony Licata Goes Hunting with Hawks

hunting pheasants with hawks

hunting pheasants with hawks

Hunting with birds of prey is an ancient sport, but it's also completely foreign to most American outdoorsmen. There's a reason for this; becoming a licensed falconer is a two-year process, involving an apprenticeship, tests, and many other requirements. And America doesn't have strong ties to the sport historically; it's not as easy to meet other falconers. But one place you can get an introduction to hunting with hawks is at the American branch of the British School of Falconry, located at the Equinox Resort in Manchester Village, Vermont. It's the first school of its kind in the United States. I visited last August.Anthony Licata
hunting pheasants with hawks

hunting pheasants with hawks

Harris hawk young sometimes stay with their families for up to three years in order to help raise subsequent broods and help out in cooperative hunts. Guests at the Equinox get to handle and observe trained hawks in action on training walks and in actual hunts. The school uses Harris hawks, a small, gregarious bird native to the American Southwest. In the school's experience, these hawks are calm and have shown more tolerance to being handled by different individuals--an important trait for a wild raptor expected to land on the gloved hand of someone who has never handled one before.Anthony Licata
hunting pheasants with hawks

hunting pheasants with hawks

A thick leather glove called a gauntlet protects the falconer's hand from the bird's sharp talons. In falconry, hawks are trained, but they are never tame. The birds have no loyalty to their human masters. There is no emotional connection. They do not like to be stroked. They return to their masters for one simple reason: hunger. The birds know that by following certain commands they will be rewarded with small morsels of fresh meat. Here a hawk drops from a perch and comes to the raised glove a falcolnry school instructor Rob Waite. Leather straps called jesses are fitted to the hawks' feet (you can see them in the photo above); these make handling a bird easier. Many modern falconers also attach radio tracking devices to their hawks' feet to aid in tracking down a wayward bird, although the goal is to make sure your hawk always comes back.Anthony Licata
hunting pheasants with hawks

hunting pheasants with hawks

The quarters where hawks are kept are called mews. Shown here is the scale and chart used to keep careful track of the birds' weight. In order to keep a hawk hungry enough to follow your commands, each bird is carefully weighed every day. Hawks have "full-¿ weights and a slightly lower "flying-¿ weights. If you overfeed a bird and take it out to fly just once, that bird will fly away and will not come back.Anthony Licata
hunting pheasants with hawks

hunting pheasants with hawks

After a few minutes of instruction, I was able to have a hawk land on my gloved fist. Most licensed falconers trap their hawks in the wild (only yearlings are legal to trap). This makes sense; mortality rates for first-year birds in the wild stand at nearly 70 percent, so trapping a yearling before the winter ensures that more birds will survive the season. And the training the trapped hawk receives helps it develop its hunting skills. After the hunting season ends in the spring, the falconer can release his hawk and it will quickly revert to a wild state.Anthony Licata
hunting pheasants with hawks

hunting pheasants with hawks

My first day at the Equinox consisted of general instruction in falconry and a "hawk walk,-¿ which was basically a hawk training session that let me see how the birds follow and work with a hunter. The second day I went on an actual hunt at a nearby pheasant preserve with Darren Lemieux and his pointer. With two hawks, Sprint and Moet, following, we worked through the woods towards a brushy field. Bells on the hawks' feet helped us keep track of them as they flew from tree to tree.Anthony Licata
hunting pheasants with hawks

hunting pheasants with hawks

Hawks shield their kills with their wings and tails, a behavior called mantling that in the wild helps them keep their hard-earned food from being stolen. It didn't take long for the hawks to spot game, and it happened before Lemieux, the dog, or I even sniffed a pheasant. We heard a rustling in the leaves and looked over just in time to see Sprint weave through the branches and then dive hard into the ground. When we got there he stood over the first pheasant of the day.Anthony Licata
hunting pheasants with hawks

hunting pheasants with hawks

The average Harris hawk weighs between 1 and 2 pounds, but they have no trouble dispatching a cock pheasant, which can weigh more than 5 pounds. The hawks are allowed to pick feathers off the bird, but only until they start to break into its skin. This is their reward for the kill. They are not allowed to eat, because if they ate they wouldn't hunt. After a few moments, the handler distracts the hawk with a small morel of meat and puts the game in his bag. The hawk is then lifted by hand and thrown back into the air, which is called "casting.-¿ Only licensed falconers are allowed to cast a bird during a hunt, so I just watched. We started working the field, Lemieux and I following the dog, the two hawks perching in trees on the edge of the clearing where they could watch the dog. Harris hawks are the only birds of prey in the world that hunt communally, like wolves do. It wasn't long before I saw this in practice.Anthony Licata
hunting pheasants with hawks

hunting pheasants with hawks

When both hawks cooperate, they're allowed to pick at the same kill. The dog went on point at a brush pile and the hawks immediately knew what it meant. They flew to perch in trees closer to the dog as we moved in to find the bird. At the flush, both hawks took off, flying hard on the tail of a hen pheasant. When she tried to turn into the trees, Moet caught her, slamming her with her talons in a cloud of feathers.Anthony Licata
hunting pheasants with hawks

hunting pheasants with hawks

Lemiux pulling Sprint and Moet off a kill. Our last kill of the day was a pheasant that flushed from a hedgerow and flew to the woods for safety. Sprint chased the bird down, making it look easy, but kills are far from guaranteed. Prey often gets away if the hawk is in a bad spot at the flush. And sometimes the hawks flub the strike. Another common prey for falconers, especially in wooded country, is gray squirrels, and in that game the rodents often race to their dens before the hawks can reach them.Anthony Licata
hunting pheasants with hawks

hunting pheasants with hawks

Darren Lemuix has been a falconer for nearly 10 years At the end of our hunt the hawks had taken three pheasants, and even though I was just an observer, it may have been the most fun pheasant hunt I've ever taken. When you watch a wild bird of prey work with a dog and a human to kill a pheasant, you realize again that hunting is an incredibly rich, diverse, and ancient sport. I liked it so much that I'm going back, this time with the rest of my upland hunting friends.Anthony Licata