Wednesday, January 26, 2005

JOHN BLAKEMAN ON FALCONRY AND THE REDTAIL'S MIND

JOHN BLAKEMAN ON FALCONRY AND THE REDTAIL'S MIND


"You have a great ability to get inside the redtail's mind," I wrote in an admiring note to John Blakeman on 1/23. Here is part of his response:

About my perceptions of the red-tail's mind:

It's not so much a matter of profound perception as of the inordinate number of hours spent in the personal company of these birds.

Each of my fellow falconers shares most of these understandings. Because of my extensive field and captive breeding studies of red-tails, I have an additional understand of their ecology and the interplay of their mentality with the natural environment.

I'm not so personally excited about my ability to read the red-tail's mind. All humans who work with animals learn about them. It's nice, and contributes to my understanding of the hawk. But I hold in more precious regard my personal experiences with the bird. There are about 3000 licensed falconers in the US, and every one of us treasures both the opportunities and obligations we have in keeping wild hawks in our care and hunting with them. Because hawks and falcons are essentially non-social predators (unlike dogs), our trained hawks do not regard us as their "masters," nor do they respond to any of the usual controls of voice or deportment that a trained dog or horse might. A falconer must creatively attend to every need of the hawk, as its absolute servant, not its master in any way. Make any training or caring error and the hawk simply flies back into the wild given the first opportunity.

Every time I step into the field with my red-tail, Savanna, sitting free on my fist, I marvel just as I did when I first did it over 30 years ago, that the bird will fly free through the air, attempt to capture a fleeing rabbit, and either capture it and allow me to approach and retrieve the hawk, or I must stand there in the field and elevate my gloved fist with a piece of meat to cause the hawk to return after a missed hunting flight. The bird freely turns around and flies to my fist, lands, and then resumes her hunt.

Who else gets to observe a predator conducting its own hunt so closely and intimately? My mind is 12 inches from Savanna's, and during the hunt I see every movement she makes. I follow her eye, feel the tenseness in her clasping talons on my gloved fist as she thinks she sees a prey animal, and the swish of her wings brushes my face as she leaps off in pursuit. Who gets closer to a wild raptor than this? How could I not understand?

This unique relationship between men and hawks has been the core and motivation of falconry since its origin in China and Mesopotamia millennia ago. I am honored and privileged be able to be a modern falconer. I'm pleased to be able to share some of my perspectives with your cogent readership. They already grasp the regality of the red-tailed hawk. My thoughts merely expand them a bit.

Sincerely,

John A. Blakeman

Sunday, January 23, 2005

JOHN BLAKEMAN ON REDTAILS' SPECIAL NEST BEHAVIOR VIS-A-VIS PREY.

JOHN BLAKEMAN ON REDTAILS' SPECIAL NEST BEHAVIOR VIS-A-VIS PREY.

Marie,

A sincere question was raised about placing dead mice or other dietary enticements in the new nest structure, to prompt the pair’s return and re-use of the site. Inasmuch as red-tails normally select mice as their daily fare and consume them with unvarying delight, this approach would seem reasonable. For those of us lured to fine chocolate, we know what a red-tail might do to procure a nice warm mouse, as mice and voles are red-tail chocolates, for sure. I use mice in my red-tail traps when taking birds from the wild for banding and other licensed activities. A red-tail finds it very hard to resist such a choice morsel.

(And don't be alarmed about the licensed trapping of raptors. It’s nothing like the leg-hold traps used for fur-bearing mammals. A mouse is placed in a low cage with small nylon-cord snares along the top. The red-tail’s toes are ensnared as it attempts to grab the mouse inside the trap. Neither the mouse nor the hawk are injured in any way. The process is closely monitored and the hawk’s toes are released from the snares within a minute of capture. She’s not injured, only confused about her inability to fly away from the trap when I quickly approach. And don't even think of trying this yourself. Without proper state and federal permits, it’s absolutely illegal. Secondly, if you don't know how to properly handle a newly-trapped raptor, you are very likely to get a pair of needle-sharp talons buried completely through your hand or any other body part. This is not for the inexperienced.)

Yes, red-tails would be attracted to a fresh mouse, dead or alive. But here’s an important consideration regarding red-tail behavior at the nest. Away from the nest, at least a 100 yards in most cases, red-tails act like red-tails, as cunning and powerful hunters. When motivated, they will spare no effort in taking a targeted prey animal that presents itself before the hawk.

But in the vicinity and at the nest itself, red-tails assume very different behaviors, especially when a hen is sitting, or especially when eyasses are present. By nature, the species quickly grabs and pierces any prey that presents itself, not unlike what a domestic cat would do to a mouse that attempted to run within striking distance of some apartment-dwelling feline. Any carnivore that hesitates to attack in such situations is not going to survive in the wild. Consequently, a hungry red-tail, or one capturing food for eyasses back at the nest, will strike instantly and lethally when prey are closely available.

But how might those behaviors play out on the nest? What if a hungry red-tail landed on the nest rim, and an eyass or two were nodding off in an afternoon’s slumber. Then, an eyass awakes and pops it’s head up. If the adult were to follow it’s normal hunting patterns, it would instantly reach out and grab this new animal movement. The eyass would be killed. Any red-tail that had this natural, unrestrained pouncing behavior at the nest would kill its offspring. Raptorial child abuse of he worst sort. Fortunately, most of those genetic behaviors are now extinct.

To the point. Lola and Pale Male, like all successful red-tail parents, have an inborn restraint of hunting and killing behaviors at the nest. Those of us who have watched red-tails dive onto and kill either mice or rabbits are always astounded to observe their slow, considered, even delicate movements while at the nest. The adults often curl their talons underneath and walk with slow, deliberate steps on the nest, so as not to puncture an egg or young eyass. Likewise, the adults take inordinate care in pulling off tidbits of flesh from animals brought to the nest for the eyasses or incubating adult. I've watched my trained hunting red-tails rip apart food on my gloved fist hundreds of times. The strength and deliberateness of this is always impressive. But equally impressive is the converse delicacy with which they handle both prey and their feet on the nest, all to protect the eyasses.

Here’s the point about the advisability of offering mice or other food items to lure the birds back to the restored nest site. Because of the hunting and killing restraint behaviors the birds have at a nest, the offered food would not be an enticement. The adults would, indeed, recognize the mice as food. But since they didn't capture it at a distance away from the nest, it would not be regarded as quite natural. They would use it, but it wouldn't contribute in causing the birds to use the nestsite. The found food items just wouldn't connect with any of the bird’s experiences. The hawks would make no connection with the usability of the nestsite with the offered food. In short, red-tails don't capture food in a nest, and when they eat or offer it there, they do so with delicate restraint.

I've watched all of this in the captive pair of red-tails I used in captive-breeding trials back in the early ‘70's.

The fact that Pale Male and Lola have been seen periodically at the nest in recent weeks is an extremely strong indication that they will resume normal activities there. If they didn't like what they saw, they would not be visiting the site in early January, when there is little natural tendency to do so.

It’s still too early to be concerned. In my area of northern Ohio (same latitude as NYC), the third week of January is the meteorological low point of winter, with the statistically coldest weather. Soon, things will start to slowly warm (although it’s not increasing temperature, but increasing day-length that gets the breeding hormones flowing). Presently, it’s the depths of winter, so don't be concerned. Red-tail breeding is highly seasonal, and this am not the season, yet.

Just watch. Activity at the nest will take a marked upswing in February, just about the time that you personally notice that days are getting longer. You haven't noticed that yet, and neither have our famous pair. Spring training hasn't even started. It’s still winter. Be patient. Lola and Pale Male are.

It’s good that so many are thinking about, concerned with, and observing the world’s most famous red-tailed hawk pair. All is well. Let’s watch the pairs’ developing new chapter. Nest building will resume, I'm certain. All is naturally aligned.

Sincerely,

John A. Blakeman

Post Script:

When I sent John Blakeman the letter [sent to e-birds by Deslie Lawrence] suggesting a dead mouse be placed on Pale Male's nest site as an enticement, I mentioned that Pale Male and his clan do occasionally avail themselves of dead birds that have collided with a reflective glass window at the Metropolitan Museum. He also had some thoughts about that, which he sent in a sparate e-mail:

Marie,

I forgot to mention that RTs will, indeed, eat newly-deceased birds that have lethally collided with windows. As I mention so often, sitting RTs spend a lot of time surmising everything in the observed landscape, and they notice the feather wisps of dead birds. They also recognize the birds as both tasty and easily procured. I've noted that RTs take particular notice of both feathers and fur in the field. When hunting with my red-tail and we walk past a the kill site of a rabbit consumed by some other predator, my hawk always spots the remnant fur and wants to jump down onto the ground and see if it can find anything edible -- or catchable. The only hint are a few clumps of loose fur. She picks these out from the multitude of dead grass and leaves. Their eyes are primed for fur and feathers, whether they move or not.

Sincerely,

John A. Blakeman