Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Falconry in Portugal

The other day I had just left work when I saw two guys with hawks on their wrists heading for a field below the NATO base. I did a quick u-turn and parked on base, then hurried to the field.

I caught up with them and was relieved to find that they speak English.  I asked if they'd mind if I watched, and they made me feel welcome. They were glad to have an extra pair of feet walking the field, hoping I'd help flush rabbits for the hawks to strike.

We didn't stir up any rabbits, but they'd brought one in a cage, just in case. After we'd walked the field and the birds had flown a few times, they hooded them and handed me the smaller of the two (the male) and took the rabbit out. The son tied a slip knot in about 200 feet of thin cord and passed the loop over the hind leg of the rabbit, and then set him down on the ground. The father and I walked uphill from there. As we walked, he explained that the birds had been hatched in May, and they were the first birds he and his son had ever had. The birds were learning how to hunt, and they were learning how to teach them.

I was surprised that they'd had the birds as hatchlings. As I understand it, this isn't allowed in US falconry. There, you have to capture an adult or adolescent bird, and you can keep it for only a season or two before you have to release it. Breeding raptors is not permitted. Here though, you can raise a bird from a chick, and you can keep it for its entire 15 - 20 year life span. Apparently there is a village near the Spanish border that is famous for breeding birds of prey. People go there to watch falconry demonstrations and to buy birds. I hope to visit there sometime soon.

As we walked uphill, the bird sat placidly on my wrist, his talons clamped onto the thick leather glove I wore. The father, Miguel, took a moment to show me the bird's talons. Not only do they come to deadly point, but the inside curves leading down to those points are as sharp as razors. They are very finely serrated, and the bird can put a great deal of pressure behind those tiny blades. There is nothing better for puncturing and cutting meat. Miguel showed me this as a warning. When you hold one of these birds, those talons are the point of contact between the two of you, and they can do a lot of damage if you let them.

When we got to the top of the rise that marks the edge of the field, Miguel told me to unhood the hawk I carried. I brought my left elbow in close to my ribcage, bringing the bird close, but keeping him pointed away from me, and then took one of the the leather straps on the hood between my teeth, as I had seen others do. I pulled loose the gatherings at the back of the hood and pulled it forward, rolling it down past that sharply hooked beak. The hawk blinked, regarded me briefly through wide, black eyes, and flapped, trying to lift off. I had the leather jesse looped around my middle finger though, so he had nowhere to go, and after a moment, he settled down.

Meanwhile, downhill from us, the son, Bernardo, was now a couple hundred feet from where the unsuspecting rabbit sat in the thick clover. At a sign from Miguel, Bernardo gave a sharp tug on the leash, and the rabbit jumped, a flash of white belly fur showing briefly against the deep green. My hawk showed only mild interest at the sight. Bernardo yanked again, and again the rabbit leaped, this time giving out that terrible shriek that rabbits sometimes give. If you've heard that sound you know what I'm talking about. It's unforgettable. Unforgettable or not though, my hawk did not find it particularly inspiring, so after a couple more tries, Miguel said that it was the female's turn.

To give the male a better view, and to keep them separate while the female hunted, I took the male down close to the rabbit. I double checked that his jesse was tight, keeping his foot drawn down firmly onto my glove, so that he would not try to fly when the rabbit jumped this time. Miguel waved to Bernardo, holding the female up high to give her the best possible view, and letting her jesse dangle freely so she could fly. Bernardo gave a tug on the line, the rabbit jumped, and obliged us further by making a short run. The female, the more aggressive of the two birds, needed no further inducement. She left Miguel's wrist and covered the several hundred feet in just seconds, the brass bell tied to her leg jingling pleasantly. She wasted no time gaining altitude and diving, as I thought she would, but dropped to the rabbit from a height of only about three feet.

While she needed no encouragement to hunt, she did need work on her timing, touching down just behind her intended victim. The hapless rabbit, unaware that it was being stalked by winged death, ended its short run and began unconcernedly sniffing at the clover, just a yard from the hawk. The bird started ambling over to the rabbit, and would have attacked it afoot, had Bernardo not quickly grabbed her jess and taken her on his glove. She was not pleased at being interrupted, and she flapped angrily on his wrist, trying to get to the rabbit. Miguel, who had been running down the hill since she left his wrist, took her back, leaving Bernardo to, once again, pace off the length of the rabbit's leash.

We repeated the drill, and this time she made a successful strike. Again, she never climbed more than about a yard above the ground, but even at some distance, I could hear the force with which she struck the rabbit. When she gets bigger and faster, she'll strike from higher, and sometimes with enough force to break her victim's spine. This time though, the strike was not lethal, and the rabbit screamed as she tore at it with beak and talons. Bernardo quickly dispatched it with a knife, so that it would suffer as little as possible.

Miguel allowed the female a few moments alone with her kill, which she protected from her brother's desirous gaze with hooded wings. After she had eaten a few pieces, Miguel cut a hind leg off and covered it in blood from the chest cavity. He used the leg to hold her interest, and draw her to his wrist, where he allowed her to feed herself from the leg as he held it for her. At the same time, Bernardo gutted the rabbit and again walked away to the end of the leash.

All this time, the male had been watching with interest, and as he smelled blood and watched his sister feed, he became more and more agitated. Now, at a signal from Bernardo, I dropped his jesse, and Bernardo began to run, towing the rabbit carcass after him. The male required three attempts to get his timing right, finally making a successful strike just as the last of the light was fading from the evening sky. As we had with his sister, we let him feed himself for a few moments before drawing him to my wrist with the other hind leg. The idea behind all of this is to reward the bird for making a "kill" while at the same time helping him grow accustomed to feeding at the glove, and associating the glove with the reward for a successful hunt. Miguel told me that their particular breed of hawk is considered a beginner's bird because they are quick learners, forgiving of bad habits, and not as independently minded as some other birds. After Christmas, he said he'd give me a call and we'd take the birds hunting again. I'll take Zach with me next time. He's looking forward to seeing the birds, and it's a great opportunity to see parts of Portugal that we might not otherwise.

In the mean time, Miguel has promised to send me some pictures he took that afternoon.  I'll post them when he does.


Anonymous said...

Happy New Year Steven! Blessings and good tidings this year.


Eric Dondero said...

I've been to the Azores, and Lisbon in the Navy.

Speak moderately fluent Portuguese.

Muitio obrigado.

Ate logo...

Steven Givler said...

muito bom! Você fala português muito!