Rusty’s End of Season

Sunday the 19th was the last day in the 2005-2006 hunting season for rabbits. So Nick Matzke and I went with Rusty to check out a spot that Diane and I had visited before.

I was aiming to arrive about an hour before sunset. Rabbits tend to get active as night approaches, so I figured that we would spend some time just hanging out with Rusty until things — that is, rabbits — got hopping.

Nick arrived at my house late in the afternoon. I had my car packed and set to go. Rusty’s travel crate is a modified dog crate, and while it fit into the back seat of the Buick Century, it was a pretty tight fit. I had the telemetry receiver in, and Rusty’s transmitter was turned on. I had hunting pockets for Nick and I, and tidbits for Rusty, and a couple of pieces of rabbit. The meat went into a small cooler, along with a few soft drinks. So Nick parked his truck, got into my car, and we were off.

We arrived at the site at about 5:15. Sunset was about an hour away, so that worked out nicely. I went and visited the property owner to ask permission to hunt. I had with me some 4×6″ prints of pictures from the last time we visited, including one of the owner with Rusty, plus three CDs with the picture files from that earlier visit. We chatted a little, and he said it was fine with him, so I went back to the car and starting preparing stuff.

I wore the backpack frame and a set of pockets. Nick took a set of pockets and also carried the telemetry receiver. I pulled Rusty’s crate out and put it on the roof of the Buick. I suggested to Nick to stand to the side as Rusty came out. She immediately went to the top of a nearby tree and perched. We hung out for a few minutes. Then Nick and I walked across part of the field, and Rusty flew ahead of us, perching on a fence. As she was perching, a rabbit busted out of cover and ran across the road. Rusty apparently had not noticed the rabbit.

About that time, our attention was diverted as a group of skydivers were making their landings across the road. Some of the approaches looked like the sort you get only after having had a bunch of training and practice. So when we turned back around, of course Rusty was no longer in her former position on the fence. While we were scanning around and starting to deploy the receiver, we saw Rusty go up from the ground to get a perch in a tree. We headed over to join her.

We got near where she was, and in a couple of minutes, Rusty spotted something and flew with that quick wingbeat that says, “Harris hawk with business in mind”. She missed, and while she was getting a perch in a bush nearby, we saw three rabbits depart the vicinity besides the one she had made a try for.

We did a fair bit more walking, but after another twenty minutes or so, we were back near that same bush. Another rabbit broke cover, and this time Rusty was able to catch up in about a fifty foot tail chase. I was able to make in easily and offer Rusty one of the pieces of rabbit in exchange for the whole rabbit she had just caught. So with Rusty enjoying the “fast food”, we headed back to the car. Once Rusty was in her crate back in the car and we had put away the various bits of gear, we saw that another plane-load of skydivers was taking off. The sun was just setting at that point, and we decided to stick around to watch the skydivers. It took maybe fifteen minutes for the plane to reach altitude. We didn’t know whether we’d be able to make out the skydivers as they jumped, but it turned out we could just resolve resolve them as tiny black dots against the deepening blue sky. Soon after, they deployed their chutes, which made them easier to spot.

There’s a small pond that the skydivers used, coming down such that they would skim across the surface of the water, and then step to a halt on the bank of the pond. We saw several skydivers in this batch who made that sort of landing, with just one of them bobbling a bit and getting more than his legs wet. With all the skydivers down, we headed back to my house.

While we kept an eye out for a Subway sandwich shop, we didn’t manage to find one, so instead decided simply to fix a frozen pizza. I got Rusty back to her mew, where she looked as smug as only a Harris hawk with a full crop can. Nick and I watched a couple of episodes of “Firefly”, as Nick is getting acquainted with the series now.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

9 thoughts on “Rusty’s End of Season

  • 2006/03/20 at 6:19 pm
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    How do Rusty and her friends get their exercise when it’s not hunting season? And what sort of shelter do trained hawks require?

  • 2006/03/21 at 3:01 am
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    We can fly them to the lure, a vaguely bird-shaped thing made of leather on a line. It’s pretty easy to get them panting in going for that. We can also do “jump-ups”, where in feeding the hawk, a small piece of food is given on a variable schedule when the hawk flies up to the glove from the ground. This is similar in effect to what stair-climbing does for people.

    There are some guidelines given in the federal and state regulations for falconry mews concerning square footage per hawk and some non-obvious details like window bars being oriented vertically. Basically, Rusty has a 10x10x8′ mew that protects her from inclement weather and keeps out unwanted intruders. Well, I recall one evening in San Diego when I was in the midst of a flare-up of my ulcerative colitis, and was lying in bed. The mew there was just outside the bedroom window. I heard a ripping sound, went to the window, and saw a shadowy figure by the mew. I introduced myself with, “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?” at the top of my voice, and he ran, jumped the back fence, and was gone. Mews are not generally proof against drunk guys with knives, and this one had sliced a section of netting to get in. I’m just glad that I happened to be where I could hear the sound of the knife going through the netting, because neither of the hawks made a sound. They will make noise if there is something like a raccoon or possum in the yard, but people are a different category. From time to time, I have had to convince a raccoon or possum that there must be other, better places to scavenge than my backyard. Where we are now, I regularly hear great horned owls at night, so I really don’t want any hawk out out of the mew overnight around here.

  • 2006/03/21 at 3:16 am
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    And there are other seasons, too. Rabbit season is done until sometime in August, but jackrabbits are open year-round, no limit. Which doesn’t really matter that much, since Rusty has only ever caught two of them. Rodents are also open year-round (tree squirrels have a specified season and flying squirrels are excluded).

    Sometime over summer, though, a couple of months are needed for Rusty to molt and acquire her new feathers. During that time, not much will be done with her. She needs to be a bit heavier than works for having her free-fly, since growing feathers is metabolically demanding. Also, new feathers can be stressed by serious flying, so we don’t make her do much during that time.

  • 2006/03/22 at 12:14 am
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    Interesting! Thanks for that. How does Rusty get along with your dogs?

  • 2006/03/22 at 2:10 am
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    Rusty tolerates the dogs pretty well when we are actually in the field. Otherwise, she will scream at them and otherwise indicate that there’s no reason for us to keep “coyotes” around the house. This seems to be like many other passage-trapped Harris hawks; they seem to come with a strong anti-dog bias that isn’t very pronounced in captive-bred birds. When picking out a dog, we knew it would have to be a pointer. We had already tried hunting Rusty with other people’s dogs, and Rusty refused to do anything over setters or retrievers, but did indicate some willingness to work with pointers. We ended up with Vizslas, a breed with some of the charming behavioral traits of golden retrievers, plus the breeding to hunt fur and feather in partnership with hawks. And short hair.

  • 2006/03/22 at 9:00 pm
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    DO you mean the Vizslas were bred to hunt with hawks?

  • 2006/03/23 at 1:26 am
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    Exactly. It’s one of the few breeds of dogs whose history includes a specific association with falconry.

  • 2006/03/23 at 11:36 am
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    Why do birds molt? I’m wondering why something like that would evolve.

  • 2006/03/23 at 2:55 pm
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    Feathers are not live tissue, and can’t regenerate. So accumulated wear and tear will eventually cause feathers to be less and less effective. Occasional replacement of old, worn-out feathers with new ones is a good thing. Why have a molt, where there is a time when most of the turnover happens? That’s a bit tougher. It would seem that continual partial replacement could be a good strategy. But perhaps triggering feather loss and replacement is more of a systemic response. I think that we have a generic avian biology book somewhere packed away; I will try to look for that.

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