JWN Arts & Hawking 

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Aplomado Falcons
copyright Jim Nelson, 2017

Aplomado Falcons: 

Their History, Hawking, and Husbandry

Introductions, of Several Kinds

            This publication speaks to the history (both natural history, and falconry lore), training, hawking, daily management, and breeding of aplomado falcons (Falco femoralis), with emphasis on those taken into training without previously being tamed or handled to any degree, "the ramager".

              The aplomado was known to falconers as the “alethe” or “aleto” during The Renaissance period in Europe, and it is known as “perdiguero” (meaning “partridge hawk”) or aplomado in South America.  Only after American austringer and author of the Desert Hawking series, Harry McElroy, moved to Peru (then, later, Mexico) in the 1980’s and flew aplomados there for falconry, reporting his observations on their behavior in several articles published in the North American Falconers’ Association newsletter, Hawk Chalk, did modern American falconers begin to pay the aplomado serious attention. 

          As one of those American falconers, McElroy’s articles coincided with my own personal journey to identify, with certainty, the mysterious falconry bird of the Renaissance, “l’Alethe.”  Having lived and hawked extensively in the grey-partridge country of the Inland Empire region of Washington State, and having also lived and traveled about in Mexico, my personal experiences with both the temperate grey partridge as well as neo-tropical falcons and their habitat and habits, led me to believe that previous attempts to identify l’Alethe were in error.  Upon reading McElroy’s observations on the aplomado, I knew Harry was describing the original alethe without intending to do so. I became determined to prove my hypothesis through importing aplomados to the U.S. where I could train them for flights on grey partridge. I believed the grey partridge (or Hungarian partridge to many) represented the truest gauge of the authentic alethe-of-old’s “high mettle” stature.


Meanwhile, back in Peru, a young boy named Raul Ramirez was growing up as many falconers do, hanging around the facilities of more experienced falconers and sponging in everything he could. During this time, Ramirez was taken under the wing of his influential mentor, Jose Antonio Ortero Corbetto.  At Jose Antonio’s vast raptor breeding facility, Raul met other falconry mentors, including the eminent Peruvian falconer, Oscar Beingolea. Through Oscar and others, Raul heard legends of an American falconer, Harry, who had lived in Peru years before and had influenced the practice of so many Peruvian falconers at that time.  During this time, Ramirez also had opportunities to handle aplomado falcons, and, of particular significance to this book, the passager.

By now, the indefatigable Doug Alton had established a breeding center in Mexico City with 5 pairs of aplomados; but, he soon discovered the futility of trying to import the septentrionalis subspecies to the U. S. Having by now connected with me (paperwork in my hands), Doug made a near continent-wide search of South America, first attempting to set up a breeding project in Argentina, but ultimately establishing a relationship with Jose Antonio Ortero Corbetto in Peru. It was through Corbetto that Alton (and through Alton that I) received the seed stock of what was to become the dominant population of falconry aplomados in the United States during the first two decades of the 21st century.  I remained close with McElroy throughout, and Harry generously supported my efforts, both financially and with pivotal advice.  In exchange, McElroy received a series of loaned aplomados, which he readied for breeding in my facility by first training and hunting them in the field. McElroy focused his own hawking efforts on desert quail (primarily Gambell’s) from horseback aided by an amazingly well coordinated pack of hunting dogs. McElroy caught hundreds of quail in this manner, which provided much fodder for publishing his Desert Hawking IV: Quail.

After Alton’s initial successful rounds of importing 7 pairs of “Peruvian aplomado falcons,” I continued his work by securing another 13 pairs in an effort to outcross the available genetics as much as possible. I, too, readied breeding stock through falconry training, and thusly became the first falconer in over 400 years to document the catching of a wild grey partridge in fair flight with a female aplomado falcon, “‘04 Crying Out Loud,” then repeated that success again with a second female, “Cuvee," thus proving for myself, and to many others, that my alethe hypothesis was indeed supportable and correct.

            In perhaps an inevitable collision of people, circumstances, and events, the effort to establish aplomados in the U.S. led to the eventual inclusion of Raul Ramirez, whose mother, Carmen, had married an American and moved with Raul to Arkansas. Over time, Ramirez became aware that his favorite raptor, the aplomado falcon, was being bred in the US and was available in small numbers.  With no money in the bank, Ramirez contacted me to ask if he could purchase a pair using installment payments. At first, I dismissed the youthful Raul as an idle dreamer and possible scam artist.  It was only after the 23-year old obtained a private loan and purchased a pair aplomados from me outright that I realized the level intensity and commitment emanating from this young Peruvian upstart. 

       Shortly afterward, I went into a business partnership with a local blueberry farmer/falconer to form the American Bird Abatement Service (aka ABAS). Needing a breeder/manager/trainer, I remembered the persistence and commitment of young Ramirez and offered him the job. Recognizing real opportunity, Raul quit working as a welder in Osceola, packed all his belongings (most of it falconry gear) into his 4-wheel drive SUV, placed it on a truck and shipped it overland to Washington State. Raul and I met and shook hands for the first time in January of 2008 in Kennewick, Washington. The rest, as they, say is history.

            This story, then, is the result of converging journeys; journeys that have brought the paths of a variety of travelers to an intersection of common passion and belief. 

Nature’s amazing phenomenon, the Aplomado Falcon

       The aplomado is a small- to medium-sized raptor (genus Falco) inhabiting open, arid landscapes in the southwestern region of the United States and continuing in its proper habitat throughout Mexico, Central and South America. There are three subspecies, but only one, F. f. sepdenrionalis, is indigenous to the United States. The other two, F. f. femoralis and F. f. pichinchae, populate the western hemisphere south of the Panama Canal. 

        The pichinchae subspecies became important to North American falconry because, initially, through captive breeding, it was only aplomado subspecies available for falconry in the U.S. for nearly two decades. Efforts by the Peregrine Fund had been ongoing for nearly three decades to re-establish the endangered Northern aplomado back into the wild in several southwestern states.  In December of 2013, the P-Fund relinquished it ownership of it’s septentrionalis stock to private hands and the Northern aplomado was at last made available to be handled and flown for falconry.

       Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to step back in time. 

       During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a raptor matching the description of the aplomado, in plumage and hunting behavior, was exported from the New World and became popular amongst European nobility of the Renaissance Era as an excellent partridge-catching falcon. The Spanish called it “aleto” and the French, “l’alethe.”  These names translated to “full blooded” or “valiant.” A literary debate emerged amongst twentieth-century falconry authors championing various other raptor species that superficially resembled descriptions of the alethe. The front-running candidates were Falco deiroleucus, the orange-breasted falcon (Ruttledge, 1955); and Micrastur semitorquatus, the collared forest falcon (Rivera, 1986). However, given updated information on its hunting capabilities, falconers now generally agree the modern aplomado was indeed the medieval alethe (Nelson, 1995).  To learn more about this fascinating piece of falconry history, open the webpage above entitled "l'Alethe Reborn."

            The aplomado falcon is a bird of rare beauty. Their un-patterned dark-colored back ranges from charcoal, in Peruvian immatures, to slate, in northern adults. It is this dull metallic-colored dorsum, some believe, which gave rise to the species’ currently used Spanish name “aplomado,” presumably translating to “the lead-colored falcon.” (More on this notion later, which I believe to be dead wrong and will state my reasons for thinking so.) A distinct light-grey (almost white) line runs laterally across the center of the wing at the outside of the secondaries, visible when the bird is viewed from behind with wings closed.  Underneath, the immature appears a rich cinnamon buff from the under-tail coverts all the way up through the eye-stripes. Adults retain the cinnamon color on their bellies and flanks, but this typically fades to beige at the chest and then to white at the throat, face and eye-stripes.  Some Peruvian adults retain the solid cinnamon under-color of the immature and--in some individuals--the belly, breast, and eye-stripes seem to irridesce a brilliant orange, observable only at certain angles in direct sunlight. Across the flanks and abdomen, the aplomado is usually adorned with a distinct dark band. This appears as a heavily mottling in femoralis juveniles, a broken or complete “bow tie” or “butterfly” in the pichinchaes; and, in individual pichinchae and septedrionalis birds, it might be described as an “up-side-down crescent” (d’Darcussia, 1640).

        The aplomado is primarily a bird catcher. However, it may be observed catching other ground prey, such as lizards and rodents, and is known to frequent grass fires, where it actively hunts insects flushed into the air by the oncoming blaze. It is this insectivorous behavior--coupled with its slender flight-silhouette and thin malar stripe-- that gave rise to the misguided notion that aplomados were simply giant kestrels.  In fact, the aplomado falcon is an aggressive hunter of birds, though its penchant for insect snacks can become a nuisance when hunting with them in late summer and early fall, especially in warm southern climes. In the cold northern states, insects in the field become all but irrelevant after the first good frost.

The aplomado stands as an enigma amongst the genus Falco. Like all true falcons, it has dark eyes, baffled nares, a “toothed” upper mandible, and a “long winged” flight silhouette. Unlike its larger relatives, it has a long tail and a very light wingload. A large female aplomado may hunt at only 12 ounces, whereas a small male peregrine, which may look to be the same size, is likely to weigh 17 ounces or more. The extra quarter pound gives the more compact peregrine a significantly heavier wingload, and thus greater stooping speed and impact force. The build of the aplomado is distinctly acciptrine, and the phylogeny of this species indicates its closest ally to be the New Zealand falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae), another true falcon sharing the aplomado’s accipitrine build and behaviors.

        From a standing start, aplomados accelerate swiftly. In a relatively short distance they overtake quail; and, if properly motivated, keep pace—or nearly so--with mourning doves and Hungarian partridge. However, they significantly lag behind healthy adult duck and pigeons once these fleet-winged quarry birds are under full steam, though given the right circumstances the aplomado can still bring both to bag.  Like all raptors, aplomados can swoop steeply downward when required to do so, but they do not possess the pummeling force of their larger kin, the peregrine and allies. Aplomados rely instead on rapid, dogged pursuit, coupled with inordinate ability (for a falcon) on ground and in cover. The aplomado is neither typical longwing nor typical shortwing. It occupies a unique intermediary niche. It is the alethe, and as such holds a singular place of its own.

       As natural creatures, aplomados are social and remain year round in pairs, hunting cooperatively. Like the Harris’ hawk, this social bent makes falconry with aplomado a supreme delight, because aplomados not only accept humans and dogs as hunting partners, but seem “wired’ to cooperate and swiftly adapt to a wide variety of hunting scenarios. In the wild, during the hunt, the more delicate and aerial males intimidate prey birds, “pinning” them into cover. Rough-and-tumble females go in for the kill. Birds make up the majority of the aplomado’s diet. Prey species are listed from small passerines to medium-sized birds such as meadowlarks, doves, quail, small parrots, grackles, and numerous other similarly sized species. Larger birds, such as thick knees, roadrunners, ibises, and small gulls have also been recorded as incidental natural prey species. Under falconry conditions in South America and the United States, aplomados have regularly captured tinnamous and feral pigeon. They predictably chase birds much larger than themselves, such a pheasants and duck, and may occasionally bring one to bag.

      The aplomado falcon--or l’alethe, if you will--represents a singular place in the world of modern falconry. For all the “advancements” in captive breeding and hybridizing, nature has long ago wrought what man cannot create: a falcon with the grace and beauty of a peregrine; the swiftness of a merlin; the doggedness of a gyr; the social nature and flexible feathers of a Harris’ hawk; the explosiveness of an accipiter; and the heart of a lion.  Herein, we will look at this wonderful creature, taken in it wildest form, the ramager.  Whether a true passager or a captive-bred bird that grew to penning without interacting with humans in a significant way, the wild-hearted ramager will require a different beginning in its falconry career, and will forever after hold a different place in both the falconer’s mews and heart.