JWN Arts & Hawking 

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Game Hawking With an Aplomado
copyright Jim Nelson, 2017

Game Hawking With the Ramage Alethe

       In North America, the most viable game bird flight with the aplomado will be on open-country quail. Premium flights on Hungarian (grey) and chukar-type partridges will certainly challenge the lucky few who can find these hardy game birds in good slip situations on a regular basis. Wide-open country (preferably level or gently sloping wide-spread hillsides), interspersed with patches or rows of reasonably penetrable cover, in conjunction with good dog work, will be the keys to success with gallinaceous quarry.  Jim Ingram and Juston and Cherie Stovall have consistently taken late-season wild pheasant with their aplomados. Feral pigeons provide a viable alternative for those living in vast open expanses where the pigeons are tied to specific locations, such a farm yards, or graineries. Dove and small duck can be pursued without the requirement of pointing dogs, but be prepared to follow with telemetry, and do not lollygag.  Magpies, where they can be pursued legally, are proving to be viable early in the season, though there is little documentation about the success rates on magpies during the later fall and winter months.

Testing Prey

      Both trained and wild aplomados “test” certain prey by making one or more charges at them. In general, the falcon locks in on prey that seeks refuge in cover while the tiercels continue the chase high into the air at passerines. Some tiercels have been clocked chasing into the sky at eight minutes and falcons may pursue dove for several miles. It is unusual to see falcons make extended flights up high, but many have been recorded pursuing both high and for an extended time.

       In Peru, falcons eagerly make dramatic flights at the red-breasted meadowlark, which may cover several hundred yards. In Mexico (and accidentally in the USA), the same flights are seen at northern meadowlark. Only a few are “tested” and rejected. I have witnessed three or four mourning doves tested by a trained falcon before one is selected and flown for miles. Testing sorties range from initiation up close, to charging outward after quarry far beyond human vision.

       Quail are pursued without testing. If the slip is from some distance, the hawk may gain altitude and pursue at a leisurely pace. If the slip is close, the hawk usually accelerates rapidly in an effort to overtake. My estimate is that this hawk flies 20% faster than most quail. Almost all quail are taken on the reflush, but every once in a while they attempt of out-fly the aplomado and are taken in the air. In one remarkable hunt in Mexico, a large group of us witnessed a quail fly quite high in the air on several slips and it was eventually taken at about 200 feet up. This was perhaps the most unusual series of slips I have seen in decades of quail hawking.

       With their innumerable variances of escape tactics, one can never really predict this small game bird. Fortunately, falcons seem well equipped to respond on the wing or in footing. Some are taken down holes, in the brush, inside pack rat dens, etc. The tiercels excel in the air and put on an impressive display turning, hovering and accelerating. It is little wonder that this species is such an effective bird-hawk in the open and in the bush when working in pairs. Some of my Mexican friends who have specialized with this raptor claim it is the quintessesential hawk. In the more open areas, that may very well be true.

Imprints Versus Passagers

        The difference between the eyass and passager is most dramatic in the first few months of hawking. The imprint starts out quite dependent and strongly attached to the falconer. It develops hunting skill rather slowly and makes a gradual shift from its attachment to the falconer to a love of a particular area. The tameness of this imprint is on the level of a hand-raised parrot. They scramble about on your arms, and shoulders; and one of their favorite perches is your head. Even though this hawk displays remarkable tameness, at some point it will become many times more fond of your company. Once this dramatic shift occurs, the hawk will seldom perch out of your sight in the field. Unless it is on prey or waiting for assistance in the reflush, it will stay relatively near or keep you in sight. The reason or nature of this dramatic change is difficult to comprehend and may occur within the first or second season. For the want of a better term, I call this close associating “bonding”.

        When comparing the aplomado falcon to other similarly sized raptor-athletes (such as the orange-breasted falcon or the gyr x merlin) one must factor in this bonding trait.  While other Falconinforme types may seem to out-compete the aplomado falcon in her predation niche, no other has the aplomado’s unconditional loyalty to the “team”. F. femoralis alone is “hard wired” to enthusiastically cooperate under falconry conditions.

        The passager is--as anyone might expect--more aloof than the imprint. After thirty days of taming and training, she follows along from various perches, but usually does not perch on the falconer. Before the passage is safe to fly free, she must be conditioned to tolerate the approach on small birds that are easily carried. This is no easy matter and should be given the required time to accomplish.

        This level of training with passagers involves a combination of trust and bonding. Once accomplished, aplomado falcons will likely cache small birds and, if not, will return after eating prey. However, if the bond is not formed, there is considerable risk in releasing for the hunt. The hawk may take a small bird, eat, and then depart. My suggestion is to use the Aranda training technique with the pick-up pole as a back-up. To repeat, two sparrows are carried to serve as live lures during the first month or two of training.

The Dove Hawk

        The falconer in possession of an aplomado that takes mourning dove is by all rights a proud being. Such a powerful raptor is not only exceptionally fast, but possessed of ungodly persistence. This requires a fast horse, open country and impressive telemetry. All of this may be more attractive to the younger generation; but, for my part, I prefer to live a less thrilling life. My preference is the aplomado at the opposite end of the spectrum…the individual that prefers to work in closely, with a penchant for quail.

        The free-flight system may net more slips and provide increased physical conditioning, but it also includes a share of risk. Some hawks follow along at some distance from the falconer, while others stay in close, just beyond arm’s reach. Thankfully, those who work in closely perch on the fist more often. A boon, because, as we all know, the number of hungry predators in the desert put us on edge when our falcons are absent without leave.

Hawking Hungarian Partridge and Feral Pigeons in Northern Winter Wheat

       In northern climes; the grey, or Hungarian, partridge (Perdix perdix) offers a supreme challenge to the aplomado’s hunting capabilities. Though similar in appearance to a quail, the “hun” is a significantly larger, heavier, faster, stronger, and a far more tenacious quarry bird. The breast muscles of this partridge are a rich red color, not unlike that of a pigeon, and so grey partridge have much greater staying power in flight than do their light-breasted relatives; the quail species, chukar, French red-legged partridge, and pheasant. One can clearly observe the superior speed of a sprinting aplomado as it overtakes a panicked quail, sometimes in a matter of just a few yards. Not so with the hun, who calmly blasts upslope at unbelievably steep angles, or races across a quarter mile of wide-open wheat stubble to beat the aplo to the cover of a distant farmyard. Partridges are equal to, and more often superior to, the speed of the aplomado. Therefore, if she lags she loses sight of her targets over the next rise.  Partridge sense this, and a fleeing covey under full steam will instantly drop into the stubble on the far side of the crest of a hill. The aplo, arriving on the scene only moments after the covey crested the hill is met with vistas of emptiness.  However, if the falconer hustles over and then runs the dogs on this downhill slope, chances are good the covey will be located and a reflush flight may ensue.

       Seek aplomado hun-slips in open, level areas interspersed with small patches or long, thin rows of brushy cover. Downslope flights over broad expanses of gently sloping but even-surfaced ground are a real treat because one can see all the action, and the falcon can see where the hun puts in, as it inevitably will with a conditioned and motivated alethe on its tail. Small islands or thin rows of penetrable cover that occur every 50 to 100 yards are a definite plus, because the partridge will seek to “put in”, giving the falconer a renewed opportunity to reposition the falcon for another in a series of flights that will eventually tire the quarry and give the falcon the upper hand. I have seen a number of partridge flights that have gone over three hundred yards over wide open ground when cover was not handy. These extended pursuits are a thrill to watch, but are also a challenge, because unless the flight ends up in a spot that one can quickly arrive at, it will be a long, slow trudge to get there cross country. And the hope of finding the partridge and reflushing it before it recovers its wind is a bleak one at best.

       Yet, to see a large covey of twenty or so “creaking” partridge burst upward from a rolling, golden ocean of wheat stubble stretching out before your setter’s point; and then feeling the deft, leap of the alethe from the glove and watching her slender orange-and-black form dash across the yellow field in hot pursuit of a small cloud of whirring mini-grouse, each the size of the falcon herself, is to experience one of this sports truly fine moments.

       Again, as with quail, a good pointing dog (better yet, a small pack of them) is a must for huns. Additionally, it is a distinct advantage to hood train a partridge-hunting alethe (not always an easy feat) because the best hun flights occur where it is not at all convenient for the aplomado to follow along, being better carried upon the fist, hooded, until the point is confirmed. Once a covey located, the alethe is flown directly from the fist and not required to wait on like a peregrine.

Because aplomados are so new to our falconry scene, much of what I know of partridge hawking is thanks to a single female. This bird had opportunities in the spring of her first year, and then again in the fall of her second, to pursue hun flights. Unfortunately, the better slips were located 2 and ½ hours away and could only be experienced sporadically.  Over the course of perhaps 20 outings, I witnessed a series of exceptionally good chases and inevitably brought a fair-caught hun to bag. In about one-third of the flights, the only reason the partridge escaped was due to our lack of ability to relocate and reflush the intimidated partridge, and not because the partridge outflew the aplomado. In another third, the partridges clearly beat the aplomado, but not by a very wide margin. And, as they can do when pursued by any other raptor as well, the last third “blew the doors” off  the alethe. Hungarian partridge are a serious force to be reckoned with.

        From a historical perspective, one must note that the alethe of old was flown in the temperate regions of Europe where the French red-legged partridge was the dominant game-bird species (a white-breasted, chukar-type, and somewhat less dynamic quarry-bird than the hun), and at a time where the table-top flat partridge-holding fields were ringed by narrow hedgerows in which hard pressed partridge would seek cover, only to be captured by the brush-crashing alethes. Here, in the often frigid wheat region of the Northwest, the dominant partridge is the dynamic hun, the terrain is hilly, and cover is either absent (resulting in sky-rocket flights by the partridge seeking cover far in the distance) or is present in such abundance that the quarry evaporates in a sea of sage brush or CRP grass. Which is to say, consistent achievement of success on partridge with an alethe in modern North America will require a combination of well chosen slips, temperate weather, and real canine fire power in the field.

        A side note: The French practitioner, Henri Desmont, who hunts both grey and red-legged partridge in France with large waiting-on falcons, floods the field with 5 wide-ranging English setters of the Grand Quet type.  This is in keeping of the tradition practiced by French falconers in day of the alethe—Chares D’Arcussia ran 6 epangnols (precursor to the modern Brittany) for his birds. The ability to locate quarry efficiently and keep the falcons’ interest with consistent action is paramount. Desmont also emphasizes the notion that partridge share the ability with other wild creatures under pressure of pursuit to be able to “withdraw” their scent. So, relocating partridge with dogs, even a small pack of them, canstill be challenging. 

        With this same female aplomado, I experienced a surprising number of successful flights at feral pigeons at the tail end of her first season. The feral pigeons, which spent their days eluding local wild falcons and accipiters, must have been bewildered by the aplomado who flew in the open air like a longwing, but then followed them right into shelter and bound to them there, like a hawk. All of the pigeon flights occurred on isolated farms surrounded by oceans of winter-wheat stubble, such that the flights were contained to the vicinity to the farm there being nowhere else for the pigeons to go.

In fair weather, feral pigeon flights showcased the aplomado’s versatility. There were ringing flights in open sky, some waiting on and “stooping” (swooping would be a better word), and many chases in and about the farm yard. Most flights began with the pigeons lifting up off a barn roof. The aplo was unhooded and would explode from the fist and rise to put pressure on the flock. The pigeons wheeled about and climbed with the falcon flying below in steady circles, frequently counter-rotating the flock’s direction of turn. The pigeons generally reached and maintained an altitude of 200’-300’, the falcon ringing about 100’ below them. Sometimes the flights would go higher, though these are often at a distance, far from the temptations of cover. After a period of aerial “stand off” (which lasted anywhere from many minutes to just a few seconds), a singleton would disconnect from the ringing flock, be pursued across the sky by the falcon and then plunge downward. The aplomado followed in a swift, modified stoop whose intent seems to match maneuver for maneuver and lock on right into cover.

        Only two pigeon escape-tactics worked—out climb and leave the area altogether, or refuse to flush at all. After a season in the “school of hard knocks”, the local pigeons either refused to budge from the rafters; or, when they did, disappeared into the blue sky and headed directly for the distant horizon. After that, our rate of successful kills dropped significantly.

        As a warning: Flying an aplomado at feral pigeons can be potentially counterproductive if the ultimate goal is to partridge. This is for two reasons. Firstly, feral pigeons and grey partridge are often found near one another as both are associated with farming. An aplomado that is wedded to feral pigeons may be distracted from the partridge hunt at the critical moment in favor of a distant pigeon barn, and so the main goal is undermined. Secondly, the tactic that works best for catching pigeons, relentless pursuit and then pinning down the intimidated bird inside man-made shelter, has no advantage when translated to partridge hawking. The aplomado must pursue partridge with intent to bind, for partridge are not easily intimidated, and the cover they seek is not easily penetrated as are barns and deserted buildings.

Late Season Hawking

       The first key to success in any form of hawking with any kind of raptor will be the quality of the slip.  This means that a peregrine falcon hunting ducks will have a much better chance of success if she is slipped over a small pond holding a single duck than if she is slipped over a large lake holding a thousand ducks. Simply stated, to be successful, the hawk must have the advantage.

       The second key to success will be the physical condition of the hawk. A hawk that is in excellent shape will fly faster and longer and be more intimidating to its quarry and be less discouraged during a hard flight than one that is not physically fit.  So how are these principles applied to hawking game-birds--such as quail, partridge or pheasants—with an Aleto (Aplomado)?

       No matter which type of game-bird you hunt, the most important factors for a quality slip will be 1) clear visual contact during the entire flight, 2) long stretches of open ground between cover, and 3) smaller penetrable islands of cover that the quarry will put into as opposed to an ocean of cover into which the quarry will be permanently swallowed.

Here in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, one species of quail predominates, the California quail, also called the valley quail (Callipepla californica).  Though a  beautiful creature and very much the right size, it is frustrating to hunt because it depends more on its ability to hide from predators than to outfly them. Therefore, most flights end up with the quarry either running through endless acres of moderately high cover (such as sage brush) or burying themselves in an impossible mass of tumbleweed.  Both the Aleto (female) and Terceletto (male) are easily capable of taken this quarry.

Therefore, to best enjoy this type of hawking one must seek coveys of quail in areas where they are most vulnerable, and so are less likely to frequent. This makes finding a superior quail slip quite a bit more challenging than it might seem, but the resulting flights are so much better than the rat hunting one encountered in typical California quail habitat. The long searches for a good slip are worth the effort.

      I have had best success with Aplomados on California quail on wheat ranches, where limited cover is surrounded on all sides by thousands of acres of low cut stubble, or elsewhere in the winter months when heavy snow creates large stretches of open areas between isolated patches of sage that stick out above the snow field’s surface.  In these situations the quail can be forced into “honest” flight and a well-conditioned Aplomado will almost always make a kill. 

      Hawking California quail with an Aleto or Terceletto is best when the slip is correct. This is true with other game birds such a Hungarian partridge (grey partridge) and pheasant, though these largest more robust quarries are best left to the Aleto if flown singly, or to a cast of Aplomados.  Of the three, the partridge are most likely to be found is situations conducive to a good Aplomado flight, in open country with small patches of cover. Because they are so powerful and far flighted, one must seek grey partridge in areas where the flight can be continually monitored for quite a distance (up to ¼ mile in all directions) which means areas that are either level, or if on a hillside, vast enough that the flight does not disappear over the top too quickly.  If it does, and the Aplomado loses sight of her prey, even for an instant, it is likely the fleeing game birds will have dropped into even the sparsest cover just over the top of the rise. Search there with the dogs first and you will be most likely to find them, even if more tempting cover appears out in the distance. If they had flown to that distant cover, your Aplomado would have had time to spy them upon cresting the hill and would have herself flown with them to that spot.

       With pheasants, the same rule is true. Seek them in areas that are as level as you can manage, and try to drive them out from small islands of cover into honest and open flight. Not only are these flights more enjoyable to observe, but they are the most likely one to end in success.   

       No matter what species of game-bird the Aleterio prefers, the choice of a proper slip will always make the difference between success or failure. Wide open, and unbroken terrain, interspersed with small patches of cover in which a game bird will hide but can be easily relocated and routed from cover in combination with an Aleto in top physical condition will be the keys to certain and consistent success.

       I remember two such flights. The first took place very near the town of Soap Lake. After a long day of searching, our group happened upon a large area that had small islands of cover surrounded by many acres of open ground. Because there was snow cover on the ground, the tracks of the quail were visible and we knew there was at least one good-sized covey in the area.  My English setter, J.D. ran about sniffing for scent and soon he froze on point. I unhooded “Cuvee” and began to walk slowly toward the setter.  It was quite late in the afternoon, and the winter sky was darkening swiftly. Suddenly, the nervous quail exploded upward into flight just in front of J.D.’s nose. This would have been a disaster with a waiting on falcon because there was not enough time for the falcon to mount to a good pitch. But it made no difference to Cuvee. As soon as the covey, a large group of at least twenty quail, burst into the air she was off the fist. Those who have held an Aplomado on the fist at the moment of the flush know the feeling of explosive energy that the little Aleto generates as she accelerates off and toward her prey. The covey raced across a wide-open expanse of grass, which seemed even more exposed because of the snow cover. Now out in the distance, at about one hundred yards, the Aleto was rapidly closing the gap on the covey and I could just see one of the quail lose heart and drop to the ground. Cuvee flipped over and disappeared groundward as well. She must have become nervous sitting out in the open field, exposed, because when we finally found her by telemetry she had flown with her quarry quite a distance from where they both went down, and now she had it in a small patch of cover where she sat on it quite still.  She was well into her meal and allowed me to pick her up on her kill which I allowed her to enjoy in full.

       The second flight was much shorter, but equally exciting and interesting. I was hawking with my friend Dan Robertson, and we had located a large covey of quail in a patch of sage brush in between the buildings of an industrial area.  I was a bit uncomfortable because this area was a part of the Hanford Site, a nuclear energy complex with high security measures taken behind the high cyclone fencing perimeter. I was worried that Cuvee might somehow accidently end up on the wrong side of the fence. But as with most falconers, the excitement of the hunt somewhat clouded my better judgment, and I unhooded the Aplomado with great anticipation.  We had marked the covey in a good sized patch of sage brush, but the snow was quite heavy at this time, at least 8” deep, and so we knew the quail would not be able to run about easily and evade our efforts to flush. Holding Cuvee on the fist I approached the spot where the quail last were spotted scooting along and ducking into the cover.  Quail are quite capable of burying themselves right into the snow-laden bushes. But a large covey like this will be nervous when first approached and not yet having seen the hawk in flight, unafraid to flush, which is exactly what happened. With 30 or so plump grey birds with whirring wings buzzing out of the bushes in ones and twos and threes, all going in different directions, the scene went instantly from peaceful winter serenity to complete pandemonium.  Cuvee was experienced and not distracted by all the commotion. She concentrated her efforts on a group of three and raced hard after them forcing the trio to take refuge into a snow blanketed fortress of sage.

Other quail had dumped into other similar fortresses nearby, but we kept our sights on the group she chose to follow. I called Cuvee from her perch on a branch of sage and she immediately took a stand on my upheld fist, not forgetting where she was or why she was there. Dan and I trudged amongst the snow-covered bushes and suddenly there was whirring. Off the fist Cuvee sprinted, this time after a single who broke first and tried to leave the field.  But the Aplomado was too swift and the quail had to flop back into another snow fortress or lose its life mid-flight.  This was a larger patch and it held a single, tired and frightened quail. It would not be easy to relocate or flush without a dog. Dan ran back to the truck and brought J.D. to the spot. He loped about in the deep snow then abruptly locked up at the edge of cover.

      I gathered Cuvee onto my gloved hand and slowly approached the spot the setter indicated.  The quail was buried deep and my approach did nothing to dislodge it. In situations like this, I prefer to let my dogs do the flushing, though there are those who believe allowing a setter to flush is bad form. In this case, J.D. made the whole thing easy by lunging in right to the spot the quail hunkered, forcing it into flight.  Dan and I had the luxury of witnessing this final flight without having to grope around in the bushes on our hands and knees.  The quail was deeply buried inside the snow fortress and to escape from the dog’s snuffling muzzle it clattered its way upward through the snow burdened branches and then burst out from into the open.

      Cuvee, who could hear the emerging quail tensed for action then was off the fist the instant it came into view. She streaked from the fist as straight and true as an arrow flies from a bow. The flight was a short one, only about 15’ or so.  The Aleto struck the quail hard in mid-flight and her momentum carried her forward with her prey in her hands. To our dismay she flew straight toward the high fencing that surrounded a nearby warehouse. Forbidden! Then ,to our immense relief, she cut hard to the right just as she reached the fence and landed with her quail at the base. Now, we encountered a new problem. Though she would not be likely to fly over the top of the fence, there was a small opening at its base, too small for a human to crawl through, but no problem whatsoever for an Aplomado.  I was careful to approach her in such away that her typical defensive maneuvers, hopping away from my approach, caused her to move further and further away from the hole. What I usually found to be an irritating behavior aided me this time. Once I was certain she was away from the hole and not likely to lunge back toward it, I backed away and allowed her the time to calm down and begin her meal.  After she had broken into the head and neck she was much easier to approach, and soon I had her on the fist and secured