JWN Arts & Hawking 

Click here to edit subtitle

On Choosing an Aplomado
copyright Jim Nelson, 2017

On Choosing an Aplomado

            The difference between “choosing” and “selecting” is the difference between making the choice to fly a type of bird, and the selection of a specific individual from a larger group.

            When choosing to fly an aplomado you must first consider your legal status to do so. Here in the U.S., depending on the state involved, it may require you to be a licensed General or Master Class falconer to own, train and hunt with an aplomado.  If Apprentices are allowed to fly aplomados in your state, then you must consider the level of experience needed to do well with this species is considerably higher than their “gentle” appearances would lead one to believe. Aplomado’s can be high-strung and at the same time somewhat delicate, making them a dubious choice for an apprentice or even a newer General class falconer who has not already flown a merlin, accipiter, or mid-to-large sized longwing.  Such a choice is bound to end up in a tragedy of some kind.

            Another critical consideration will be availability of legal quarry to hunt and accessible grounds to fly over.  Because this article may be read by falconers in different countries, and because here in the U.S. there are situations where chasing a variety of otherwise protected species is unavoidable and even legal (under federal regulations governing abatement), there will be remarks included which concern aplomados possibly pursuing passerines, though only with the understanding that anywhere it is illegal to so, it is illegal to do so. This author does not advocate or condone the intentional breaking of wildlife laws for any reason.  You must know the wildlife and/or abatement laws of your country/state and adhere to them or you jeopardize your own and all other falconers’ sacred privileges.

            Aplomados can be quite dynamic in flight and by nature come from habitats that are wide open and interspersed with broken cover.  The closer to this description the land you hunt over, the more likely you will experience success with one.   Think in terms of hundreds and thousands of acres of reasonably open and accessible ground, not small fields surrounded by forest or human businesses and dwellings.

            Finally, there is the issue of wild raptors in your area. I have heard a number of individuals considering an aplomado express concern over the presence of larger raptors where they fly.  In my experience, and that of the falconers who have flown aplomados and whom I am in contact, redtail hawks are the clearest danger to the aplomado falcon, followed by great-horned owls, should your alethe be left out overnight.  Ravens can also be very dangerous and potentially lethal.  Wild female prairie falcons and female peregrines present a significant threat, though my personal experiences with them have not led to trouble for the aplomado.  In fact, very recently the female aplomado I am currently flying skirmished with a passage female peregrine and basically chased her out of the field.  Earlier this fall, this same aplomado spent quite some time in aerial play with a haggard tiercel peregrine with neither bird showing real signs of aggression.  In fact, since I had a covey of huns pinned beneath the two, I commenced to flush and got to see both a wild peregrine and a trained aplomado in full pursuit at the same time. Neither hawk scored, but the flight was pretty. Raul Ramirez is thee first falconer to my knowledge to intentionally train a tri-cast consisting of a tiercel peregrine and two female aplomados.  I was fortunate to be able to see Raul’s birds in action this summer and the flights were exactly as you would imagine, with the peregrine dominating the air and the aplomados crashing the blue berry bushes. At no time did the peregrine present a threat to the aplomados.  Cooper’s hawks would seem to be a threat.  I have been witness to a number of close approaches by Cooper’s hawks, and it seems both birds are very curious about the other.  It appears to me the Cooper’s hawks are a bit mystified by the aplomado’s accipitrine appearance.  Mostly I have seen Cooper’s hawks come in close, land nearby and stare at the aplomado, then leave.  Raul Ramirez has witnessed some aerial skirmishes that started with the Cooper's chasing the aplomado, only to have the aplomado turn the tables on the Cooper’s hawk and then chase it away. I am aware of one confirmed incidence of a female Cooper's hawk actually grabbing a male aplomado and bringing it to the ground with intent to kill.  The falcon's falconer interceded and foiled the hawk's attempt. So, clearly, flying a male aplomado in heavy Cooper's hawk country may be taking a significant risk.

          Your second tier of choosing will be between genders. That will be directly related to your intended quarry.  For hunting birds in the size-range of English-sparrow to doves/quail species, the male is suitable and his snappy style and aerial nature makes him highly entertaining.  Add to this that male aplomados, like all male raptors, are sole provenders during the nesting season, and you have a hawk that continues to be motivated to fly year round and is quicker to cache his quarry and go in pursuit of more.  Females, while capable of catching very small birds, are better suited for species quail-sized and larger.  They are more powerful and brutish than their seemingly delicate stature would indicate, and trained female aplomados have regularly taken barn pigeons, partridge, pheasant, magpies, and shorebirds including (in Latin America) the Thick-knee, Southern Lapwing, ibises, and even small egrets.  Small ducks have been reported, largely as incidental aplomado quarry. Good slips on smaller “diver” species such as the hooded merganser (as opposed to smaller “dabblers” such as teal) will lead to regularly successful duck hawking with female aplomados.  These statements may seem like outrageous boasts concerning a raptor weighing in under 400 grams, but those who have seen well trained and well conditioned female aplomados in action know the assertions here to be realistic, reliable and repeatable.  Females seem to be harder to get motivated to perform at peak levels once they reach breeding age and especially during the nesting season.  This may be related to the fact that females are programmed by nature to slow down and eventually stop hunting during courtship and incubation.

        Of course both male and females are capable of catching what Harry McElroy terms “medium-sized birds,” those in the weight range of starlings.  For both sexes, targeting medium-sized birds must be accompanied with the caution that unless one is very careful with the pick-up, this size range of quarry might be problematic. In brief, an English-sparrow sized bird will often be cached or totally consumed without consequence to weight control in the field; a female pheasant will hold the aplomado to the ground by sheer force of gravity; but, a starling is easy to carry and makes a tempting, filling meal that may lead to the hawk sating itself at a distance and then staying out for the night…or worse. 

Another consideration is to fly a cast.  A cast is a significant handful for all but the most experienced falconers or those who practice abatement professionally.   However, if you live near another falconer, or are part of a falconry family, a cast can be shared fun in the field.  Since aplomados are a social creature in the wild, they seem to be very tolerant of one another in the field and there are many examples of successful casts being flown at quarry in many countries. Casts of two’s have been successful in sport falconry. For abatement, I have flown up to five birds (all males) at one time, and Raul Ramirez and had flown up to seven.  In these situations, the flying is more on the lines of a controlled tame hack, where all the birds are loose in the field together, but little happens in terms of coordinated pursuits.

        If you have decided on an aplomado for your mew and, based on your intended quarry, have chosen the sex.  The third tier of choice will be whether to obtain a hand-reared youngster (either a social imprint or a dual-socialized imprint) or a “ramage” bird. 

        I use the open-ended term “ramager” to describe any aplomado not hand reared from its earliest days and maintained by human handling until in your hands.  This can include youngsters hand-reared initially and then turned loose with a group of siblings in a large chamber where they will most probably “withdraw” and become quite spooky and unmanageable, or “parent reared” by adult aplomados, or that (in countries where it is legal) are wild-trapped as “passagers.”  What all of these have in common are that they start out their relationship with you in a state of high anxiety.  They are not at all tame and have little or no experience being handled by human beings.  Wild and untamed, they are ramage.

        Returning to a description of the hand-reared youngster. What are the pros and cons of this choice?  The pros can be summed up in three words: tameness and socialability.  A hand-reared aplomado can be downright kitten-like.  And anyone who has worked extensively them can attest to such amazing examples of tameness including flying across the room multiple times without being called, to land and then lay down on a human’s lap; flying out of a car window at quarry and then, after missing, flying back into the car window to perch at the falconer’s shoulder…while the car is moving; hopping off the scale while hooded and tramping across the linoleum toward the sound of the falconer’s voice, then scrambling blindly up his pant leg to the gloved fist; flying off at quarry to become a nearly out-of-sight speck, only to return like a boomerang and land at the falconer’s feet, on his shoulder or hat without any luring or temptation of food.

So why would anyone want anything else?  The primary “con” with the hand-reared’s is screaming.  It is not impossible to train a silent hand-reared aplomado, but the odds are against you.  For some falconers, screaming isn’t a big deal and the screaming around the house is tolerated because aplomados are generally silent in the field.  However, if screaming is an issue with family members or neighbors, this could be a risky choice.  Another con is general eyass “vices” including mantling, puffing of feathers and other babyish behaviors that are annoying and can lead to feather damage from the jamming of wings and tail against the glove or perch surfaces.  The final con can be availability. Aplomados seem at first blush to be easy to breed, but in truth can be tricky.  It may be that you desire to possess a hand-reared youngster but cannot find one available during the best window for you to take it.  Just as there is a “best age” for taking up a puppy (7 week old is often cited as ideal for a pup) the best window to take on a young hand-reared aplomado will be from hatch until about penning at 52 days.  That assumes constant handling throughout by a knowledgeable person that isn’t “messing it up” before coming into your hands.  If your hand-reared aplomado is placed by itself or with siblings in a chamber and not consistently handled by a knowledgeable falconer on a daily basis, it will emerge as either a ramager (best case) or a “mar hawk” (worse case) in as little as a week’s time.  That is all it takes for some hand-reared youngsters (especially males) to “withdraw” to a spooky or even downright wild state.

       So, actually getting your hands on an unmarred individual at the right age will be the trick. If you are ordering one from a distance, beware that there may be a long protracted wait before you receive it if the summer weather is extremely hot and the airline refuse to deliver in the heat.  What started out as a hand-reared darling at the outset may arrive in a very different and less-tamed state.

       Another aspect of choosing a hand-reared aplomado concerns whether the hawk will be a “social imprint” (raised by hand in isolation from other aplomados and “thinks it’s human,” so to speak) or dual socialized (raised by hand with a group of siblings and is very tame toward humans while still “knowing it is a bird”).  Which to choose? Well both are very tame and can become incredible field companions.  The difference will be most noticeable when you go to breed them, if you eventually choose to.  The social imprint may not copulate with another aplomado and may require artificial insemination in order to produce viable eggs. The dual socialized is significantly more likely to be successful in a natural pairing.

       If you have made the choice (or if circumstances have made the choice for you) and you are fortunate enough to get an unmarred hand-reared youngster, find a copy of Harry McElroy’s Desert Hawking IV: Quail. The entire second half of Harry’s comprehensive masterpiece is devoted to this type of hawk, and this article makes lno effort to repeat his original information.  Additionally his book should be required reading for those flying any sort of aplomado, including the wildest ramage bird, because he devotes a great deal of attention to detail where topics common to all aplomados are concerned: such as nutrition, mews design, hawking equipment, radio telemetry, behavioral observations, weight control and overall training and hawking strategies which would be redundant if repeated here.

       Then, what of the ramage? Unmarred ramage hawks will be the result of a) initial hand-rearing then shifting into a chamber at around penning with a group of youngsters, be they siblings or unrelated, all to be left to their own devices; or, b) parent-reared youngsters that were hatched by parents or fostered back to parents if hatched artificially.   To be considered ramage, these will have been raised by a parent or parents but not visited by humans at all.  If they are reared by a parent that is very tame and frequently visited by the breeder, they are likely to behave more like a dual socialized hawk than a true ramage hawk. So ramage means the young hawk will predictably react like a wild bird when finally taken to hand, but does not have any particular pre-programmed phobias toward humans developed by poor or rough handling earlier on.

          The pros of taking on a ramage hawk is that it comes to you without any great affinity for human kind, and therefore, with careful handling, is less likely to develop eyass-like vices.  This is particularly true of the genuine parent-reared youngster that is hatched by its parents and reared by them until penning.  They have absolutely no background to associate with humankind as provenders. This will be the nearest thing most modern falconers will experience to a passagers. Sibling-group raised chamber-birds will eventually tame back down after initial manning and then may remember their earliest days of being hand-reared, thus sparking eyass-like behaviors.

         True passagers are available to falconers in Mexico and Central and South America where the taking of them is legal.  Perhaps someday our North American subspecies will become so common in the wild that a passage take is allowed in our own country.  So, passagers are included here under the umbrella term of ramage and hopefully this information will be helpful with those as well.

          A third but important category of personality type, as it were, is that of the “mar hawk.”  An archaic, unpopular, but nonetheless accurate term, a mar hawk is a previously “trained” hawk (or a retired breeder) that through prior bad experiences with other falconers or humans has come to view humans as nefarious characters to be fought against at all cost.  This is a distinct category of its own because in both of the previous types (hand-reared or ramage) it is a given that no harm is done prior to initial take.  With the mar hawk, the falconer must reclaim this savage soul from previous damage. A much more challenging task.

Selecting an individual aplomado

            In most cases, you will not have the luxury of selection.  But if you do, and assuming all the candidates are in good basic health and feather, the first and foremost selection criteria in a ramage hawk will be its natural appetite.  This is something the old falconers knew about and spoke of, but whose significance seems to have been largely lost over time.  The reason for its importance is simple.  With a ramage hawk, your key to rapid and successful training will be its response to food.  If the hawk has a natural appetite and gets quickly down to the business of eating, even if its weight is in the higher ranges, you will “catch its attention” and reach agreement early on, and from there on you will both experience an ever upward spiraling series of successes, each brick built upon the hawk’s keen desire to eat even when he or she is not particularly hungry.  For those that know him, the 2008 ramage terceleto, Alpha, came from the chamber ready to chow down a meal whenever he could.  Consequently, his training went like clockwork and he instantly became the outstanding performer from a field of a dozen cohort candidates.

            Contrasting Alpha, the ever-hungry hawk, was Butterscotch the finicky one.  With special attention, finicky Butterscotch became a superb performer over time. But his disinclination to eat when under stress caused him to lag far behind Alpha and all the rest in his cohort.   In time, he did emerge an excellent hawk.  But it took the focused handling, experience and understanding of a genuine aplomado master (Raul Ramirez) to bring this out of him.   Alpha would have no doubt emerged a brilliant performer for even a moderately experienced falconer.  The most visible difference between the two, again, was simply their basic natural appetites.

            The next criteria, which may or may not be connected with appetite, is what might be called predatory impetuousness; that is to say, an almost unthinking reaction to prey, much like the reaction of a typical accipiter.  The two specimens that come to mind were the 2006 alethe, Cuvee, and the 2008 terceleto, X-ray.  The very first live bird offered to Cuvee’ during her “tempering” was immediately pounced upon and dispatched. She had never before seen a living bird other than her siblings in her crèche.  A sister of the exact same age and rearing ignored or “played” with live birds for weeks until her predatory instincts were finally sparked.  X-ray, in the same training cohort as Alpha, was accipitrine in his response to the lure in early training. Later, he showed the same hair-trigger reaction to live prey, and his rapid response to moving objects made his training and entering easy and entertaining.

            The attractiveness of an individual should not be a primary criterion for selection. All healthy aplomados in good feather are a fine looking animals.  Some are perhaps more eye catching or handsome than others, but that becomes irrelevant in the field where the behavior of the hawk is paramount.  A striking looking but screaming, mantling, lazy, or overly fearful hawk loses its charm rapidly. No one wants to watch them, so what advantage are good looks. Whereas, a plainer looking hawk that is calm-natured, steady on the fist, follows appropriately, instantly pursues quarry with vigor, and returns when called is a prized possession beyond accounting.

            Having mentioned all the above, it is my firm belief, based on a depth of experience over 15 years with dozens of aplomados, all aplomados are capable of become outstanding performers given the proper handling and attention.  If you are not fortunate to be able to select or come into possession of a naturally ravenous or electrically impetuous specimen, there is still much you can do to ensure that, like Butterscotch, your potential laggard turns out to be a Tony the Tiger instead.