JWN Arts & Hawking 

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Time Out for Conditioning
copyright Jim Nelson, 2017

Time Out for Conditioning

        During the latter 20th and early 21st centuries a revolutionary method for conditioning falcons emerged. The concept of elevation-based conditioning was devised and evolved by to consistently cause large falcons to gain significant height early in training.  Early “natural” methods involved utilizing well-conditioned, experienced homing pigeons to draw pursuing young falcons aloft; or, finding mid-morning thermals on which the young falcons might be elevated and then served once at pitch.  In more recent times, initial experimentation using an ultra-light aircraft to trail a lure on a line at a significant altitude (Ken and Suzanne Franklin and Brian Sullivan) sparked the notion of artificially elevating a lure to tempt the falcon skyward toward a specific elevated target to achieve the same result. 

        After the publication of their experiment in NAFA (1982/3?), an alternate method alternate for non-aviators was devised by Carl Green (CHECK THIS) in Idaho. Allegedly, Green used large helium balloons which were tethered by a strong, light line lofted to heights well over a 1000’.  For this to work properly, the ambient air had to be still and the balloon had to float upward vertically without being blown too much toward the horizontal.  Affixed, about 50’ below the balloon itself, was a lure, projected slightly outward to avoid entanglement with the tethering line while also dangling downward below the balloon. The falcon was unhooded and allowed to fly (at first for only a short distance) upward to seize the lure, disconnect it from the line, and then land with it on the ground.  With each session, the elevation of the balloon was increased and therefore the height the falcon was compelled to fly to secure the lure increased as well.  In short order, on calm days, the falcon would be climbing with wings beating non-stop to towering heights and gaining incredible amounts of physical conditioning in the process.

        Over time, for windy days, kites were enlisted (Scarborough), and soon an entire sub-culture developed within falconry of falconers working exclusively with helium balloons and kites to develop conditioning and pitch in their falcons.

        At the time of writing, the clearly superior method for providing this elevation-based conditioning training is the employment of radio-controlled flying devices such as “drones” (aka quad-copters). The use of these miniature flying machines has eliminated the need for cumbersome tethering and reel-in systems, the ongoing expense of helium (exacerbated with a shortage of helium in recent years), and in large part ongoing peccadillos of unpredictable air movement.   As this technology improves, longer battery life, stronger motors and advancements in GPS systems will no doubt improve the technology even more, so to go into any further detail would be risking almost certain obsolescence within just a short time.  So the rest of this chapter is written about the benefits of elevation-based training, but not focused overly much on how the elevation is achieved.



        Because elevation-based training takes the falcon and falconer away from the theatre of game hawking, at least temporarily, and because aplomados are generally not taught to wait on at any great height, one might initially question why one would follow this path at all.  The answer is simple.  The conditioning provided by elevation-based training puts an aplomado falcon into such a superior physical state without introducing unwanted habits that it is well worth taking up to month out of the early part of each season (or pre-season) to fully condition your alethe before setting out to tackle the rigors of game hawking adult-aged wild-hatched partridge, pheasant or diving ducks.

      To release her daily to fly at liberty in order to chase anything that comes into the field might indeed bring her into adequate or even superior physical condition. However, in doing so, she may begin chasing everything and anything she fancies and her own hunting agenda may become the primary focus of ongoing forays.  She may spend much of the time afield chasing small (possibly protected) birds and even insects and these may occasionally be taken which encourages her to pursue them at various times during more seriously taken game hawking occasions.  Alternatively, bagged gamebirds or homing pigeons may be used to keep her flying.  But bagged gamebirds very rapidly cease to present any real challenge and she will only get a minimum amount of conditioning while catching them. She will also learn to recognize a “baggy” from a real wild gamebird and while she will continue to purse baggies enthusiastically (knowing she can catch them easily) she may quickly lose heart and turn away during an actual wild hunt because she has learned the better conditioned wild gamebirds takes far more energy to pursue and capture.

       A pigeon-trained aplomado may gain the required strength and speed one hopes for, but with that comes a serious glitch.  Once an aplomado becomes “wed” to pigeons, they become her preference over all other prey. This is because the aplomado learns if she sticks close to a typical pigeon it will very likely attempt to evade by hiding in a building or structure of some kind, into which the aplomado can easily follow, capture and dispatch the unsuspecting prey.  While this kind of flight can initially be entertaining and lead to superior conditioning, pigeons soon become an extreme annoyance because the now-pigeon-wed aplomado will ignore all other potential targets and fly off, sometimes up to a mile or more away, if she spies a circling flock of pigeons anywhere out in the distance often ruining any chances at catching the gamebirds tenuously held nearby at the point of the dog.

       By “tempering” before manning and training, followed by a brief period of entering on pen-raised gamebirds, followed by active field hunting early in the season on young, wild game birds—your alethe can be counted on to have the mind-set one wants in a genuine gamehawk.  She knows gamebirds and has a hardened predatory attitude toward flying after, capturing and killing them.  What she lacks (before receiving elevation-based conditioning) is the ability, as the season progresses and young gamebirds are either weeded out or develop into the hardened survivors, to overhaul and capture the much more challenging late-season prey.

       So, after proper entering and some practice on wild quarry in the field, now is the time to discipline oneself and step out of the field for a short but intense period of time devoted strictly to the development of your bird’s physical conditioning. It is time for Conditioning Camp.

       First, a word about the training field.  This is as important a variable in this training equation as the equipment is.  The field should be quite vast and fairly level and one free from obstructions such as power lines, trees, or even shrubbery as possible.  A plowed field, a stubble field, or a low cut and bramble free grassy field will be a suitable choice. One will want a minimum of 100 acres’ of obstructed ground and the farther away from heavy cover (where other winged predators might be lurking) the better.  The last thing wanted is for a hard working falcon to pump its way up to the lure, snatch it and begin descending to the ground only to be itself snatched from the air by a marauding redtail hawk or other larger raptor.  So in addition to the ground being level and open, it helps to intentionally seek an area relatively raptor free to begin with.

       Although we are discussing kite training, a large weather-type balloon filled with helium is also of service on still-air days lacking enough breeze to loft a kite.  For weather conditions in between (too much wind to use a balloon without drifting and not enough to raise a kite) attaching the kite to the balloon by large zip ties combines the benefits of both.  The balloon’s bouyancy will raise the kite upward until more actively moving upper air higher up catches the sails of the kite at which time the kite begins to ascend carrying the balloon, along with the dangling lure, upward more vertically than the balloon by itself could do in that same amount of breeze.

       The simplest form of attachment and release for the lure seems to be an office “flip clip” that has been forcibly over-opened so that it cannot re-shut completely when clipped into the closed position.  If done correctly, the clip will close just to the point it will hold the material of the miniature parachute from which the lure or quail leg will be dangling but will not be tight enough to withstand the slightest tug from the falcon when she arrives at the lure and snatches at it with her feet.  At that moment, the clip must give way and the chute slip out and open.  The falcon will turn abruptly downward and begin rowing as fast as possible to get to the ground. The opened parachute provides just enough drag to inhibit her from flying off horizontally toward the horizon with her trophy.

       During initial training, the kite or balloon is allowed to drift upward until the lure, suspended 50’ below it, is only perhaps ten feet above the ground. Initially you may need an assistant to pull downward on the kite string and secure the lure line. Lure now in hand, the assistant must gently twirl the lure in the traditional manner.  You will be hold the falcon on your fist at a point at least 100’ away. Soon she will launch toward the lure as she has done so often in the past and once she is on the wing your assistant must let go of everything and the entire system will begin to float back upwards. The falcon will easily overtake the ascending lure, grab it into her talons and unwittingly pop the chute out of the clip and down to the ground they all go.

       After allowing her to feed on the lure and transfer to a reward on the fist, a second trial can be conducted just like the first.  This time, the falcon is carried farther away, perhaps 200’, so the balloon has more time to float upward before her arrival, thus the lure will be carried aloft farther by the time she gets there. Again, she will snatch the lure and the parachute will pop out of the clip and all will float/fall to the ground.

        Each succeeding session will carry the falcon farther and farther aloft in order to obtain the lure.  Soon you will simply send the lure upward to each new height without an assistant twirling it at ground level to tempt the hawk.  Now knowing the game, she will come out of the hood looking for the lure and up she climbs to capture it. 

To properly condition an aplomado for grey partridge (and thus anything else you may wish to try her at) your goal should be for her to consistently climb without setting her wings to 1000’ vertical feet to capture the lure.  That may require the kite to ride out with up to 1500’ of tether because the horizontal drift of the kite will create a slight loss of vertical height.

Once must be at the ready to get quickly over to where the hawk comes down to earth and secure her before any wild predator reaches her first. From the moment she snatches the lure from the clip to the moment she is on your fist she is at risk.  One must also beware of other potential dangers including colliding with the kite string or becoming entangled with the system in some unforeseen manner.  The balloon or kite is retrieved using a cordless drill to power a spooling mechanism (see illustration) to bring the entire kite/balloon system back to earth in a surprisingly short time.

       There is more information on kiting in modern falconry literature and on the internet.  What is relevant here is the reader be aware of the significant benefits this form of conditioning has for aplomados destined to gamehawk powerful and long-flighted quarry, especially partridge, pheasants and duck.

      After you feel your alethe has reached superhawk status (defined by unhesitant, nonstop, hard-pumping ascents to maximum kite/balloon/drone heights for at least 5 consecutive sessions) you will experience upon returning to hawking wild quarry at ground level an entirely new experience defined by the sheer dominance your hawk now holds over even the most fit wild quarry in the field.