Photo: Graham Wellstead. Mica, Graham’s red-tailed hawk, out of the aviary and on the perch, ready to start training
Just like her namesake, Mica the red-tailed hawk was always going to be special to Graham Wellstead. In the first of two articles, he discusses her early training
IN 1983 I bred my first second-generation red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). I had bred several birds and sold all but one, a male of exceptional size, who I had DNA-sexed because the bird was either a small female or a very large male.
I flew him for two seasons, during which time he acquitted himself well as a hunting bird, plus he had a wonderful temperament. I was flying several other birds at the time and I felt he was worthy of more attention, so I considered selling him. Then I was offered a young female out of the blue, so decided to establish a second pair. The male (Henry) flew at 2lb 6oz (1kg) and the female, as yet unflown, weighed in at 3lb 4oz (1.5kg). This, I believed, would be a good match, increasing the size of any offspring.
In the spring of 1983, they went to nest, mating constantly. I recall telling my wife that if the mating activity was anything to go by, they should have a clutch of 12. This was nonsense, of course – the usual clutch is three or four. This first mating produced two eggs, of which only one hatched. To hatch any in their first year was still an achievement and I was on Cloud Nine.
The reason for my joy was that the chick hatched on my late son’s birthday, May 10. If it survived, I was going to keep it. Male, female, only one wing, it mattered not. It was destined to stay and take my son’s name, Michael. It became she – a female. I could not call her Michael or Mike, and definitely not Michelle. Walking through woodland calling out Michelle was a recipe for problems, so she became “Mica” – a rather brittle element.
The aviary was built against my bird shed so I could look through a little spy hole right into the nest. The mother did not like me at all and when I approached she would come to the wire and threaten me. If she realised I was peeking through my spy hole, she would slam her foot at me, which always made me jump and bang my head on the shed roof. I watched Mica constantly, seeing her grow from a wobbly-headed scrap to a huge baby.
When I entered the aviary to bring her out I knew there would be fireworks. I had gone in just the once, to fit the ring, and had to catch mum in a big net and stand on it to keep her off me. I have a friend who breeds eagles and he has said more than once he would rather go into an eagle’s aviary than a red-tail’s in breeding mode every time.
At 16 weeks, out she came and all the horrible stuff was carried out quickly, with remarkably little fuss. She was jessed and belled, then stood up on the fist. She had seen me virtually every day, but nevertheless I was not sure what to expect. Mica stood, wings closed, beak slightly open, but standing on the fist with a grip that brings tears to your eyes. What a joy.
I leashed her to a bow perch and left her to settle, walking past occasionally, then tried her again. Although obviously nervous, she stood still, with no thrashing about like my lunatic sparrowhawks, but refused food for three days. This is quite normal – the bird is busy watching you in case you bite her. She needs to overcome her fear and look down at the foot held temptingly on the glove. Eventually, trying not to take her eye off me, with me pretending not to notice, she dropped her head and snatched a morsel. When training young hawks, I feed shin of beef cut almost through. This allows the hawk to take a piece quickly. Two more meagre pieces and she decided I was not going to kill her after all and began to feed.
During this critical time, manning a fresh bird, I allowed no one to interrupt except my dog, Bess, a very steady Weimaraner. As the days progressed, I walked in a figure of eight around the dog, who was soon bored, lay down flat and went to sleep. The idea was to get Mica used to her moving perch. She was picked up from the perch often, hopefully without trying to fly away, which she achieved by day three.
By day four she had stepped, then hopped to the glove and by day six she was coming 18m (60ft) to the glove. During the next few days, she was introduced to her travelling box for short periods and I stood at the front of the house for her to see people and traffic. After two weeks, we went to the ground where her training began in earnest.
Her first response weight was a massive 3lb 6oz (1.53kg) and, as she matured, her weight rose to 3lb 8oz (1.58kg), fluctuating up to 3lb 11oz (1.67kg) without any loss of agility.
In a quiet part of the estate, I placed her on a fallen tree and called her to the fist. She came without hesitation. Moments later, an elderly lady appeared following a footpath where I had never seen anyone. She was accompanied by an equally elderly Jack Russell terrier. Mica was sitting on the fallen tree and I fully expected her fly off, but she didn’t move. If I had not realised before, I knew now that this bird was exceptional. Neither the lady or her dog noticed the bird and I wasn’t about to say anything in spite of the odd looks I was getting.
Four days later she was free, following and chasing a rabbit lure. The area was home to a sizable population of rabbits, so I let her take stand in a tree over an area pock-marked with lots of rabbit holes, mostly clear of cover. I hoped something would come up soon, because she was likely to just come down or buzz me for food, but after a few minutes a rabbit ventured out. In fact, it didn’t get clear of the hole. Mica was right above it and dropped like a stone. I crept up beside her and it was already dead. I helped her to open it and have a good feed.
As the autumn and winter progressed, so too did Mica. She took to hunting like a duck to water, acknowledged the dog as a part of the team and finished her first season on 49 rabbits. We tried to make it 50, just because it’s a round number. Bess came up on point in front of a small cone-shaped bramble patch. “Rabbits, dad!” I held Mica up as high as I could, free on the glove, hoping she could see. I urged the dog to push the bunny out, but she held her point. Frustrated, I jumped into the brambles. Two rabbits left in opposite directions. Mica looked at me as if to say: “Which one do you want?” And Bess said: “I kept telling you there were two!” So we quietly settled for 49 and went home.
Graham Wellstead runs the Wey Valley Falconry in Surrey.
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