These last few weeks have been about getting our flying birds back in shape for the event. They get the summer off because it’s too hot to do much in Florida, so when it cools off in the autumn, we get to work on reconditioning. Last week Archer did so well, and this week Whisper is looking pretty good too! It should be a fun event.
Archer is a Red Shouldered Hawk that lives at the Avian Reconditioning Center. We went on our first flight of the fall today, and he put on a show, chasing grasshoppers all over the fields and chasing off the local songbirds.
It’s kind of hard to fly a bird and work a camera at the same time, so I usually don’t bother, but I gave it a shot today – and if nothing else, I came back with a fun record of our afternoon.
Last week we held the first ever Intro to Falconry Workshop at ARC.We had a great group of raptor enthusiasts come and learn more about the sport, and it was really a blast. To prepare, I made a booklet on becoming and being a falconer for each participant, and I thought it would be fun to post some excerpts here.
Since the US Fish and Wildlife Service stepped away from regulating falconry in 2012, the rules for becoming a falconer are now a bit different in every state, especially regarding the types of birds apprentices can/can’t have. Generally, they all have the same requirements, but I only really know about Florida laws because that’s where I live, and where I practice falconry.
It’s worth noting that falconry is illegal in two states – Washington DC (although the surrounding states seem to have active falconry clubs – Virginia especially), and Hawaii. Many of Hawaii’s native birds are threatened, endangered, or already extinct, so they can’t have escaped falconry birds flying around eating their endangered species (the feral cat and mongoose populations do enough of that already).
Before you start, it’s best to figure out if falconry is really for you. A hawk or falcon isn’t like having a pet. Even on the days when you don’t go hunting, a bird requires at least an hour a day to clean/feed/care for it. A good idea is to look online and see if there’s a falconry club near you, and go to a meet. Talk to some falconers and see if this is really something you want to commit to.
Because falconry really is a commitment, even before you get a bird. From start to finish, you want to budget about a year to get your permit. This includes the time it takes to find a sponsor, acquire equipment/housing, and process your permit. If you want to have your bird for the fall season, you want to start working on your permit twelve months before. I wish I was kidding, but that’s really how long it takes sometimes – four months of mine was permit processing alone.
In Florida (and most states, honestly) there are three main requirements for an apprentice falconry permit.
- The Falconry Exam – A general exam consisting of 100 questions about falconry laws, techniques, terms, raptor biology, natural history, ID, and other related subjects. It is administered by Florida Fish and Wildlife at one of their offices. You must score at least 80/100 to pass.
- You do not need a sponsor to take the exam, although a sponsors experience is helpful in studying for the test.
- A Sponsor – Before you apply for a permit, you must have a General or Master class falconer who is willing to oversee your apprenticeship and training and make sure you don’t screw up.
- Housing – This is kind of a no-brainer, but you need a place for your bird to live. At least an outdoor weathering mews, as well as adequate perching and equipment. Your facilities will be inspected by a Fish and Wildlife officer before approval of your permit.
Once you get your sponsor, pass your test, build a mews, send in your application and pass inspection, The Wait begins. Permit approval times can vary wildly from person to person. Some people get their apprentice falconry permit fairly quickly – I’m convinced mine got shoved under a stack of papers for three months, but it did finally arrive.
After you get your permit, the real fun begins!
“Cheetahs are the fastest animal on the planet.” It’s something I was taught in grade school, and a fact I still hear repeated on nature shows today. But, at a top speed of only 70mph, that speedy cat can only claim the record for fastest land animal.
Flying at upwards of 200mph, the true champion of speed is the Peregrine Falcon.
Aerodynamic and powerful, this falcon was built for speed, with large chest muscles for pumping wings, long streamlined tails and wings, and nasal baffles to prevent their lungs exploding during descent.
In 2005, a National Geographic television show recorded a peregrine in a dive, or stoop, at 242mph – she dropped from an airplane, chasing her skydiver handler. It was the highest recorded speed for any animal on record.
And in 1998, before anyone had the technology to measure the speed of a peregrine, a Duke University biologist published a paper stating that “An ideal falcon…with a mass of 1 kg reaches 95% of top speed after traveling approximately 1200 m. The time and altitude loss to reach 95% of top speed range from 38s and 322 m at 15° to 16s and 1140 m at 90°, respectively.”
That’s 0-200+mph in only 16 seconds! So, sorry cheetahs, it wasn’t even a contest.
It’s no secret that birds don’t weigh very much – Feathers weigh almost nothing, and birds are mostly feathers. So when we weigh birds, whether for falconry or just general husbandry, we do it in the smallest unit of measurement we can – grams. Pounds, and even Ounces, are too great, and don’t allow for the tiny fluctuations that, to a 100 gram Kestrel, might mean the difference between life and death.
But grams don’t translate very well in conversation. Since we (sadly) don’t use metric in the US (aside from the puzzling proliferation of the 2-liter) telling someone that a bird weighs 450 grams doesn’t mean much to them. I can almost hear peoples eyes glaze over when I start talking about conversion rates.
So on education programs, I usually use a stand-in. Instead of saying our Bald Eagle, Ike, weighs about 3500 grams, I say he weighs about as much as a jug of milk. And that usually helps make a connection. Ike is clearly much larger than a jug of milk, so it better conveys the idea that birds aren’t as dense as you might expect, and makes it that much more impressive that they can catch and carry prey that may be heavier than themselves.
I got to thinking about what a strange conversion chart this would make, so without further ado – Raptor Conversion Weights.
- 100g – American Kestrel, Screech Owl – 20 Nickels
- 140g – Merlin – an iPhone
- 350g – Barn Owl – Can of Coke (340g)
- 400-500g – Short Tailed Hawk, Red Shouldered Hawk – Hardcover book
- 560g – Peregrine Falcon – 20oz Bottle of Coke (567g)
- 700g – Barred Owl – Large box of cereal
- 1000g – Great Horned Owl – A bag of flour
- 1200g – Red Tailed Hawk – The last Harry Potter book (or just a large book)
- 3500g – Bald Eagle – Jug of Milk
This list is rather specific to Florida birds (and even more specifically, our own education birds), which can be much smaller than their northern counterparts (think an 8lb Bald Eagle vs a 14lb Bald Eagle), but I can’t be the only one that does this – I’d love to hear about other peoples Raptor conversion weights.
Taking pictures when you’re flying two birds is hard. So I usually don’t bother, unless they’re being especially comical that day. I used a Gopro the other day (my birthday!) just to see how they turned out.
I took a movie in the field, and then trimmed it in VLC at home and gif’d in Photoshop. Watching the Harris Hawks extend their wings right before takeoff in slo-mo is mesmerizing. I just need to figure out a way to make the head strap fit over my hat.
Imping is something really cool I learned to do from my falconry sponsor, and now I use it on rehab birds fairly often.
Essentially, it’s the falconry practice of replacing damaged flight feathers on birds with unbroken feathers, either from a previous molt, or a donor bird.
Here’s a Before & After of a Coopers Hawk that needed new tail feathers (from rather different angles):
In rehabilitating wild birds, it helps birds who have broken feathers so that they can be released sooner, rather than waiting around until they molt. Most raptors only molt once a year, so imping really comes in handy.