As many of you already know I trapped a beautiful immature red-tail this past weekend. The day we trapped my new red-tailed hawk we arrived in Montrose Colorado right around first light and started driving around looking for red-tails. Armed with my homemade Bal-Chatri (AKA BC) trap, two young rats, and a good pair of binoculars, I was ready to go. A Bal-Chatri trap is essentially a weighted down wire cage with nooses all along the outside. You place your bait animal inside the trap and the hawks feet become entangled in the nooses when it lands on the trap. Because the trap is weighted down the hawk is unable to fly away. At that point you run up and grab the hawk, preferably without getting footed or bitten. Trapping is by far one of the most exciting things I have ever done. I love it! It is also a good way to draw attention and suspicion. Picture this, you see some strange person sitting out front your house in their vehicle with binoculars, someone tossing strange objects from a slowly moving vehicle, picking up strange objects from the side of the road, and handling distressed looking birds of prey. You would probably be concerned or suspicious and I would not fault you for that. I have been pulled over twice trapping, followed once, and had people stop and question me several times. My first falconry sponsor was kind of a jerk and refused to tell one person what we were up to while we were out trapping together. That was the person who tailed us and also reported us to the police which led to me being pulled over. I am a firm believer in talking to people. Before I knew about falconry I would have been concerned if I had witnessed this activity too. On a side note trapping birds of prey without the proper permitting is highly illegal. Please do not attempt this without a falconry license. Please visit http://www.n-a-f-a.com/AboutFalconry.htm for more information on falconry and how to become a falconer. Falconry is the most regulated form of hunting and requires an extensive time commitment. Many falconers refer to falconry as a lifestyle a rather than a hobby for this reason.
My fiancÃ© Eric drove and we headed into the farmland area between Montrose, Delta, and Olathe where we have seen the most hawks in the past. We saw two red-tails within the first half hour but they were both too far away. Red-tails have excellent vision and can see a mouse from over a foot ball field away but our experience has been that setting traps on hawk that are far away is generally a waste of time. We finally found what looked like an immature red-tail near the road but she was sitting on a blind turn. Adult red-tails have brick red tail feathers that red-tailed hawks were named for and juveniles generally have brown banded tail feathers, though western red-tails sometimes retain banding into adulthood as I learned with the last dark morph red-tail I trapped (see my last blog). Adult birds are illegal to trap because they are part of the breeding population. Even if they were legal to trap young birds are much easier to train. Furthermore 70-80% of red-tails die in their first year but after their first year their survival rate increases exponentially. Chances are the juvenile birds I have trapped in the past would have died during their first winter. Under a falconer the mortality rate is only about 5%. The falconer also introduces the bird to larger prey that is available during the winter when smaller prey is scarce and many falconers eventually release their birds back into the wild, thereby increasing the chances that that bird will survive. Passage birds (birds taken after they have left the nest in their first year) return to the wild quickly and easily. Every bird I have trapped so far I have flown for a season and released the following spring. Now back to the immature red-tail we saw near the road.
We slowed down to almost a stop near the red-tail and I tossed out the trap. The problem with this scenario is we couldnâ€™t see the trap without being too close to her. Red-tails are generally comfortable with moving vehicles but will take off if you stop too near them and sit and stare. Generally we drive at least a couple hundred yards down the road and sit and watch the bird and the trap with binoculars. In this case we were able to see the bird in the tree but not the trap. Bal-Chatri traps need to be monitored constantly because after the bird is trapped if it is left it can be injured, it is vulnerable to predators, and the bird can potentially drag the trap towards the road where it could be hit by a car if you leave it unmonitored. For these reasons it is highly illegal to leave a BC unattended. We found a spot where we could see her in the tree but we still couldnâ€™t see our trap. Within a couple minutes of watching her I saw her dive from her perch towards the trap. Because I couldnâ€™t see the trap to make sure she was entangled we had to drive up so she wouldnâ€™t be trapped too long. The problem with this is many birds will walk around the trap or move to a closer position to look at it before landing on it or footing it. Sure enough we pulled up and she was sitting about 2 feet from the trap looking at it. She saw us, took off and kept going. I was pretty disappointed because I had gotten a good look at her and she was definitely an immature bird. It was still early though and we had already seen a handful of red-tails.
We drove past two adult red-tails and finally saw another bird that looked like a juvenile in a good position. I dropped the trap in a good spot and we continued to drive past the bird down the road. I watched the bird in the rear view mirror and as we started turning around we saw wings up in the air on top of the trap. The bird had gone for the trap almost immediately! The bird was caught, and my heart was racing a million miles an hour. When you see flapping wings or the birds wings in the air that usually means they are trapped though sometimes they may only have a noose or two around their toes and may still be able to get free before you get to them. A car was approaching from the opposite direction so we put the petal to the metal and got to the trap before the other vehicle drove by. I grabbed a towel from the back seat and approached the red-tail. As I approached I saw that it was an immature bird and my excitement grew exponentially. I tossed the towel on the bird so s/he couldnâ€™t see me and grabbed its feet to protect myself from being footed. The feet are definitely the business end of a red-tail but like an alligatorâ€™s jaws they have very strong muscles for closing their feet and weak muscles for opening them. If you hold their feet closed and stay out of direct range of their beak you are generally safe. I looked the bird over and he seemed thin feeling his keel (breast bone) but otherwise was in great shape and had nice beefy feet. I couldnâ€™t tell the sex of the bird just by looking at it. It was smaller than my last female but bigger than either of the males I had trapped. I have been successful with both males and females and I was happy just to trap a legal bird that was in good physical condition. At that point I knew this bird was coming home with me. We put a hood on him, fitted him with jesses (the leather straps that you hold the bird by), and he rode home on my glove.
The jury is still out whether it is a small female or a large male but that is common in red-tails and there is often overlap in weight between the sexes. Generally males are about a third smaller than females. One of my falconry books said that if the bird hunting weight is over 38 ounces than it is probably a female. I trapped this red-tail at 36 ounces and s/he was skinny. Chances are itâ€™s a large male but weâ€™ll see what his/her flying weight is. Even that is not 100% accurate and chances are I may never know for sure. This birdâ€™s sex is not that important in the scheme of things though I need to pick a name a pronoun soon for my own sanity. Either way I am so excited to have a bird to train and fly this season. Stayed tuned to find out how his training progresses. He is already taming down nicely and eating from the fist! Step one is getting them to sit on your glove without jumping off and hanging upside down, step two is to eat from your glove, and step three is to hop to the glove. We may even accomplish step three tonight. Then we will move onto step 4, flying to the glove. Thanks for reading!