Falconry at Featherstone

by Louise Engel

Falconry is the taking of wild quarry in its natural state and habitat, using trained birds of prey. Birds of prey are known as raptors. Raptors include eagles, hawks (accipiters, buteos), falcons, owls,  and kites. Falconry has a long tradition in the Middle and Far East and a shorter history in Europe. In the U.S.A. there are approx. 5,000 active falconers and in Ontario there are about 200 that are licensed.

In 2005 I completed a two-year apprenticeship program to become a licensed falconer. I fly a Harris’ Hawk (parabuteo) as a hobby. I do not do professional bird control and I do not fly my hawk other than on my own grape farm.


Louise and Amadeus working in the vineyard

Harris’ Hawks – the Ford pick-up truck of the raptor world

Harris’ Hawks are native to Central and South America and their range extends as far north as Mexico, Arizona and Texas. Most raptorial birds hunt individually. Co-operative hunting, even among mated pairs in other species, is unusual. Harris hawks, alone among raptors, engage in co-operative hunting as they hunt not merely in pairs, but in social groups in much the same manner as a pack of wolves. Thus Harris’ Hawks are naturally pre-disposed to co-operative hunting with a human partner. Harris hawks will fly on a wide variety of quarry – rabbits, pheasants, waterfowl, crows, starlings – making them very popular with falconers.

Bird control using a raptor at Featherstone

I fly a male Harris’ Hawk named Amadeus. In raptors, the males are about one third lighter than the females and my preference was to purchase a relatively small male since they are faster and more agile in the air. Smaller = faster in the bird world. Songbirds being an example of how smaller birds are quick and agile.

While he does catch nuisance starlings, it is his daily presence in the vineyard that is the largest deterrent to both flock and resident birds.

Falconry at work, Louise and Amadeus

Training a raptor

Training a bird of prey requires time, patience and the establishment of a trusting relationship. The only modification to its wild behaviour is that the bird now allows a specific human being to approach it on its quarry. The birds remain wild and are capable of returning to the wild at any time they are flown.

Birds of prey are trained entirely by reward. The bird’s natural response to food is the key and no punishment is ever used, nor would it be effective. While dogs will respond to a tone of voice, raptors have no desire to please their owners. Raptors are not pets and a part of every raptor remains forever aloof, reserved and wild.

It’s all about weight control

Training in falconry involves having the hawk learn to trust and accept a person as an aid to more successful hunting and to a more dependable food supply. The bird’s owner provides a carefully measured diet designed to keep the bird at its optimum flying weight. Too heavy, the bird is inclined towards lethargy and independence. Too light, and the bird is weak and unhealthy.  A working raptor is weighed every day on a gram scale. A daily log is kept daily of his weight, food intake and the outside temperature and weather (since this affects how much food he needs).

Louise and Amadeus working the vineyard

Free flying

There is an initial training period during which the bird learns to associate the owner’s leather glove with food. The bird learns to fly to the glove from increasingly large distances. Outdoor flying is first done on a long ‘leash’ called a creance. Doing this reliably can take a few days or a few weeks. Once you can do this with confidence, the Big Day comes and the bird flies free.

A typical day at work for Amadeus

In the summer I free fly Amadeus for a couple of hours a day, often getting up early to catch starlings as they pass through the vineyard. I walk through the vines rousing anything I can, Amadeus following along.

Does it work?

Well, it certainly helps, especially when used in conjunction with other bird control devices.  It’s helpful that he is a resident and is flown every day in a relatively small vineyard.

Quick facts about being a falconer

  • Falconers in Ontario require a small game hunting license to own and hunt with their raptors.
  • Owning a raptor is a huge commitment. Anyone considering it should be prepared for a substantial, long-term, time-consuming commitment – on par with owning and training a horse. In captivity, a Harris’ hawk has a life span of 20 – 25 years.
  • There are a several dozen falconers in southern Ontario but I don’t know of anyone else who owns their own raptor for the purposes of vineyard bird control.  I have been invited to fly him in other vineyards and orchards but that’s not something that interests me- it’s just my hobby.