Training: A view of the progress from trapped to trained
Any description of training falcons and hawks needs to begin with three caveats, based in part on the assumption that people who are reading general overviews are in all likelihood non-falconers or aspiring apprentices:
- Falconers all have different opinions and systems of training. What works for one may not work for another. It’s a commonplace that 2 falconers in a room means 3 opinions about training a hawk. Not to say that webpages which outline general training principles are useless, but take what works for you, and store the rest for future reference.
- If you make the commitment to becoming a falconer: during your apprentice years, DO WHAT YOUR SPONSOR TELLS YOU TO DO. It’s partially a matter of respect: your sponsor took on responsibility for you, don’t cheat that by training your bird a different way, and possibly causing problems that they then have to fix. Partly, also, they have more experience than you do, so do it their way and see what you think. No matter what you read on the internet, your sponsor knows better than you.
- Not all birds will respond the same to training. If your bird isn’t doing what you need it to do (and you’ve made a good effort), Sit and think awhile, and change something in what you’re doing. Training start from the specific animal, not the training guide
With those caveats out of the way, let’s talk about training. Training does not exist in a vacuum, and how you train any animal depends on what you want that animal to do. In our case, as falconers, we want:
- A hard-hitting, fast-flying game hawk, that reaches the full potential of its species
- A hawk in the field with good response to the falconer and their cues, that doesn’t attack the falconer’s dog, nor fly into the next county when it sees a lawnmower
- A hawk in the mews that is content and happy, not bouncing all over freaking out.
There are numerous training tips and tricks to get a falconry raptor to those goals, but the various stages of training basically move through three steps:
- Gaining comfort/desensitization
- Habituation to training tools, primary/secondary reinforcers
- Reinforcements of behaviors
If you’re paying attention, you probably noticed that I’m using a couple of terms that come from the operant conditioning theories of B.F. Skinner. Yes, but only pieces. In describing the training process, I will follow the more classical-style conditioning that falconers have been following for centuries (quite literally, as this abbreviated version first makes its appearance in full form in Friedrich II von Hohenstaufen’s 13th century de arte venandi cum avibus). For a fuller picture of what operant-style conditioning looks like, I highly recommend consulting Lydia Ash’s http://www.themodernapprentice.com/ as well as her excellent chapter on training a passage Cooper’s hawk in Boni et al. Passage Cooper’s hawks and those who fly ‘em.
Falcons and hawks (with the exception of Harris’ hawks and possibly aplomado falcons) have minimal social intuition, and so adding negative stimulus incites fugitive behaviors, rather than sparking an internal dialogue leading to behavior modification. Practically speaking, this means that you will communicate with your hawk through food rewards in each phase of training (Basically, +R for you operant folks). A good book for thinking about working with positive reinforcement is Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the dog. You can add in clicker/secondary reinforcers as you wish, but above all, be consistent with your bird. She will learn to trust you, because she will always know what to expect from you, only if you always act the same.
Your hawk only speaks the language of food rewards if she’s hungry. Not starving, but if you hold a yummy tidbit in front of a hawk that’s stuffed to the gills with rich quail, she won’t care a whit. Weight control combined with hunger control is THE foundation of all training programs. You want a hunting hawk to be in peak condition, and this means wanting to hunt. For this, you need her muscles to be in tip top shape, and her energy reserves to be on point. But you need her not to be fat. In the wild, a fat hawk full of rich food just hangs out on their perch watching the world go by. A hunting hawk needs to be motivated to hunt, and that means hungry. Many falconers train and hunt their hawks on a schedule where feeding, training, or hunting the hawk always takes place at the same time of day (usually afternoon or evening); the hawk begins to look forward to the hunt in much the same way that we humans look forward to our morning coffee.
In phase 1 of training you want to get your bird comfortable enough to eat while you and your dog are around. The goal is tearing food and eating on the fist or eating on a lure, without mantling. The method is desensitization, but also making sure that she looks forward to the falconer’s entry into her world. You want to expose her to all the things that she’s going to see and have to deal with (dogs, lawnmowers, other people), but you don’t want her to make the association falconer=terror. In the beginning of your relationship, keep her in a darkened mews, tethered and hooded. Work with her at first in the mews, until she will sit on your fist fairly comfortably, hood off. Then slowly carry her around to see new things. When she meets your dog, she’ll mantle aggressively. Lift her up, and she’ll feel safer: the glove now feels like a place that makes her feel more comfortable. Make the glove a perch from which she can survey the world, certain that she is inviolably safe. In the beginning, only take her out of the mews when she’s going to be with you, as you don’t want her to get the idea that she can go outside and have fun without you. Then make her really look forward to quality glove time… If your bird is a passage, this often entails long hours sitting with the bird leashed to your fist until she stops bating away from you. Then, you sit with her on the fist, with a juicy tidbit (rabbit leg, chicken neck, turkey head, or something suitably yummy and easy for you to hold onto) held in your fist. Eventually, she will be hungry enough, and she’ll realize that your fist has something yummy, and streeeetch, and peck, and then tear into it. At this point you can begin to think about starting to train her to the behaviors that you need in the field.
Thus, you can seamlessly enter phase 2 of training. The first goal of this phase is to have a hawk that will want to fly back to you when you call it. Next, you want to teach it to follow you along in the trees, or sit on the fist and wait to be thrown towards quarry, or wait on high above for you to flush a quail. The day after your bird first tears at food, see if you can get her to step to the fist with a tidbit. Gradually increase the distance of the fist from the hawk and decrease the size of the tidbit. It can help if you emphasize performance of the desired behavior of approaching the fist with a reinforcement cue (like a clicker). Certainly now is the time to establish a precursor, such as a whistle, which tells her “hey, food here, on the fist/lure!”. You’ll use that precursor in the woods, for recall. If you later work jump-ups or such like into your training routine, the clicker will be a good way to establish random rewards in your program. Once your hawk will jump the length of her leash to your fist, lengthen the leash. Once she comes 6 feet, take her outside, and fly her on the creance. You can also introduce distractions that she will likely encounter, like the dog, at this point. Once your hawk reliably comes to you from 100 feet on the creance, with instantaneous response to the precursor, you can let her loose. If she’s well trained, she’ll come back. If not, well, now is a good time to learn how to use radio tracking telemetry.
Once she comes back, this is the time to “make” her to the lure, if you haven’t already done so while on the creance. The final time you call her back to you in a training session, swing the lure you’ll use in the field to call her, and have a nice big juicy thing on it, of which she gets to eat all. Let her take as much time as she wants to enjoy it, and then pop her onto your glove, hide the lure away, and put her up for the night. Within a couple of repetitions, the lure will be something you can use to get her back in the field when things are going wrong (pheasant hunters are coming, a lawnmower has started, your neighbor just let her bantam chickens out in the yard, etc.) and she needs to be back on your fist, hooded and/or leashed, instantly.
Once recall is a firm habit, you begin to teach the hawk to follow along in the way you plan to hunt with her. There are many ways to start this, like calling her along a line of fenceposts, but once your hawk learns that you produce prey, she will follow you, closely. Another way to put this: your hawk already knows how to hunt, you just have to show her that hunting WITH you is a fun way to play the game. Hawks’ favorite thing in the world is prey; if your hawk learns that when you walk in the woods, rabbits spring from your feet with regularity, you become her favorite thing on which to focus. Now go hunt her! There will be challenges and missteps in the field. Flushing lots of game for your hawk will fix most behavioral issues, in the same way that when the Chicago Bulls were winning lots of championships, it didn’t matter that the players hated each others’ guts.
Once you’ve caught a head of quarry, you will make-in and trade-off with your bird. Basically, approach with a trade-off piece of meat on fist or lure, and make it more appealing than the prey animal (once you’ve humanely dispatched the rabbit or starling using a quarry spike, cervical dislocation, or thoracic compression). Your bird should jump to the trade-off, and you should discreetly hide the prey in the bag. There’s lots of different ways of doing this, which are beyond the scope of a general overview. Just don’t ever try to rip quarry away from your hawk. Subterfuge is better than force.
Finally, a word about the third goal of training. We can desensitize our birds to extraneous stimulus and habituate them to perform desired behaviors, but we cannot hunt with them for every hour of daylight. It is a fact of falconry that hawks spend a significant portion of their day either in the mews or the weathering area. In some cases, these birds will do best hooded. If so, you need to learn how to hood your bird effectively and without trauma. Jim Nelson’s “high level tidbitting” (https://www.artsandhawking.com/highleveltidbitting2.htm) is an excellent example of how to train to hood. Especially in cases where birds are not hooded, training routines will be a vital part of keeping them happy and healthy in the mews. While it may not be a precise way to say it, if a hawk has enough intellectual stimulation every day through training or hunting, they will have enough to think over while sitting in their mews.
Training your hawk to engage in desired behaviors, like hunting, recall, and following-on or waiting-on the human and dog will help to minimize negative or destructive behavior, like bouncing all over the mews with all that unspent energy. Hawks do not think like us, and they do not crave companionship; they do however, think, and in the wild bouts of intense hunting activity are sprinkled in among long solitary hours spent sitting on a tree, watching and ruminating. Mimicking that pattern for our hunting hawks by working with them in ways that piques their interest and prey drive, for at least an hour a day, keeps them happy, healthy, and hard-hunting.