Hunting with the Hawks

Last December, I received an email from Nathan Barnes of Wind River Raptors asking if any of us would like to accompany him on a small game hunt. I’m always up for an excuse to get outside, but this would be a bit different. Instead of carrying the shotgun or my trusty Marlin Golden 39A .22, we would only need our feet and a flushing stick. We were hunting…with hawks! 

Nathan, fellow falconer John Coffman, and I convened just after first light on a piece of BLM land just outside of town. With two red-tailed hawks, Artemis and Maria, we set out across the sage in search of cottontails. Once we honed in on an area that looked promising, John’s bird was released.

If you’ve never experienced falconry before, it’s very different from a traditional gun-based cottontail hunting scenario. It’s a dance, of sorts, that requires the circumstances to be just right. Not only do you need to find the quarry, you need to be positioned in such a way that the hawk can spot the prey and realistically hunt it down. If there are too many rocks or too much cover, a successful strike will be difficult. It goes without saying that not every rabbit flush will yield a kill.

Despite what we might think from some of our interactions with rabbits and vehicles, cottontails can be wily and savvy creatures. They’ve evolved to outwit all sorts of predators, especially those that rule the skies. Hawks have quite an advantage with their amazing vision, but that doesn’t mean they’re successful 100% of the time. That was evident on our first attempt. We managed to jump a cottontail, but Maria wasn’t able to nab it before it sought refuge in the rocks along a small cliff face. Once a rabbit makes it into the rocks, the birds have virtually no chance. After that first unsuccessful hunt, it was back to the skies for Maria.

Just as a good hunting dog is eager to flush out quarry for his owner, we were working hard to find rabbits for Artemis and Maria. While Maria soared high, we poked and prodded any bit of cover that might hold cottontails. We trekked across the sagebrush sea for about an hour before luck struck again. A lone rabbit made a fateful dash toward the rocky cliff, only to be nabbed at the last minute by Maria. Amazingly, the bird made contact just before the rabbit could escape into the impenetrable rocks. Quite a sight to see!

Maria is a wild-caught bird. Without going into too much detail on Nathan and John’s explanation, the process of capturing and working with wild birds requires a lot of time, patience, and experience. As a result, both the handler and the bird form a delicate relationship. As a bird of prey, catching and killing their prey means they get to reap the rewards of the hunt. Instinctively, they refuse to relinquish their capture. So, it’s up to the handler to navigate that delicate relationship and work with the bird so it understands it’s ok to give up its catch. After Maria’s success, John worked with her to release her kill for an even trade of red meat scraps, a process that took about 20 minutes. They have an understanding – if Maria captures and willingly relinquishes her kill, John gives her enough meat for her to feel satiated. It’s a fascinating relationship.

Nathan and John prefer to let one bird hunt at a time. Due to a variety of reasons, Nathan decided to cut Artemis’ hunt short. Despite the short hunt, I had a brief opportunity to witness her hunting technique. Her hunting style was a bit different than Maria. Instead of soaring high, Artemis preferred to perch along rock ledges and watch as we worked the sagebrush past her. We hopscotched along the small cliff face, but never caught sight of another rabbit.

As a longtime educational bird used for the classroom, Artemis has experience working with her handler, and as a result appears to have an unwavering loyalty. That said, raptors are not like man’s best friend. It takes a skilled handler to work with animals that have such an innate sense of wildness. Working with animals like these takes much dedication and a willingness that most wouldn’t even consider. Nathan started Wind River Raptors as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in order to respond to the “great need to provide a facility and personnel to rescue, rehabilitate, house, and provide education about birds of prey, as well as to help conserve the birds and their habitats.”

The organization not only provides an amazing facility with specially-constructed mews (space to house the large birds) and areas for indoor flight to strengthen injured birds prior to release back into the wild, they are also part of a network of like-minded individuals and organizations throughout the country that aid in the rescue of injured raptors.

If you’d like to learn more about Wind River Raptors and how you can support their cause, check out their website at windriverraptors.org. You can also follow them @WindRiverRaptors on Facebook and @WindRivRaptors on Instagram and Twitter.

Foothills of the Wind River Range.

Maria gaining altitude while John cruises the sagebrush flats.

Cottontail tracks in the snow.

Nathan glassing for cottontails along the cliff’s edge.

John hustling to follow Maria as she hones in on her prey.

The one that got away…

John coaxes Maria with fresh meat as she relinquishes her kill.

Nathan taking a breather and watching the sunrise.

A nearby rough-legged hawk drops in to check us out. Territorial raptors can pose a threat to Nathan and John’s birds.

Artemis hopscotching along a rocky ledge.

With a cottontail in the bag, John is all smiles.

Nathan and Artemis.

Celebrating a successful hunt.