Hunting with Harris Hawks

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

“If you think you might fall, save the bird”

This morning we were at the Bird of Prey Centre in Bedfordshire; home to the English School of Falconry and nearly 300 birds. The centre is run by Phil Gooden and his daughter Emma and is nestled into a patch of woodland in the magnificent grounds of Shuttleworth in Old Warden Park.

We arrived bright and early, just as the frosty morning (yes – we survived the first night in the motorhome…just!) was turning into a gloriously sunny day. As we were warming our hands on a mug of tea and chatting to the team of falconers about what they do, behind us two eagles were making the most of the shifting patches of sunshine and having a morning stretch; with a wingspan of around seven feet each that’s quite a sight.

Hunting with Harris Hawks

A Golden Eagle

We were there to find out what hawking was all about and were let loose in the beautiful parkland under the watchful eye of Adam, whose passion for falconry grew from a chance sighting of a job going at the Centre about seven years ago.

Hunting with Harris Hawks

Adam and Tetley

Adam introduced us to our birds for the day: two Harris hawks called Tetley and Romeo.  At six years old, Tetley was an accomplished hunter and had already done pretty well for himself since the hunting season started at the beginning of October. Romeo, four years his junior, was a relative novice and yet to catch his first prey of the season.

Hunting with Harris Hawks


Hunting with Harris Hawks

Romeo (his lighter feathers show that he’s a young bird)

For those of you who don’t know, falconry is the art of taking wild quarry with a trained bird. In this case, we were using hawks and the anticipated quarry included rabbits and pheasants.

We were provided with all the equipment we needed (big leather glove, various straps and a bag of chicken bits…forgive the non-technical terms) and shown how to hold your arm in the right position and wrap the straps around your fingers to hold the bird to your arm securely.  We then set off around the grounds looking for places with a bit of cover where our quarry might be lurking.

Hunting with Harris Hawks

Lucy with Tetley and Emma with Romeo

First stop was a small patch of woodland, and Adam taught us how to release the birds by holding your arm out straight and sweeping it forward at the same time as letting go of the straps. Tetley and Romeo then shot off to nearby trees where they sat and watched. They say that if hawks knew how to read, they’d be able to read the newspaper headline from as far away as the length of a football pitch.  That may be true but in this patch of woodland it didn’t do much good as we didn’t see a thing!

The idea is to keep moving and the hawks will follow slowly behind, with a bell attached just under their tail to alert you to their whereabouts if you find you lose sight of them. If there is nothing to be seen, you can call in the bird by holding out your arm with a little piece of chicken in your hand, wrap the straps around your fist and move on. This is sometimes a little easier said than done – on several occasions we were completely ignored or they swooped in for the chicken and flew off again!  These things, no doubt, come with practice.

With no luck in the wooded area, we headed for a pond where Romeo had a tussle with a pheasant but only got away with a few feathers. Unfortunately, despite trying several more locations, that was the closest either bird got as there just wasn’t much to see.  That is not to say we didn’t have a fabulous morning. In fact, it was such a joy watching these beautiful birds swooping from perch to perch, and learning how to work so closely alongside them, that we fully intend to go back.

Hunting with Harris Hawks

Emma and Romeo

If anyone is interested in going to the Bird of Prey Centre, we can highly recommend it.  For those wanting to get some hands-on experience like we did, the hawking season runs from 1st October to the 28th February and you can go out for either a full day or half a day. The Centre also put on three flying displays a day (Owls, Birds of the World and Out of Africa).  Look out for the golden eagles, Tetley and Romeo (obviously!) and our other favourite Pete the European Eagle Owl.

For more information, call 01767 627527 or visit their website.