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The following is based on an article written for issue number 30 of
"The Austringer" (1998)

Original article: click here

From casual reading as a teenager I knew that falcons couldn't actually be made to do anything - imprinting aside, they remain essentially wild with all their instincts intact. Nevertheless, as a layman I was surprised to hear that many birds could spend their entire lives without ever venturing to fly above, say, 200 feet, thus depriving their owners of the spectacle of a full-blown stoop.

Falconry is an ancient sport, and the training techniques and tools of bygone days are still in use today. The basic equipment is virtually identical to that found in ancient illustrations, with the addition of a few modern conveniences like transponders for tracking. With this long history, falconers are understandably protective of traditional methods that have stood the test of time, and are fully justified in maintaining a healthy scepticism toward anything new that comes along. After all, fads come and go.

I have built kites for specific tasks before: the official UK endurance record holder (for 18 years); one that flew for 15 days tied to a fence post (as a bird scarer); kites for altitude record attempts, altitude sprints, and aerial photography. One was used to hoist an aerial in TV's "Secret Life of the Radio Set." Then there was the design for a cloud seeding experiment on the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean. But nothing in the previous 20 years compares with the avalanche of reported successes by falconers since they started training with kites. Arch sceptics have been transformed overnight (literally) into proselytisers with an almost religious fervor. Some had thought the technique just wouldn't work, while others doubted their ability to fly kites. The speed of their conversions was sometimes astounding. It often took but a single afternoon. I'd receive a phone call saying "my tiercel has already gone to 500 feet the first time out," or "my 18 week old Saker is up to 7 or 800 feet on the third day." One customer even used the technique with a large mature accipiter, going to 500 feet in four steps over a period of several days. Griff Griffiths of the Welsh Hawking Centre, with his expanded breeding program, says that without the kites he couldn't possibly train all the birds in time.

Falconers have reported that, like Pavlov's dogs, the hooded birds begin to rev up at the first sound of kite fabric rustling. As soon as the hood comes off, the bird cocks its head, marks the kite, and takes off. As long as they'll go to a lure, they'll respond to this technique, with some birds varying their tactics with every flight. Experienced falconers who wondered how those young newcomers have got their birds to fly so high, have been finding out! Kites have become a useful, even essential, tool for falconry.

I've supplied kites to falconers in Britain, Europe, the Middle East and Gulf States, and America. In America David Scarbrough lead the development of this as a simple, reliable system of training and year-round exercise and rehabilitation through articles in "Hawk Chalks" and elsewhere. We have corresponded at length about winds and the flying qualities of kites, and why they need to fly to steep angles (it's so the rings the lure lines are attached to slip freely down, rather than sliding back and jamming on the kite). He's tested different colours (it doesn't make any difference to the birds), and explained to me how it all began with weather balloons - which get blown down whenever the breeze picks up.

Fixed clip setupPrior to about the mid 1970s suitable kites simply didn't exist. Commercial kites were either too small or required half a gale to get off the ground, and in any case weren't capable of steep flying angles. The first efficient nylon light wind deltas were being made in America, but they relied on extra drag for stability and consequently were unable to hold really steep flying angles at high altitudes.

By the mid 1970s, armed with mathematical tools from my American guru, I was able to develop light wind delta kites with radical geometries and scalloped trailing edges. Drawing on experience in aircraft engineering design, I built prototypes with near absolute precision, and tested one variable at a time. This has not resulted in the perfect all-purpose delta kite, but rather in a range of kites, each suited for segments of the range of wind speeds from less than Force 1 (0.5-3mph) to Force 5 (19-24mph). It so happens that birds of prey are most often flown in the same winds as most of my delta kites.

There have been two distinct approaches to kites used for falconry. The first is the large, stable lifting platform, a heavy-duty all rounder for carrying electronic releasing mechanisms. The second, and by far the most widely used, is the medium sized kite that can achieve a steep flying angle at 1,000 feet or more.

The two basic approaches

Lures are suspended using a simple clip arrangement, typically ordinary clothes pegs or the adjustable clips used in coarse fishing. The lure line is usually connected to the flying line with a clip like a mini carabiner, preventing the birds from flying into the next county and teaching them to come down after connecting with their quarry. There are two basic approaches. One has a clip or clothespeg fixed to the kite or the line, with the lure line clipped to the flying line with something like a mini carabiner; the clip or clothespeg stays put, while the bird and lure slide down the kite line. The other has a running link, where the lure line is attached to a wire linkage with a swivel, to minimize the chances of a tangle or dragging on the way down. If the linkage is attached with a mini carabiner it will be easy to release with one hand.

Variations include encouraging the birds to dive, either by dropping lures by remote control or releasing pigeons after the birds have climbed to a high pitch, and attaching small parachutes to lures for drag - not using the kite line as a guide, but letting the birds work hard trying to fly off, developing powerful "tail chasers."

There have been a couple of reports or rumors of accidents involving birds and kite lines. I have occasionally seen wild birds (not falcons) clip a flying line, but most dodge it at the last minute, and none have been injured. I have heard a story about a falcon that somehow got a claw entangled in dacron braid.

Under tension, ordinary 50 or 80 lb dacron braid is quite tightly woven, so I doubt if there's a shred of cause for concern. I would worry more about the possibility of a cut from some of the extremely thin high-tech lines produced for the stunt kite industry and used by some falconers. One customer's falcon cut a toe to the bone on super-thin high-tech flying line, and after a costly series of veterinary treatments, that toe still can't move.

One amusing problem with this technique happened in Denmark, where hunting with birds is not allowed. The falcon fell in love with the kite. Even up a good 300 meters, the bird quickly learned to associate treats with the kite, where they were somehow attached with a bit of magnetic strip. But then she refused to come down. The solution was to fly another kite at about 7 meters - then she would come down. But without the objective of a stoop to prey, this has to be considered a special case, and I've been assured by several experienced falconers that the problem of "kitebound" birds is easily avoided.

- Dan Leigh


Home - Contents - Catalogs - Main falcontraining page
Overview by Dave Scarbrough - Interview with Dave Scarbrough
User report from Dr Matthew Gage - Lure your falcon "up" by Roger James
Snap away clip setups

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Dan Leigh, 54 Osborne Road, Pontypool, Gwent, Wales, UK NP4 6LX