The simplest and quite probably the best way to get a potential gamehawk to wait-on is to go out with a falcon already trained to circle the falconer and flush game for it. However, not all ground and quarry will require a hawk that mounts high in order for it to be successful and so the falconer may well be disappointed in the pitch of his charge if he wants to do more than put game in the bag. After all isn't the object of gamehawking to kill game following the spectacular stoop of the falcon? Of course style is in the eye of the beholder but it is unlikely that most falconers would find much in the way of style with which to commend a gamehawk taking a pitch of say 150ft. even if it is the most efficient pitch for the particular set of circumstances that the falconer is operating under. Rightly or wrongly, in modern day gamehawking style has come to be almost synonymous with pitch and it is the creation of pitch that has concerned the proponents of gamehawking for many years.
Some falcons are said to be naturally high mounting and with their captive breeding has come many examples of lines of especially peregrines that have earned a reputation for making high-flying gamehawks for generation after generation. However there are many examples of gamehawks that haven't come with a recognised pedigree and yet have been every bit as impressive as those high-flyers that have and also individuals with excellent pedigrees that have disappointed. All this makes producing a gamehawk that likes to mount into the heavens rather haphazard. One way in which falconers have attempted to make the unpredictable more predictable is by the use of the kite in training a falcon to climb into the sky ever higher and higher.
'Bubble' - the Tiercel Peregrine featured in this article - about to make his first flight to the kite in preparation for a successful 2004/5 season on partridges and ducks
Most falconers' first attempts at using a kite as a training-aid have usually involved trying to improve the pitch of an already 'made' gamehawk. The results are usually disappointing since the falconer is attempting to undo what has already been done - a very difficult proposition since most living creatures form habits that are hard to break and a falcon is no exception. That is not to say that kiting these 'older' hawks is a waste of time - far from it. Although the falconer may well become disillusioned - as the usual improvement in pitch is only around 50% and this will not turn a low-flyer into a high one - there are many advantages to using the kite with an already 'made' gamehawk. These include extra fitness for making those more taxing flights, getting a hawk fit quickly following the moult, assessing and improving a hawk's abilities in stronger than usual winds, dissuading a hawk from landing until after the flight and, of course, a way of recovering lost hawks.
Having witnessed first-hand the benefits of kiting an established gamehawk, the 'kite-happy' falconer is likely to want to see its effects upon a new falcon of the year. The falconer will no doubt anxiously await the moment when, following a couple of weeks on the kite at the end of more traditional lure-training, he unhoods his falcon with the kite no longer in the sky. The result is usually disappointing with the potential gamehawk merely flying around the falconer whilst waiting for something to happen. Of course many falconers are happy if the hawk gets a little air under its wings and the more natural flyers will, aided by the extra fitness gained from the kite, mount to a reasonable height and this makes serving them with game so much easier. At best the new hawk has all the benefits ascribed to the kiting of an older hawk plus a decent pitch to give it an advantage over gamebirds flushed below. At worst though the new falcon has gained nothing in the way of pitch but much in the way of fitness with which to chase check that would have previously taught it to give up whilst it was still unfit. Also, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the newly kited prospective gamehawk should catch game following a tail-chase fuelled by its extra fitness and thus learn bad habits without an appreciation for height.
In an attempt to teach a new falcon the value of height many falconers have tried removing the bait from the kite/line and flushing game after the falcon has gone up to the kite in order to look for it. Unfortunately most falcons, especially peregrines, will simply turn their heads on one side in order to check for the bait using the fovea of the eye before leaving the fist as they aren't willing to expend that much energy on the 'off-chance' that they can search out 'hidden' bait on the kite. Although many hybrids and even some peregrines will do this, especially if the bait has been attached directly to the kite rather than to the kite-line, we are still left with problems, as I will soon explain. In order to persuade these 'problem-falcons' into making the flight to a bait-less kite some falconers have tried replacing the bait with a lightweight plastic 'dummy' that is impossible for the falcon to grasp or have gradually reduced the size of the bait on the kite-line to a mere mouthful so that the hawk will go up for the bait and eat it on the wing and can then be served with game whilst it is still in a high position over the falconer. Eventually the hawk is going up with nothing in the way of food to tempt it upwards but the kite is still there acting as a 'cue' for the hawk's behaviour, i.e. the hawk goes up to the kite and the falconer throws out the lure or produces game. This is a big problem in that once the kite is removed from the equation so is the 'cue' which in turn means so is the 'cued' behaviour.
The 'key' to successfully 'weaning' a new prospective gamehawk from the kite whilst still maintaining a high pitch is to gradually weaken this 'cued behaviour' until it is the act of climbing that 'cues' the reward of game (or a lure) and not the kite itself. The first stage of this process requires that the hawk is habituated into flying high or weakening the cue may well result in eroding the behaviour itself before it has become properly established. The best way to achieve this is to start the young hawk on flying to the kite for food once basic manning is complete (note that worries about the hawk being scared by the kite need not be entertained provided that the bait is kept well away from the kite in the early stages) and to get the hawk flying away from the falconer from the outset. Initially this can be achieved by throwing the garnished lure onto the ground in front of the falconer with the hawk on a creance on the fist and gradually switching over to an ungarnished lure before moving on to the hawk leaving the glove to bind to the bait dangling from the kite. This way the prospective gamehawk knows all about the lure and that it means food (especially if she is fed from it on those windless days when kite flying is not possible) and yet can be directed up and away from the falconer with ease. It must be stressed that calling-off lessons where the hawk is made to fly to the falconer for the lure before learning the value of height should be avoided if full 'brainwashing' with regard to high-flying is to be satisfactorily completed.
Since this process contains just as many physical aspects as mental ones it should be remembered that young falcons, particularly peregrines with their high wing-loading, must not be over taxed in the early stages of flying to the kite. As they are being asked to climb whilst still very unfit - and having done very little flying up to this stage - extreme care needs to be taken not to raise the height or angle of the kite so quickly that the hawk cannot physically cope. The height of the bait should be raised steadily in small increments whilst being accompanied by a sufficient increase in the hawk's weight so that muscle and condition is built along with stamina at every flight. With possible missing days due to poor lift conditions for the kite it may take up to a month before the prospective gamehawk is climbing to the full height of say, a thousand feet or more. By this time she will be superbly conditioned to bolt straight from the fist (there will be no waiting around to mute or rouse before flying) and climb with power towards the kite. Now it is time for that all-important next stage - preparing the hawk so that the high mounting continues unabated even after the removal of the kite.
A method that is used very successfully by our North American friends as well as some falconers in Britain involves flushing game whilst the falcon is climbing to the kite. The bait is left on but the game is flushed before the falcon reaches it and is either progressively allowed to mount higher and higher day by day or makes huge heights from the outset with game only served once the falcon is way up there. The important thing with this method is that game only be produced whilst the falcon is actively engaged in climbing and before she is so close to the kite that she focuses solely on the bait and not the falconer. Eventually the falcon should be going up with only the intention of climbing until game is flushed and first the bait and then the kite can be removed without affecting her pitch. The time to remove the kite can be gauged by the falcon's reaction when the hood is removed - if she pauses to look up at the kite then she is not yet ready and is still looking to the kite as a 'cue' for her climbing behaviour. If, on the other hand, she takes wing almost immediately without so much as a backward glance then the falconer can be confident that she is happy to climb in expectation of a reward not any longer connected to the kite.
However, do not be misled into thinking she no longer cares for the kite - put it up once again and you will soon see the error of your thoughts, although some falcons will mount almost halfheartedly as they keep an expectant eye on the falconer below. Such mixed messages can be confusing for a new gamehawk and should not be repeated often as once she is trained she needs to learn that if the kite is in the sky she will be allowed to climb to it unhindered. This can present problems with some gamehawks-to-be in that they will retain some form of 'cued' behavior when the kite is in the air and by this means betray the fact that they are thinking of the choice presented to them i.e. either they climb higher for cold food on the kite or put in less effort in the climb in order to be rewarded with game flushed and the chance of a warm meal following a bit of excitement in the chase. One way that has been used to get around this problem and so further weaken the 'cue value' of the kite whilst still using it to draw the falcon upwards is to gradually and progressively release the hawk from further and further upwind and arrange for the flushing of game in between the release point and the kite. Eventually the hawk could be released from upwards of half a mile distant until the kite can be dispensed with altogether.
The method of flushing game with the falcon on the way up to the kite can create problems with some falcons in terms of sending out mixed messages and also makes life difficult for the British falconer who has to rely on game holding whilst he sets up the kite or needs good strips of gamecover in the right places to engineer the lesson. With this in mind I have developed a simple method that I used with my peregrine tiercel in order to avoid confusing the gamehawk. Basically this involved kiting him as soon as he was well manned (after a brief introduction to the lure as described earlier in this article) and spending well over a month slowly building his weight and condition whilst steadily raising the height I was asking him to climb. The Foot and Mouth epidemic delayed my return to my partridge ground until the end of October so I was in no hurry. This ensured that he was very fit and had extremely well developed muscles whilst also instilling into him a desire to climb that had become a habit. I also carefully ensured a shallow angle to the kite in the early stages by walking downwind before unhooding so that he developed a style of using a lot of sky rather than ringing up overhead. I believe that this allows for the development of more natural high-flyers since it is easier on the hawk but launch position can be used to influence the mounting-style of any young falcon. For example, it is possible to develop a ringing style by always releasing the falcon from a position directly under the kite from the very beginning of kite-training or by ensuring that you are well downwind at launch if you want an into-the-wind style.
Although I was steadily raising my tiercel's weight and condition after the manner I have previously described I took it to extremes since I wanted to try and get him to mount out of habit rather than just for the reward hanging from the kite-line. This was an alternative way of 'weakening the cue' whilst the kite was still there to ensure that he would always mount immediately once unhooded on the fist. In order to avoid the possibility that robust falcons might refuse to go up to the kite, I always use a whole quail as bait since I know that even fat falcons deep in the moult immediately want to gain possession of a whole bird provided that a meal is due. To further concentrate his mind on the bait I flew him late in the day so that the need to eat by sunset was strong and yet I needed him to demonstrate his disdain for the bait with the kite still in the air. By continually raising his weight only after hard exercise (the flight to the kite) he had the muscle power and bulk to make light work of the climb when he didn't need to eat immediately yet had become habituated into flying high. This became apparent when over time he used more and more sky to climb to the kite until he was climbing nowhere near the kite and to higher pitches than were needed to grab the bait. I realized that I had overdone things a tad weight-wise when he climbed to twice the height of the kite but ignored it for 10 minutes before stooping down to earth and taking a breather and then going back up for the bait. This demonstrated to me that he was making the distinction between climbing out of habit and climbing for a reward and although he had only been kited to 700ft it was time to remove the kite.
I dropped his weight a touch and waited for calm conditions before unhooding him near some gamecover on my training-ground where I had released some partridges a couple of months before and could be sure of producing game. He immediately left the fist before turning downwind for a quarter of a mile and then turned and mounted on the way back until he was overhead at 500ft. I bumped a few partridges out of the cover crop and he hesitated before starting a stoop then pulling out as the gamebirds dropped back out of sight. I repeated the process until he was overhead at around 200ft following another stoop and then threw down the lure and ended the lesson. I continued in this vein for another week before I was allowed back onto my partridge ground and could find better set-ups and he went from strength to strength with regular high pitches of around 500ft to 1000ft. The problem was that my ground wasn't open enough for pitches of these heights and he was mostly unsuccessful because of this. Also I couldn't find enough game since I had to rely on the areas where I had a few wild coveys whereas I would normally supplement these with areas where I released game. I had only my training ground releases to fall back on, as it was the only area that Foot and Mouth hadn't prevented me from accessing in the summer but even with these I had to switch to flying/feeding every other day. He took to it well and his increased appetite meant I could push his weight up over the winter so that he carried on flying high in spite of the poor ground and lack of quarry.
I had learned something useful about my training method quite by accident. When I had devised the method I had done so with the intention of weaning from the kite in the most direct and uncomplicated way. This I had achieved but what I hadn't considered was that because the tiercel had been encouraged to mount out of habit and with the use of weight-control his pitch became more weight-sensitive than traditionally trained gamehawks and even those kited in the usual way. This meant that I could control the height of his pitches by controlling his weight - a normal occurrence in a limited way with most gamehawks - but with him it meant very consistent high pitches even without quality set-ups on game. Bringing his weight down towards the bottom of his flight-weight range meant that he would mount nicely but would use less sky and hold tight station above at around 400ft whereas pushing it towards the top-end would result in him using a wide panorama of sky during the climb and only starting back overhead when he was a mere speck. Once game was flushed, however, he would make a vertical stoop to earth regardless of his height and, since I preferred the high pitches, he would usually not have time to connect with the game before it reached the safety of cover. Consequently he finished the season with only two kills.
The following season I was to learn even more about the extreme fitness and exciting possibilities of this system. After two weeks on the kite starting at 400ft at the end of August the tiercel was released over a set-up on red-legged partridges in early September and climbed to an out of sight pitch in a clear blue sky. The only reason that I knew he was overhead was by the use of telemetry and so when the flush was made I was confident that he would stoop. After flying around a hundred yards to the cover of a crop of sugarbeet the partridges put-in and Bubble pulled out of his stoop at 1000ft right overhead with an audible chink of his bell! Out came the lure and down came the tiercel in a perfect teardrop tuck. It seemed that the muscle built during the previous season was still there after almost seven months on the block and he was using it to good effect after adding a bit of stamina and muscle-condition from the short stint on the kite at the end of the moult. I believe this to be true of any gamehawk flown hard during the previous season and especially so with kited gamehawks motivated to fly high but with Bubble it appeared that the ultra-slow habituation to high-mounting was so deeply ingrained that motivation didn't seem to enter the equation.
The downrigger made and used by the author. The pulley is marine grade, with ball bearings - the kite line is threaded through it.
Click here for sketch of setup in action.
During September Bubble reproduced these superhigh pitches on many occasions despite set-ups on game that almost inevitably meant he couldn't get in a strike before cover was reached until transmitter failure (I was foolishly using only one transmitter) led to his loss. He was recovered after three days (thanks to the I.B.R.) with less than two weeks to go until the 2002 International Fieldmeet at Woodhall Spa. He was desperately thin having lost over 3oz and I had to build him up to his lowest flying-weight during a week without exercise. I unhooded him over a set-up on hen pheasants in early October and he stayed in the air for ten minutes but didn't climb much above 100ft. I brought him down to the lure and he wasn't even out of breath and so I hooded him up following a small reward and set up the kite. He again flew around for ten minutes without becoming breathless but couldn't climb to the bait at only 200ft - just as I have always thought - very little muscle bulk but high aerobic activity is required for stamina in falcons whereas good, well-conditioned muscle bulk is essential for climbing, especially in peregrines.
After a week of flying him twice a day and gradually building his muscle condition and bulk I attended Woodhall Spa with little hope in my heart for Bubble to reproduce the high-flying exploits I had enjoyed in September. He was to surprise me not only in this but also in the fact that since his period of liberty he had developed a liking for woodpigeons (he must have caught them but been robbed by the piratical buzzards that often take away his partridges on my ground). On our first day he climbed to 1000ft before being lost for several hours after checking at pigeons despite the fact that he had never checked before. For the next two days I flew him within an hour of sunset in order to minimize the risks from pigeons and in a flight over a leeward slope he climbed to over 700ft and maintained this height for 15 minutes without setting his wings once. The following day we had marked down some hen pheasants in a crop of sugar beet and he flew across wind before turning into it and mounting under a flock of golden plover that endeavored to stay above him. They finally lost this battle when he started back overhead at about 1500ft and went through the cloudbase of approximately 2000ft as the flock scattered low over our heads and the tiercel disappeared from the view of the binocular-wielding field. I was not expecting this given his recent problems and was too slow in checking on his position using my receiver (I had to run back to my car in order to fetch it) for when I called for the flush he was slightly upwind and in the perfect position but the pheasants had run in front of the dogs and it was almost 5 minutes before they broke cover and the tiercel had already gone by this time. I picked him up when he returned to my lure ten minutes later a mile upwind. On the last day I flew him two hours before sunset and he killed a woodpigeon in a vertical stoop from 700ft whilst he was still mounting for a covey of frenchmen in a field of wheat stubble. Whilst by no means a success, my experiences at Woodhall Spa emphasised that this method was more than just a tool for fantastic physical development. Although his performances owed a lot to the almost enforced 'frustrational conditioning' of limited weathering and being hooded for long periods I believe that the habituation fostered by this system had created a gamehawk driven to mount high almost in spite of any physical shortcomings.
Following Woodhall I gradually pushed his weight higher and higher in order to reduce his interest in woodpigeons whilst flying him earlier in the day. During December his weight had gone up an incredible 4oz since his flights at the International Meeting and yet he was averaging almost 900ft and never failed to come overhead because I always managed to serve him (I had released 200 partridges in the summer and early autumn). Even though he was almost always beaten to cover from these pitches occasionally partridges would bypass close cover when he was very high and this would invariably result in a kill. It seemed that Bubble was completely 'brainwashed' to make high pitches. Also because his pitch wasn't created by the traditional method of flushing game in order to make the hawk realise it has to climb higher in order to be successful I could get away with poor set-ups on enclosed ground provided that I kept his weight on the high side.
During the tiercel's third season would come the ultimate test of my method. A dry summer in 2003 meant I had a sudden population increase of grey partridges on my ground and it might be possible to hawk exclusively wild quarry for the first time in my career as a gamehawker. I decided not to release any birds and in early September put Bubble on the kite for a couple of weeks prior to his first game-hawking flight towards the end of the month. A kill from 800ft on that first day followed by several knockdowns from even higher pitches and a few more kills together with a solid average of over 700ft in the following weeks made me believe I had cracked it. However I soon discovered that my method isn't a magic panacea for the problems of getting high pitches out of gamehawks in spite of ground, quarry and the skill of the falconer. Although my tiercel was habituated into flying high he still needed a good reason to come overhead and so when I began to fail to serve him after deciding too often on marginal, near speculative slips that went wrong he became frustratingly inconsistent. Since he had killed a mallard in early October I began to seek out opportunities to hawk ducks as an alternative to partridges but one particular day showed me the error of my ways. During an afternoon's hawking with friends at an oasis of ponds in the heart of the industrial Midlands Bubble climbed to 800ft late in the day before stooping at a flock of ducks that dropped into big water ahead of him. His throw-up brought him nearer to us but he refused to come overhead and instead set off on an outrun that took him up and away over the towns and factories. After 20 minutes of constantly beating his wings he disappeared out of binocular range at approximately 3000ft and he had to be tracked down by telemetry and was eventually recovered after dark. He was showing me that he didn't trust me to serve him with game but was still demonstrating his habitual conditioning to climb into the heavens.
In order to regain control I reduced his weight but that meant that his pitch would suffer. I had no choice however since although I was now, once again, producing reasonable set-ups I had lost the faith of my tiercel and needed to keep him near in order to show him that I could serve him regularly with game. From mid December to early January his weight reduction meant that his pitches dropped to around 400ft but he began to believe in me again and consistency returned to our hawking. Around mid January I was reluctant to raise weight again and therefore used 'frustrational conditioning' techniques such as keeping the tiercel in darkness with no weathering prior to hawking in order than I could get him to use more sky to burn up his pent-up energy and therefore increase pitch without raising weight.
It seems that my system of using kiting techniques in order to provide total habituation and instill almost an institution of mounting to great heights in my tiercel has been a qualified success. Unlike many gamehawks that require high barometric pressure conditions or thermals for occasional bouts of extreme pitches, Bubble made nearly all of his superhigh pitches during low or falling barometric pressure conditions and often during rain. Also, unlike standard proactive kiting techniques that rely on setting a standard pitch with the kite, maintain this with the reward of flushing game and then become somewhat passive once the kite is removed this method stays proactive after the removal of the kite since weight controls the pitch. With weight controlling the pitch rather than the production of game the falconer can artificially create a pitch that is much higher than the ground can support. The extreme fitness levels are brought about during that all-important first season of slow, deliberate kite-training when strong motivation is shown to be less important than gradual habituation yet the muscle built at this time stands the gamehawk in good stead for the future. However, as big, wide outruns are a feature of this method then fieldcraft can become more difficult since game is not pinned by the falcon's position in the sky. Also, since the gamehawk is flown in high condition, quarry sense and footing ability are slower to develop in the early stages although this could be improved by regular exposure to quality set-ups on game. Ultimately, as I have discovered, if you cannot provide the basic elements of consistently serving the gamehawk with quarry of its liking over ground that allows for a strike on game a few kiting tricks cannot help you if your goal is high quality gamehawking.
- Gerry Plant
Also by Gerry Plant: Conditioning Peregrines as High-Flying Gamehawks / Technical Aspects of Kiting for Falconry