I’ve recently returned from a filming trip in Arizona where I have been working on a production for National Geographic on Harris’s (Harris) Hawks. During the filming of this production, I got to experience “dirt hawking”. Dirt hawking is a form of falconry that involves hunting rabbits and other small game with Harris Hawks (other hawk species also qualify). One of the primary reasons that these hawks make such excellent falconry birds is because they are one of only two raptor species (the other is the Galapagos Hawk) that hunt cooperatively. There are many examples in the animal world of pack behavior. Take lions, wolves, hyenas to name a few. But in the case of Harris Hawks, this mentality jumps the species barrier and they form a strong bond with their human partners, readily accepting their non-avian hunting companions as members of their pack.

A pair of Harris Hawks allow a close approach

Prior to experiencing falconry first-hand, I must admit to being a little bit skeptical as to the merits of the sport. I have never been one to advocate the needless killing of animals for whatever purpose. But after spending time with experienced falconers in the field I have come to respect and admire the responsible practitioners of this, the sport of kings. Consider the following quote, “Falconry involves the use of birds of prey to kill other birds and animals for sport. The League Against Cruel Sports believes that in the interests of raptor welfare, no further licences should be issued. The League believes that the bloodsport of falconry should be banned.” League Against Cruel Sports. Whilst one cannot dispute the initial description, it is my opinion that it is stretching the truth to label falconry as a “bloodsport”. My reasons for this are as follows:

1. Raptors are wild animals that are driven by their instinct to find food. In the case of fox hunting (a true bloodsport), dogs are domesticated animals that are killing, not for food, but for sport.

2. Falconry birds are essentially free to come and go as they choose when they are hunting (unlike bloodsports like cock fighting and dog fighting). It is only due to the strong bond (and association with food) between falconer and raptor that the birds return after a hunt.

3. The odds are pretty much even between raptor and prey – as it would be with a wild bird and a prey animal. If anything, it could be said that falconry strengthens the gene pool of prey animals. Survival of the fittest.

4. Falconers are the primary reason why the Peregrine Falcon was brought back from the brink of extinction – by supplementing the dwindling wild population with captive birds. All the falconers I have met are caring conservationists who treat their birds – and nature – with the utmost respect.

5. Many falconers use their birds to educate children as to the importance of raptors. This contribution to the education of our children is invaluable.

I will admit that there are legitimate concerns that have been raised about falconry – birds that are not native to an area sometimes escape and become feral; humans should minimize their influence on nature. And these are just a few of the arguments against falconry. But I believe the overall benefits outweigh the negatives. And it is a fantastic way to enjoy and appreciate the outdoors as I hope my account of a morning’s hunt will relay…

A pair of Harris Hawks get ready for the morning hunt

We arrive at a beautiful piece of the Sonoran Desert just as the sun is blanketing the earth in her warm light. This is a transitional ecosystem, validated by the mixture of low altitude saguaro cacti and high altitude juniper trees. The party comprises our film crew, four local falconers and three eager Harris Hawks. This is the very best time to be in the desert with the sounds of Black-throated Sparrows, Curve-billed Thrashers and Cactus Wren permeating the still air. These desert inhabitants are waking up, whilst others, like a pair of diminutive Elf Owls, are settling down after a night of reveling. But what really strikes me is the smell – fresh, clean and without comparison.

A Harris Hawk takes up the sentry position

The hawks are relaxed, confined for now in the trunks of the two SUVs. There is no wind and the habitat is perfect for cottontail rabbits and the much larger jackrabbits (actually hares), the preferred quarry of this group of three birds. They have hunted together before, this pack of sky wolves. The deadly trio comprises one male and two larger females. I am reminded by the falconers that each bird has its own distinctive personality. They also have their own distinct roles when hunting together as a pack.

The falconers remove the birds from their crates, take off their hoods and we’re all set to go. My job is to move ahead and kick bushes in the hope of flushing a rabbit or hare. We set off and within minutes, we flush a large jackrabbit. “HO!! HO!!!” comes the signature cry of the falconers, an indication that prey has been flushed. But the aerial assassins require no notification as they instantaneously set off after it at lightning speed. The hare zigzags amongst the cholla cactus, desperately aware of its impending fate. It disappears into a thick stand of vegetation. The birds have missed. Moments later the male bird swoops towards a large cactus. I catch a glimpse of a small rodent disappearing into a burrow. “Ground-squirrel” shouts a falconer, thankful that the bird has missed as they can consume a squirrel in a minute or two, limiting their willingness to hunt further.

Fifteen minutes later the male birds puts in on a cottontail and the two females hurry over to him. Being smaller, he is perfectly suited to a ground attack. The male walks towards the bush where the cottontail disappeared. The two females wait patiently perched on top of a saguaro. I can feel the adrenalin coursing through my veins as I watch the male disappear down a hole. Within seconds a grey blur bolts from the other side of the bush, straining to reach the next bit of cover. One of the females crashes into a cholla cactus and I can see her struggling. Its over in seconds. With pieces of cholla cactus imbedded in her thighs and wings, the large female straddles the lifeless rabbit as the other birds move in for their share. Primal, staggering, breath-taking. I stand with my jaw open, stunned by the rawness of nature.

The rabbit is dispatched in seconds

Although I’m sure that there are readers that will disagree with my sentiments, I must confess to being enthralled by my experience with Harris Hawks. The thrill of the hunt, the smell and sounds of the desert in the early morning, the ability to see a finely-tuned hunter up close. All these factors contribute to my opinion that falconry, if conducted respectfully and responsibly, is an alternative form of birding.

All photos by Charlie Kaiser.

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Written by James
A life-long birder and native of South Africa, James Currie has many years experience in the birding and wildlife tourism arenas. James has led professional wildlife and birding tours for 15 years and his passion for birding and remote cultures has taken him to far corners of the earth from the Amazon and Australia to Africa and Madagascar. He is also an expert in the field of sustainable development and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in African Languages and a Masters degree in Sustainable Environmental Management. From 2004-2007 James worked as the Managing Director of Africa Foundation, a non-profit organization that directs its efforts towards the uplifting of communities surrounding wildlife areas in Africa. James is currently the host and owner of Nikon's Birding Adventures TV and he resides in West Palm Beach, Florida.