Hawking with the Cooper’s Hawk in central USA

My good friend Tracy and I had met for a Saturday of quail hawking with our two cooper’s hawks. We live in an area rich with agriculture, weedy areas and patchy forests. Bobwhite quail are the dominant upland game species. These gentlemanly gamebirds hold very well for dog points, flush dramatically and fly for considerable distances – at speed. They are locally very plentiful and an ideal accipiter quarry.

The passage Cooper’s softly raked at her leather hood with impatient yellow feet. Inches away, three Hungarian Vizslas gave their perkiest looks, begging to be released into the fields. Additionally, our quail hawking team had an intermewed, imprint tiercel Cooper’s standing on another perch. Tracy was attaching telemetry and bells to his female.

This was a fresh passage bird, only a month out of the trap. He’d caught her using a pigeon and a dho-gazza in his back yard. The central US is relatively infested with wild coops. She weighed 15oz. (420g) today and was ready to go. My tiercel flew at just over 10oz. (280g) and was equally charged up. He was taken as a three-day-old eyass from a wild nest and imprinted.

The hounds were released, and we were off. Hand signals directed the dogs into fence rows and particularly succulent weedy patches. Our first dog point came just moments later. We spotted the dog in a low crouching point, aimed directly into a thin line of weeds and cover. The only problem was a thunderous freight train passing only a hundred yards away. Tracy unhooded his Cooper’s and moved into position. Our intention was to simply wait for the train to pass; unfortunately, the quail had its own agenda.

It flushed low and fast, burning out twenty yards before the coops had even left the glove. Of course, as luck would have it, the quail flew directly at the moving train. Passage birds can sometimes surprise you with some of the distractions they can tolerate. She took stand on a tree branch just over the passing train and in the general area where the quail had landed. It took a full five minutes for the train to pass before she was called down. The trio of dogs soon found the quail with a point and another amber-colored dog honoring. Tracy was moving in for the flush.

Zip – another twenty-yard lead before the coop pursued, but then she gained speed and followed it to the ground an additional hundred yards. We sprinted down the tracks, hoping one of our yellow beasts would repoint the quail before it had resettled or ran off. One of the fine dogs had crisply snapped on point, and Tracy moved in again. The coop was all worked up now, her head bobbing, and she stretched tall, trying to see everything at once. The quail flushed and was immediately taken just a few feet off the ground.

The hawk plucked and ate as we reminisced how this bird was similar to his last passage in that neither was very gifted in flashing off the glove but both excelled in tail-chasing. The female was hooded and replaced in the vehicle cage as I geared up my imprint male.

The next point was in some tall weeds just a few yards from the steel tracks. The tiercel was head bobbing frantically as I slowly stalked in behind the dog. WHOOSH! Up rose a covey of twenty birds. He made the no-brainer decision of simply binding to the closest one and dropped down into the prairie grass with spread wings. I traded him with the lure. You know, a one gram tidbit for a whole quail. It’s a fair trade – if your brain is the same size as one of your eyes.

Off we charged, following the dogs, looking for our next point. The tiercel was back into the hunting mode: standing tall, poking his snake-like beak with every step, fully expecting something to happen at any moment. He wasn’t disappointed for long. One of the dogs had inadvertently bumped a few birds way out in the distance. He pushed off the glove and steadily pumped in a climbing pursuit. After he had gone 200 yards, his ascent stopped, but his chase continued as he glided down and eventually out of sight.

Tracy and I had long since been sprinting behind to follow as much of the flight as we could. With telemetry, I homed in on my hawk and scooped him up before sending the dogs into the thick mat of reeds and vines. With a quick point and a timely flush, the now fatigued quail was easily taken on the rise. The coop just dropped back into the tangled mess that the quail had risen from. I crawled into the tangle searching for my hawk on hands and knees. Tracy helped to encourage me by announcing that another dog was on point down the tracks! After locating the coop, I did a quick trade, and we were off.

Down the cold rails, we ran until seeing that golden dog pointing at the bottom of a steep, weed-filled ditch. What to do? The cover was so dense and offered little hope of a clean flight. I circled around anyway and lo-and-behold, I managed to weave my way through the viney mess. From twenty feet in, I could see the dog’s breath steaming as she intently stared down and to one side. She stole a sideward glance at me and the hawk. We steadily closed. At ten feet, a few birds began running.

Of course, this common tactic sucked the flying lizard I call a Cooper’s hawk down into the cover just as the quail flushed and exited the other side. (This has only happened about a zillion times. Will he ever figure it out?) He awkwardly jumped out and began another long tail-chase. (I do love this hawk’s tenacity.) Being an experienced veteran of earlier campaigns, he steadily climbed to mark where they put in before the long glide to land at the exact spot.

After an extensive run, I was huffing and puffing while following the telemetry signal to the bird. But wait, he had already caught it. He was mantling over it next to a clump of winter grass. Perhaps it tried to run at an inopportune moment. After a pinch and a trade, we coursed through some tall yellow grass bordering a harvested grain field.

All three dogs had gotten birdy, and then two were pointing with the third honoring. What a sight! The dog on the left was standing staunch, tall, and proud. Her gaze was directed up and outward at invisible scent molecules drifting in from (presumably) some distance. The pup on the right had her muzzle aimed at the smallest of grass tussocks. I opted for the cleaner point on the right. It was a classic flush with the quail getting sucked up into the hawk’s feet in about ten yards. The hawk got fed up as we kicked back and discussed the sorts of things that falconers everywhere do. Although we continue to hawk well-matched native game birds with a local raptor, we both wondered what quail hawking would be like with those fancy European Sparrowhawks. Say… wasn’t it curiosity that killed the cat?

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