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Jonathan Coleman
President

Chris Kimble
Vice President

Bart Russell
President-elect

Shane Bullard
Treasurer

Rob Huber
Secretary



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40 Days...
My Experience With an American Kestrel



I started my falconry life like many others. I flew a couple of Red-tails and even a Red-shoulder for a while. After my apprenticeship I switched gears toward flying big longwings and have done so ever since. This year started no different as I got my hybrid and Gyrkin going in the fall and was gearing up for another season of prairie duck hawking in Oklahoma, but Mother Nature had other ideas. This year was filled with long snaps of cold which kept the ponds frozen solid for weeks on end, making it really hard for me and the birds to get any momentum and really find our rhythm. 

It was mid January and I was driving around checking ponds, knowing full well that all I was going to find was more ice. I needed something to change my mood, so I decided to do a little trapping to entertain myself. I happen to have a Corturnix Quail in the back of my truck and a B.C. under the seat and after putting the former into the latter I was in business. My original intention was to look for some of the interesting color morphs of Red-tails that were hanging out in the area but the first bird I saw was a Kestrel pumping her tail on the power line at the end of the road. I thought, “what the heck, I got nothing better to do,” so I tossed the trap under this bird. I really didn’t expect a Kestrel to show any interest in a full grown quail, but I was wrong. I had the bird trapped before I could even turn the truck around.

At this point I was just passing the time and turned the bird loose but now my interest in these little birds had spiked. I still couldn’t believe that this little bird would take on something more than twice its size. So I continued on.

Over the next 10 days I took advantage of our virtually year round trapping we have in Oklahoma with the new regulations now in effect. I ended up trapped 23 Kestrels, two of which were males and the only two males I threw the trap under. Number 23, however, looked slightly different than the rest. Her orange was a little more muted and the sub-terminal band on her tail was not nearly as wide or distinct as the other birds I had trapped. Could this be a passage bird? With the bird in hand, I snapped off a cell phone picture and sent it to experienced Kestrel Falconer, Jeff Byrum, to confirm my suspicion. He quickly agreed that she was indeed a passage bird and I made the decision to see what this small bird hawking was all about. 

I’m a firm believer in a quick train, when working with falconry birds. I do my best to cut out all the extra steps of training. I got this bird eating off the fist the night she was trapped, flying across the room on day three, flying over my two year old daughter to the lure on day 5, and flying free outside on day 9. That was the part I knew how to do with virtually any bird, now the fun part, hunting, but car hawking was something that was new to me.

Even though I had trapped many Kestrels using full grown quail at this point I still couldn’t believe that they would just take to a Starling without giving them a few baggies to build some confidence, but I was wrong. With a Starling weighted down on a median in the back of an old parking lot, I planned to walk the Kestrel over to it and help her with this first one. I had just gotten her out of her giant hood, turned to walk around the back of the truck, when she bated and slipped the jesses out of my fingers. She didn’t fly off though. She made a straight attack on the starling, showing no hesitation at all! Wow, these little birds have no idea that they are small! Everything I had assumed about these little guys was proving to be wrong. The next day I did another baggie in my front yard while driving by in the truck. This was the first time in the truck for her since trapping but she saw the movement in the yard and was off in a flash as I rolled on by. No hesitation with either baggie so it was time to hunt!

I knew I had to be in Tulsa for work the next day, so I made plans with my apprentice, Daniel, to meet at his house and give this car hawking thing a shot. After what seemed like an extremely long day on the job, the time came to give this little falcon her first go. We jumped into Daniel’s car, put on her transmitter and were on our way. Starlings are not hard to find in Tulsa, and within 10 minutes we had our opportunity. There was a murmuration of about 30 birds milling about on the side of a steep downward slope away from the road that we were on. I brought the Kestrel up to the window on the approach, and after a couple of quick head bobs, she was off and barreling down on the Starlings below. She was quickly seen by the many pairs of eyes and the starlings made their break for it. The Kestrel adjusted quickly and snagged one three feet off the ground in the air! But the momentum was too much and Starling broke loose before they hit the ground. Almost a catch on her first slip! With a new found excitement in the car we continued on and quickly found another slip in a neighborhood not far from the first one. Again we made our approach and she shot out the window narrowly missing her target as she hit the ground. After regaining her composure, she took off into a backyard across the way with a deliberate intensity. Daniel and I jumped out of the car to see what she was after. We peered over the fence to find that she had flow after full grown chickens! Well, she was most likely flying at sparrows feeding on the chicken’s scratch but nonetheless she was into this hunting thing. I called her back to the fist and we continued our quest to get that first bird in the bag. After combing the neighborhood streets we passed on a few of the longer slips as we pulled up to a stop sign and noticed a single bird milling about on the side of the road to our right. The Starling never even looked up as we watched three cars drive right next to it. This was the one. We made our right hand turn, the Kestrel shifting her feet with anticipation. As we past, the falcon jumped off my fist and folded into the teardrop shape of her larger cousins as she disappeared out the window. A split second later we heard the eet eet eet of a Starling in distress! #1 was in the bag! Upon closer inspection we discovered that the Starling had a white stripe down the center of its head. This unusual bird reminded me of Stripe the Gremlin leader from the movie Gremlins. While listening to a conversation about naming birds a few years ago, I heard one falconer say that birds need to earn their names and I kinda liked that idea and have done it that way ever since. So my Kestrel finally was named Gizmo and I also took to calling Starlings, Gremlins; they do seem to multiply when they get wet.

The next several days were very similar. Go out, catch a Starling and that was it for the day. That following weekend, Jeff was in town and we decided to get the birds out for some fun. Flying multiple Kestrels at once is a lot of fun. Jeff had his bird, EP, on his fist while driving and I was in the passenger seat with Gizmo ready to go. We simply took turns with slips. I could hardly believe the birds paid little to no attention to each other. Giz scored first with a short slip on an unsuspecting target as she slammed into the back of the Starling’s head, smashing its face forward causing it have a mouthful of snow upon retrieval. It happened so quick that Jeff thought it was time for a double and I had to agree. At this time the Starlings were heading back up to the wires, but Jeff noticed 3 or 4 birds on the medium at the entrance to a strip mall. After a quick right, then a left, Giz launched herself out of the vehicle and made her approach low to the ground toward her target. The prey caught sight of winged death approaching and took to the wing, but not soon enough as the Kestrel made a roll to the right seizing her quarry out of the air. Her first double! This is where I was ruined, it was all downhill from here, and one was never enough again. I had spent so many years catching one duck or one rabbit and calling it a day. Now I had a falcon that was catching quarry that is not only a non-native species but also a detrimental one to many native birds that are trying to eke out their own survival. “This is gonna be fun,” I thought to myself and my personal challenge of how quick I could get to 100 Starlings in the bag was born.

In the coming days, 2 catches, turned to 6, then 8 in an outing with the majority of the days ending with at least two or three starlings in the bag. The flights also got longer and more interesting. One such memorable flight began with the spotting of a lone Starling feeding on the corner of a block just under a stop sign. We made our approach on what was sure to be a high percentage slip. As we pulled past and I extended my arm, Gizmo literally fell off my hand and out the window. I was puzzled by this as the Kestrel kicked into gear, flew right over my intended starling, and continued down the block at full speed just inches off the ground. Around 70 yards out I see 3 starlings take to the wing. Gizmo instantly threw up into the air underneath these birds, rolling over and snatching up her intended target a good six feet off the ground. Turns out she fell off my hand because she was looking at the birds further down the road and apparently never saw my intended target for her. And I’m glad she didn’t see it because the alternative flight was incredible!

Kestrels also seem to use their own strategy to catch their quarry. Many of the Starlings we caught were nabbed after turning to escape only to run into a tree they forgot was behind them. In the beginning I never thought much of this other than it was a coincidence. But as we caught more and more I started to realize that this was likely done intentionally by the Kestrel much of the time. On one such instance, I slipped Giz on a group of Starlings that were feeding along side of a house. She instantly took an arched approach out the window. Flew 30 or so yards to the direction we came from hooked around and then began her attack. The startled Starlings turned to fly, only to slam in the brick siding of the house. Gizmo chose her target and easily bound to her quarry. If she would have taken a direct approach toward the birds, they would have been able to turn and fly directly into the backyard of the house. She caught multiple Starlings using techniques that were obviously intended to run her quarry into stationary objects when this was an option and it became very clear that this was intentional on her part. 

Over the next several weeks we racked up the kills. On day 39 we were sitting at 94 head and the plan was try and catch 2 or 3 that morning and shoot to hit my goal on day 40. The best laid plans are known to change though. As I was weighing the bird and gearing up to head out I got a call from Kent Carbaugh. He informed me that he was heading out to do some rabbit hawking with Jonathan Coleman and he just saw a bunch of Starlings feeding. I let him know that I was just about to head out and he and Jonathan should come along. Kent agreed and we convinced a somewhat hesitant Jonathan (he was anxious to fly his bird, and who could blame him) come along as well. We headed out from my house and caught the first Starling after making the first turn! I let the guys know that I was planning on catching just a few today and finishing my goal the next day. Not long after that and we had 4 in the bag and I was ready to call it a day, but Jonathan, who was now really into the task at hand was pushing hard to go ahead and hit that 100 mark. It didn’t take much twisting of my arm for me to be on board and we set out for the final two. Number 99 was taken just two blocks from my house out of a small group feeding under a mailbox. And there were still plenty of birds around to reach my goal. We decided to jump from the neighborhood to the shopping center across the way see what we could find there. We quickly spotted a group on the same medium that the first double was taken on. We made our approach slipped the bird and she hammered number 100 with all the force she had used on the previous 99 over that past month and a half. My goal of 100 Starlings was complete in 39 days of hunting! 

I had little expectations when starting this Kestrel. To be perfectly honest I really didn’t think that much about car hawking. I came to realize though that there is more to car hawking than just mugging the intended quarry. There is quite a bit of slip selection involved and the falconer can actually control the difficulty of many of the slips, a luxury that is often not available when field hawking. Most importantly I had a lot of fun. Being that Starlings are an invasive species that is detrimental to native birds, I had no qualms about harvesting more than my fair share of them. This is not a practice that I would feel right about doing to a native game animal, not to mention it would be illegal. But a freezer full of Starlings for future food use is always a good thing. I think another Kestrel is definitely going to find its way into my falconry again in the future.

-Ryan VanZant

 


 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Featured Member

January, 2018

Bob Clark


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Featured Raptor

January, 2018

Bullseye


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