Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Mike Faircloth with Harris hawks. "When it gets very much below a certain weight, it’s too weak to fly, it can’t pursue the rabbits fast enough to catch them."
Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve the hawks and falcons my brother-in-law kept and trained at my parents’ house in Pasadena. While he was studying for his doctorate in ornithology at UCLA, he and my sister Paula lived with us. He had a red-tailed hawk that sat on a perch in the garden.
Hawks return to perch on Mike's forearm. “They're actually pretty good at catching rattlesnakes. They know which end to worry about.”
The clay-colored bird looked big enough to kill me. I was always a little apprehensive about the way it turned its head 180 degrees and watched me as I walked by. Those eyes made me feel like prey. Along with the red-tail, Tom had an old prairie falcon that had suffered a gunshot wound under the wing. He named him Republican for Ronald Reagan, who had been shot under his arm around the same time. After the red-tail, Tom acquired a healthy prairie falcon, which he lost and found several times, once at a car dealership, where the falcon got stuck underneath a car on the lot. Before Tom found it, my brothers and I and our friends rode around the neighborhood on our bikes, looking up into trees for the roaming raptor.
I remember a falconry meet Tom brought us to in Hemet. There were hundreds of falconers and many varieties of birds of prey. Three memories of that day stick out in my mind: a tiny, sharp-shinned hawk riding under an overturned milk crate on the back of his owner’s Harley; a peregrine falcon diving from 1000 feet to kill a fleeing pheasant a few feet above-ground; and two Harris hawks, flying side by side, gliding underneath a pickup truck while chasing a rabbit.
Harris hawks are what local falconers Mike Faircloth and Stacey Scott fly. I met them on a late-fall morning at the entrance to Fiesta Island. In the back of Faircloth’s school-bus-yellow pickup are two wooden pens. They are similar to dog kennels, but it’s not dogs they hold. One houses a Harris hawk, the other, a larger feruginous hawk. Both birds screech and squawk as I talk to their masters. “This is my apprentice, Stacey Scott,” says the tall, gray-blond haircloth, introducing the shorter, wiry falconer. ‘Today we’re going to take my Harris hawk. Scamp, out in the middle of the island. I was hoping we could fly him with Stacey’s Harris hawk, but Stacey didn’t bring his bird this morning.”
“I was out here yesterday,” Scott explains, “and Otis—that’s my bird’s name—caught a rabbit, and I let him eat some of it. So he was just too heavy to fly today.”
“See,” continues Faircloth as he removes Scamp from his pen, “there’s a weight range a bird flies well in. When it gets very much below a certain weight, it’s too weak to fly, it can’t pursue the rabbits fast enough to catch them. At too much above the given weight, he’s not interested; he’s not hungry. So there’s a small window there. This bird here flies at about 700 grams. I can fly him down to about 650 and he’d be okay. He’d be awfully hungry. But I can fly him up to about 750 grams. That’s a pretty big window, really, but he’s an older bird and he’s been doing this for a long time. He’s at about 780 today, so he’s a little heavy. He may not respond well. If he doesn’t. I’ll put him back down and I’ll take the bigger bird out. But we’ll take him out and see what happens. We’ll beat some bushes, and if he doesn’t want to respond, we’ll bring him back down.” With that. Scon hands me an old ski pole. “That’s a bush-beating stick,” he tells me. We climb over the sand dune, which is between the road around the island and the interior. Faircloth carries Scamp on his left hand, which is protected by a thick leather glove. The bird is about two feet tall, its plumage black, bronze, and white. Its hook-shaped beak and sharp talons tell you this bird was made to hunt and kill. From each ankle hangs a four-inch leather strap— called jesses — and a couple of jingle bells. Faircloth holds the straps in the gloved fist that bears the hawk.
From the top of the sand dune we descend into the sagebrush and cattails on the other side. Faircloth walks with Scamp between Scott and I, while we whack at the brush with our ski poles. “The idea of beating the bushes,” Faircloth tells me, “is to scare rabbits out of their hiding places. We’ll walk around with Scamp on the Fist, and if we bounce out a rabbit, he’ll go after it. It’s a different form of falconry than having a falcon 1000 feet overhead and bouncing a duck up off a pond.”
“It should be only a matter of seconds before we bounce one out,” Scott adds. “Yesterday, I took one step off the edge and two busted up.” No such luck today. We walk through the brush for 30 minutes and see no rabbits. Most of the time. Scamp rides along on Faircbth’s hand, but from time to time, he jumps off and glides to the top of a mound or tall bush. “When they’re a little heavy,” Faircloth explains, luring Scamp back with a piece of rabbit meat, “they act independently like this. He’s forcing me to call him back with food. The heavier they are, the more they’ll do that.”
As Scamp flies back to the glove, a cottontail scrambles out from beneath the thatch-like ground cover next to my foot and sprints. “Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho!” Scott and Faircloth yell. An instant change comes over Scamp. He had been gliding gracefully toward Fairdoth’s glove, but on seeing the rabbit, he banks 90 degrees right (a foot from my face) and with powerful wing beats, accelerates and overtakes the fleeing rabbit in three seconds. He crashes to the ground talons first, but the rabbit eludes him. Scamp jumps back up into the air to try to spot it again, but the rabbit has hidden under a cattail bush and probably won’t come out for another hour. Faircloth calls Scamp back to the glove with two quick blows on a whistle and gives him a bit of rabbit meat. “I’ve got to reward him because he did well on that one.” How many times will Scamp miss before he catches a rabbit?
Scott answers, “The bird may leave the fist 15, 20, 30 times before he’s finally successful. But there are exceptions to the rule. This bird can catch one in the next three seconds, or it could be the next three hours.”
“A lot of it,” Faircloth adds, “depends on how many rabbits are in the field, first of all, and how much brush. It’s pretty brushy out here because of all the rain we had last winter. The rabbits have a lot of cover. In a more open field, where the rabbits have to run out in the open more, the bird has a much better chance of catching it. But in the wild, a red-tail sitting on a telephone pole, their success rate is about one in sue.”
“Rabbits have been evading hawks for hundreds of thousands of years,” Scott says. “Believe me, even though I love falconry, I cheer for the rabbit. I love to see a rabbit make some good moves.”
Whacking through the brush, Faircloth stops and points out a four-foot gopher-snake skin. I ask if hawks ever catch snakes. “Oh, yeah,” both answer.
“They're actually pretty good at catching rattlesnakes,” Faircloth tells me. “They know which end to worry about.”
“If not, they’d better learn quickly,” Scott quips. “You don’t really want your bird to go after a snake. There are three bad quarry: snakes, possums, and skunks.”
“And feral cats,” Faircloth adds. “This bird can kill a feral cat pretty easily but that cat isn’t going to go down easy. All those claws make it a danger to the bird. But most of the bigger birds can handle a cat.”
Over the next hour after the first chase, Scamp chases four more rabbits but doesn’t catch any, and we have a hard time flushing any more. Several people are out walking dogs on the island. “That explains our poor showing of rabbits,” Faircloth says. “The rabbits see the dogs, and they go underground. Let’s take Scamp back and we’ll take the feruge out and go further out on the island and see if there are some jacks out there.”
Back at his truck, Faircloth returns Scamp to his box and drives out to the northwest corner of the island, where he removes his feruginous hawk from its pen. “This is Fiona,” he tells me. “Fiona Feruge."
Fiona is noticeably larger than Scamp, about 1400 grams to his 780. Her plumage is tan speckled with white and brown. Feathers, called flags, hang from the back side of her legs. Once on Faircloth’s glove, she stands up to her full height and surveys the field around her. “See how she stands up real tall?” he asks. “That means she’s ready to work.”
Feruginous hawks can be seen in the wild in Southern California, but, Faircloth says, “You wouldn’t really see them down here at the beach. You’d see them out in Hemet or Temecula. They’re a very open-country bird You’d see them more toward Kansas than around here. They like long flights. She can’t catch the little cottontails that Scamp was chasing because she’s just not fast enough. There’s too much bulk to get moving. But if she saw something way out over there in that open section, she’d start flying now, and she’d catch it over there at those palm trees. That’s the problem with the big bird. You can’t catch things up dose, but you can catch them way out in front of you. She will stay on the fist but not as readily as Scamp will. So we’ll beat the bushes all around in here and see what happens. She’ll probably stay on these mounds because she wants to get to a place where she can see what’s going on. That’s what she’d do in the wild: go to the high point and watch the whole field.”
As we walk through the brush, Fiona follows, gliding from one tall mound to the next. Occasionally we flush out a cottontail and Fiona gives chase, but not nearly as quickly as Scamp. She doesn’t catch any of them. Some she doesn’t even try to chase. “Fiona is really after jackrabbits, not cottontails,” Scott explains while whacking through a patch of tumbleweeds. “Jackrabbits will run out in the open for a long time, while a cottontail is kind of a scaredy-cat, always looking for a place to hide. Fiona can’t get up enough speed to catch a cottontail before it hides, but she can chase a jackrabbit across a big field. See, Scamp is a little Ferrari off the fist—0 to 60 in four seconds. Fiona is a ’69 Volkswagen van; she’s not going to get up to speed very quickly.”
After a while, Scott flushes a jackrabbit, which runs toward the sand berm between the field and the beach. Fiona alights from the rock pile she’s been sitting on and follows him. After 40 yards, her speed is considerable. The jackrabbit makes it over the berm just before Fiona gets there, but she follows him out onto the beach. Faircloth runs over, afraid Fiona will continue her flight across the bay to Ski Beach. But before he reaches the sand berm, Fiona comes flying back, empty-handed, from the other side and lands on the berm.
While she sits there, several white seagulls, defending their turf, repeatedly dive at her. She seems unfazed. Finally, Faircloth reaches the mound and lures her up onto the glove with a fluffy, yellow day-old chick. “We get them from egg ranches and places like that,” Faircloth explains as Fiona gulps the chick down whole. “The male chicks they don’t want; they only want the hens. They can’t use them, so they just destroy them, and we make use of them and the zoo uses them for food. They come frozen, 100 to a grocery bag. They’re ten cents apiece.”
It’s now 10:00 a.m. and the rabbits are more scarce, so Faircloth decides to quit for the day. “We’re just not having any luck today,” he complains. “Some days you go out and it’s like this. But some days, it’s spectacular. One day, we came out here with three Harris hawks. Stacey’s bird didn't catch anything because it was brand new..."
“He caught a mouse,” Scott says defensively.
“You’re right,” Fairdoth concedes. “Hecaught a mouse. But Scamp, in one hour, caught five rabbits and two mice, and Tommy’s bird caught two rabbits and a mouse. Then today, we come out here and we’re beating bushes all over the place, and we can’t find anything.”
Back at the truck, while Faircloth returns Fiona to her box, I ask if either of them plans on going out again soon. I want to see a successful rabbit chase. Scott tells me to meet him here tomorrow morning at 7:00, and that’s what I do. Parked on the beach near the land bridge to Fiesta Island, Scott removes his Harris hawk, Otis, from a large wooden box in the back of his gray Toyota pickup. Otis has the same black and rusty-brown colors that Scamp has but arranged differently. Where Scamp’s colors were in solid patches, Otis’s are speckled. “That’s because he is so young,” Scott explains. “In a year, he will look like Scamp."
Otis’s demeanor is different from Scamp’s. While he rides on Scott’s glove he fidgets and squawks, whereas Scamp never made a sound and only moved his eyes or turned his head while on the glove. “Again, that’s his age," Scott explains. “He’s a young bird. Scamp has been doing this for over five years and has caught hundreds of rabbits. Otis is a very young bird but a very efficient bird. He knows how to catch rabbits. He caught one here the day before yesterday.”
Our earlier start today has allowed us to beat the dog walkers, and the rabbits are aboveground. At 7:15, Otis has already had two near-misses when a third rahbit jumps out from a sage bush I’m whacking. The rabbit runs about 30 yards and ducks under a large cattail clump. Scamp slams in behind it but can’t grab it. A cooper’s hawk that was sitting in the bush out of sight startles up and flies away. A marsh hawk that was in the bush flies the other way.
“Look at that," says Scott, visibly delighted by the sight of the two wild hawks. “They must have been in that bush looking for mice when Otis came crashing in.” A few minutes later Otis is back on the glove when he suddenly drops to the ground in front of Scott and starts screeching.
“What’s up, buddy?” Scott asks, talking to his hawk the way others talk to their doge “What’ve you got there?” He turns to me, “He’s squeaking like he has something.” Scott gets down on his knees next to Otis, who’s got his talons thrust through the thatch of groundcover. He starts pulling away at the thatch around Otis’s feet. “He’s got a mouse,” he says, still pulling away at the thatch. “We’ll let him eat it and then go on our way.”
The thatch cleared away, Otis devours the gray field mouse in two gulps, then Scott picks him up on the glove. Otis won’t stay on the glove though. He keeps hopping down and peering into bushes. “He got that mouse on the ground,” Scott explains, “so now he thinks that’s the place to be. Come on, Otis. No more mice. Let’s get some rabbits.” Otis is not convinced. He stays on the ground, hunting for mice like a winged cat. While he’s there, Scott bounces a cottontail from a bush. “Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho,” he says to get Otis’s attention. Otis takes to the air but too late to catch the rabbit, which has run across an open section where the hawk would have had the advantage. Otis lands and stalks around the bush the rabbit is hiding in. “Otis! Look at you!" Scott says, “Standing there saying, ‘Oh, where did he go?’ Well, the rabbit is gone now. Come out of the bush.” Otis hops up to the gauntlet. “You blew that one, buddy, big time."
A chance for redemption comes quickly for Otis. Five minutes later, he’s off the fist and after a rabbit. “I don’t think he’s going to get it,” Scott tells me.
But Otis, flying with remarkable power and speed, overtakes the rabbit and, with a quick jerk to the left, crashes to the ground at the base of the bush the cottontail ran under. REEEK.. .REEEEK.. .REEEEK. The loud cries of a stuck rabbit, an animal I thought was voiceless, ring out across the island. “Hegot it!” Scott yells, breaking into a sprint. “Hold on, Otis! Don’t let go!”
At the bush, Otis has got the screeching rabbit by the last inch of its hindquarters. “Okay, Otis,” says the heavily breathing Scott, “you did well.” While Otis holds on to the rabbit’s rear, Scott places his left hand on its back and grabbing the head with the right, pulls and twists to break its neck and end its suffering. The dying rabbit twitches its hind legs, pummeling Otis in the process. But the young hawk doesn’t relinquish his grip. He sinks his talons deeper into the cottontail and covers his kill with his wings. “That’s called mantling,” Scott explains. “He’s doing that to hide it from other birds and animals.”
Using a pocketknife, Scott cuts a foreleg from the rabbit while Otis starts to tear away at its skin, revealing pink meat below. “I’ll let him have a few nibbles to reward him, then lure him away with this leg. Then I’ll put the rest of the rabbit in the gunnysack and we’ll continue our hunt.”
Scott successfully lures Otis away with the rabbit leg, but before putting the rabbit in the gunny sack, he decides to clean the rabbit. Slicing open its belly, he scoops out the innards and dumps them under a nearby bush. The sight of the steaming guts distracts Otis from his leg. He hops over, grabs up an intestine in his beak, and starts sucking it in like a strand of spaghetti. “Oh no!” Scott cries. “That’s the shit, buddy. Don’t eat that.” Shit or no shit, Otis is gulping it down. “Oh, well,” Scott sighs, “have a mouthful of shit on me.”
He lets Otis finish the intestine, but when Otis goes for another, he says, “Oh, no. No more. That’s embarrassing, buddy. You’re not a shit-eater. Here, trade.”
Scott offers him a piece of rabbit meat. Otis isn't taking. “Come on, buddy, let go of the shit. LET GO OF THE SHIT!” Otis doesn’t let go. He finishes the second piece of intestine and continues on to the rest of the innards. While gobbling up the last bit, he hops up onto the glove. Scott waves his other hand in front of his nose. “Oh, one of us smells like shit, buddy.” Pulling a little water bottle from a vest pocket, Scott takes a mouthful and spits it on Otis’s gut-stained feet. “He doesn’t normally eat that shit,” he tells me. “He might be nervous because of your presence. But, hey, he caught a rabbit. That’s the bottom line.”