Short-wings -true tail-chasers

The rasping staccato calls of a guineafowl emanating from a stand of long grass ahead changed to a whispering of soft metallic clicks as the liver-and-white pointer bitch approached the spot. On my gloved fist the large, trained black sparrowhawk female tightened her grip and started to tremble in anticipation.

Issue Date: 23 February 2007

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Natasha in near-adult plumage and in the prime of her hunting career. Her fantastic hunting success is possibly a record.

The rasping staccato calls of a guineafowl emanating from a stand of long grass ahead changed to a whispering of soft metallic clicks as the liver-and-white pointer bitch approached the spot. On my gloved fist the large, trained black sparrowhawk female tightened her grip and started to tremble in anticipation. She saw the bitch freeze, taut like a bow string, her front foot in mid-stride. Her eyes were fixed on the quivering grass stems in front of her.

I approached to within metres of the dog and gave the command to flush. The dog rushed forward. There was a flurry of wings. A large guineafowl exploded from the tangle of grass. The hawk was off like a bullet. The metallic sound of the bells and the wild cries of the guineafowl filled the air. Within 50m the hawk overtook her quarry and brought it down in a cloud of dust and feathers. This may not be as spectacular as the swoop of a peregrine falcon, but is often more successful and repeatable. This is short-wing hawking. It can fill the pot. No wonder the Europeans called the great northern goshawk the “cook’s hawk”.

In general the short-wings are very wild in nature and more difficult to tame than a long-wing. However, once trained hunting is much easier and more successful. But beware. Initially some, like the big black sparrowhawk, will test your patience to the limit and may drive you half insane, especially if you are inexperienced. Therefore only seasoned short-wing falconers should attempt a “black spar”. Ironically the best bird for a beginner is also a short-wing, the African goshawk. It tames easily and is a magnificent and versatile little hunter that can satisfy an advanced falconer. I once caught an immature “Afgos” among the rafters of the hall of the college where lectured. It was quite hungry and within hours flew to my glove when offered food. Within two days flew it free, whereupon it returned to me. On the fourth day we caught our first Indian mynah.

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Because the Afgos is a forest hawk, it likes to hunt in an enclosed environment and hunting mynahs in city parks and gardens is right up its alley. But being a goshawk with short, sturdy toes means it’s not a specialised bird hunter and some dislike birds. once had a female Afgos that would not so much as look at any bird. She was a fur specialist and the bigger the better. Big rats, young cats, and the sight of a squirrel and smaller mongooses drove her crazy.

Other short-wings with which have hunted include the Ovambo sparrowhawk, which prefers more open terrain and is a bird hunter and a dove specialist; and the Gabar goshawk, which is a delightful, vocal little hawk and like all goshawks quite an all-rounder. once had an immature female with which used to hunt without bells because it was so easy to locate her as she kept calling to me whenever she could not see me, even when she was on a kill, which is unusual.

We often hunted small birds which would hide in dense grass or brush. She would then perch on my head, waiting for me to flush them. loved to hunt quail but even took on quarry bigger than herself, such as the smaller species of francolin and was mad about coucals, which always tried to release before she could harm them. But by far did most of my hunting with the black sparrowhawk – the largest true sparrowhawk in the world. It’s a true bird specialist and a fit black spar is extremely maneuverable and very fast.
Without fear of repetition, I emphasise that only falconers with considerable experience of other short-wings should attempt to train this devil, as their wild nature defies description. They need manning (taming) on a daily basis and when set free, can revert to the wild within hours. But for hawking in the field they are sheer magic and arguably the most effective of all our local falconry birds.
Black sparrowhawks – true dogfighters In the wild they specialise mostly on doves, but are able to catch much larger birds such as francolin, egrets and louries. Even the head of an Egyptian goose was once found in a nest. I once found a nest where the remains of hundreds if plovers lay scattered which, due to their maneuverability, even falcons find hard to catch. But I used black spar females to hunt guineafowl, which I don’t think they do much in the wild.
A young hawk will soon learn that a flock of guineas is not something to mess with, as they will converge on the hawk and kick it to pieces.

In falconry, however, the falconer can intervene. For hunting quail and francolin I used the males as they are smaller and faster than the females. Phenomenal success can be achieved with a fit spar that hunts every day, like the large female named Natasha with which I hunted for several seasons.

I was fortunate to live on the shores of the Arabie Dam in Lebowa, within spitting distance from my work. There were several large flocks of guineafowl around. I usually went fishing over the weekends, but each working day, by knock-off time at 4pm as I arrived home on my quad bike, my wife, without whom I could never have practiced falconry, was already waiting at the gate with my hawk, glove, bag and my dog. I was hunting within minutes. After dusk I went hunting with my crowned eagle. I am sure Natasha set some kind of record that will probably never be broken. In only the last two months before I sadly lost her she took 90 game birds, which included 71 guineafowl. Of course I released most of her catches if I could get to her quickly enough, as I always carried a dead guinea in my bag to offer in exchange.

 Nevertheless, we still ate guineafowl for months after she was lost when she pursued a guinea up a narrow rocky ravine, where I could not follow and nobody could locate her before dark. First light saw me tracking her telemetry signal, coming from the dam, when it suddenly went dead. Her tiny transmitter must have cracked and let water in as she went for an early morning bath. I searched for weeks without success as I kept receiving reports of a black bird with “irons on the legs” (the bells), raiding villages, stealing and making off with young chickens.

Falconry birds, especially if they are trained, are so valuable that I placed a reward of R1 000 on Natasha’s head if recovered alive – and that was 20 years ago. Sadly I never found her.

Hopeless state of our raptor population
With the hopeless state of our raptor population, falconers must realise that in the near future it will become unacceptable to take birds from the wild, and that their birds will have to be captive-bred and that breeding their own birds will become part of the falconry scene, just as in many other parts of the world. Local breeders will have to be supported, something that lacked in the past, forcing them to export their birds. For the past four years the bird flu scare brought exporting to a halt and birds are now available to local falconers.

 Raptoria Raptor Breeding Centre in Pretoria is one of the most well-known breeding centres and is currently breeding African goshawks, lanners, gabars and little banded goshawks as well as Harris’ hawks – American birds of which I have considerable experience. They are wonderful social hawks, one of the few I consider suitable for the weekend falconer. Unfortunately the wildness and aggressiveness of the black sparrowhawk makes it hard to breed and the biodiversity craze has resulted in numerous large stands of eucalyptus trees, where black spars bred for decades, being chopped down. Although exotic, bluegums are rarely invasive and many raptors prefer them for nesting sites.
Ornithologist Warwick Tarboton once told me that when he was in charge of the Nylsvlei provincial bird reserve, he never found any raptor nest on the reserve that was not in a bluegum. Fortunately Mike Thompson of Johannesburg has had considerable success breeding spars and has two pairs that should breed this winter. He also breeds peregrines, but orders must be placed early as there is a waiting list and you must be a member of one of the recognised falconry clubs. – Abré J Steyn Contact Raptoria on (012) 376 2813, Mike Thompson on 082 604 5035 or Abré J Steyn on 083 253 4822. |fw