Peregrine Spring: A Master Falconer's Extraordinary Life with Birds of Prey - Nancy Cowan (2016)

Part I. OWNED BY A HAWK

Chapter 12. Hawkdogs

Although in the beginning our use of dogs bordered on accidental, our hunts became more exciting when we included them. The ability of a dog to scent and locate game is awe-inspiring. I had learned about other falconers using dogs for pointing and flushing, and I knew most of today’s breeds of hunting dogs descended from those used in falconry. The subject fascinated me so much, I wrote a two-part series for DogWorld magazine consisting of stories I collected from falconers actively working their raptors and their dogs together across the United States and Canada. I could hardly wait to try it myself, but one needs to have a well-trained dog accustomed to being around raptors in order to start.

Jim had been given a year-old German Wirehaired Pointer when the dog’s owner relocated to the West. Mustache Pete was from a long line of falconry dogs (hawkdogs are what falconers fondly call them) and had been raised with birds of prey from the time he was born. Pete believed his mission in life was to protect our hawks and falcons. To his dying day, he was the guardian of our birds whenever we had them perched outside. Pete was, as far as raptors were concerned, completely trustworthy. Injun, upon first seeing Pete, decided his mission in life was to warn all within earshot that there was a damn dog nearby by screaming at it!

Jim was eager to get dog and bird working together. I let him talk me into turning Injun loose while Pete quartered below. We would have been far more successful if we had thought to have game to catch on the ground, too. You can guess the outcome. Injun nailed Pete right on his big nose. The gentle soul lay down with bird still attached to his muzzle, as we raced to get to them. I had to pry Injun’s talons out of poor Pete’s nose. Pete’s attitude, far from being defensive, was apologetic. The punctures to his muzzle were not serious but must have been painful. We took him home and fed him pizza as a reward for his bravery and his charity.

There was an interval of a couple of years while I raised my own German Wirehaired Pointer and started her on a training program. Her breeder shook his head over the proposal of using My Shadow (as I called her) as a falconry dog because her sire was known for his ferocity towards predators. At this task, our red-tailed hawk, Tabasco, showed his worth. As a dog-training raptor, he was invaluable.

Back when Jim had been an apprentice, we went out with Tabasco on his glove and me with Inga, who had been the leader on my now-retired sled team. One day when we flushed a rabbit, the dog, the rabbit, and the hawk joined into one tumbling mass as they went over a steep drop down the slope of a hill. Inga’s journey ended with an oof! when her body crashed into a pine tree, while the hawk and rabbit continued tumbling until they parted at the foot of the slope, both somewhat dizzy and dazed. The rabbit got away; however, the partnership between Inga and Tabasco had been cemented.

When Pete came to our home, the partnership picked up seamlessly between the new dog and the hawk. But Tabasco was always in charge; that is forever the relationship between raptors and hawkdogs. Importantly Tabasco, not being a bird with a high metabolism and raging hunting drive like the Harris’s hawk, could be counted on to give a dog a second chance. Our dogs were careful not to err a second time once Tabasco had pointed out their indiscretions.

When My Shadow had finished her training at obedience school, I decided to start working with the hawk. The first instance was to perch Tabasco on his two-foot-high perch in the backyard. I put Shadow on a sit-stay about ten feet away and walked fifteen paces. By the time I turned, her rear had magically been repositioned a mere six feet from Tabasco’s perch. She sat, rear wagging, eyes sparkling, and body vibrating with expectation as she looked at me and then at the hawk.

I placed My Shadow back at the original ten feet from the bird and turned my back for the fifteen-pace walk to my station. I heard behind me a heavy thud, like a sledgehammer hitting the ground, and turned to see Shadow carefully relocating her hind end to sit at the ten-foot distance from where she had moved the moment my back was turned. The hawk was fluttering back to his perch. When Tabasco wanted to make a point, a two-foot jump down to land could sound like a boulder crashing to the ground as he thumped his emphatic proclamation. My hunting dog was all seriousness now. She practically saluted the red-tail. Yes, sir, her attitude conveyed. Whatever you say, sir!Tabasco had certified Shadow’s graduation to hawkdog.

It was remarkable how thoroughly indoctrinated into the role of hawkdog My Shadow became from Tabasco’s one instructive lesson. A week or so later, I had Shadow running loose in our yard. She started around to the backyard, but when she reached the rear corner of the house, she froze. She was still for a moment and then carefully backed up to stand in one spot. Pointers who are endowed with great genes and good training will “honor” another pointer already on point in the hunting field by becoming stock-still. My Shadow had seen Tabasco perched in the center of the backyard. By retracing her own footsteps and becoming a statue, she was honoring the hawk. I was amazed.

The next step was to get My Shadow bird dog experience and training, and for this we sent her off to a trainer. After moving to Deering and signing up with Chase Farm, I could hardly wait to start Injun and Shadow working together, but I knew if we had a repeat of the nose experience, it could harm the performance drive of my young, newly trained pointer. This time we had done some research with other falconers who used dogs and Harris’s hawks, and we carefully adhered to what we had been told: “Hold the bird on your fist and let the dog point a pheasant. Go in and flush the bird, but do not release the hawk. Do it a second time. This will drive your hawk nuts, but do not let him go until your pointer has a point on the third bird. By now your Harris’s will be expecting the flush, so let him go as the game bird takes off. Your hawk will chase and probably not be able to catch, as he has the disadvantage of coming from your glove.”

But, as foretold, the third time was the charm. Once Injun had seen my dog put up three birds, he decided this “damn dog” was worth something after all. I could turn him loose to take a perch in a tree, from which he had a much better chance for a successful chase, and he would watch the dog. Once a point was established, the hawk recognized something was about to flush, and he improved his perching location and became ready to explode into a chase after the game bird.

The day came some years later when I had to get a new puppy. I finally found another breeder of German Wirehaired Pointers and then had to wait a month before we could claim the one we wanted from his litter, but the breeder and his wife told all who came to see the pups, “This one is going to work with hawks!”

As I drove her home in my pickup during Hurricane Floyd, she climbed into my lap to sleep for the entire storm-tossed trip. “Nancy’s Storm Warning” had a few years before I began working her in the field, however. This time I wanted to train my dog myself, and I had much to learn first. There was an interval before the pup and I were ready to work with raptors, but once I got Stormy trained, the dance began again. I had some expert advice in getting her ready this time. The expert told me to credit Stormy’s genes, which suited her so perfectly for the role I needed her to fill.

“Storm-a-thon” has proven to be the smartest, most righteous hunting dog a person could be lucky enough to own. Having been raised with raptors, she was a hawkdog from the get-go. With her steadiness in the field, her remarkably talented nose, and an unstoppable work ethic, she has been a superb hunting companion for the hawk and for me. At the onset, of course, Injun let everyone within hearing distance know just what he thought of this new dog, but once he saw her produce game birds for him to catch, my Harris’s settled into following the dog and watching for her to go on point.

Having a dog does not necessarily make hunting simple or easy. “Hunting” is a much more appropriate label for the activity than “finding” or “getting.” With a high-drive-for-hunting hawk and a talented hunting dog, you have increased your chances for success exponentially, but there is always the opportunity for things to go wrong. When things are not going well, the hawk’s yarak might be unloaded on the dog, so a falconer must always be on guard. Sometimes the aggression comes in the form of a strafing run over the rear of the dog, and sometimes it is a full-on grab of the muzzle. None of this means you have a vicious hawk, but indicates instead you have a hawk “on steroids” due to an overabundant drive to hunt and catch. Hawkdogs do not turn aggressive towards the raptor. The falconer needs to be close and spry to protect the dog if necessary, so it follows that the falconer needs to be alert and athletic to support both of her partners in the field.

Why would a dog continue to work with a hawk after it inflicted injury upon her? No matter the pain, the gain from being there is the big attraction, making each moment in the field, from a hunting dog’s viewpoint, the best moment of all. An illustration is my beloved Stormy. She has worked under a number of hawks, and has given the same consistent effort with each. But there have been those days. On one occasion when the scent was not rising and she could not get a whiff of game bird, she turned to point the tree in which Injun sat. He immediately got sharp set, ready to teach that lazy dog a thing or two. I had to intervene quickly to prevent this from happening. At the end of Injun’s hunting season, when I was unaware of an injury he had suffered that was making him cross, he pounced upon Storm’s head. At this point Stormy was young, and I worried this might affect her drive to work alongside a raptor. Luckily it didn’t.

Each year of working Storm in the falconry field has resulted in her becoming more proficient. I can rely on her to remain on point while a hawk that initially flew off in the wrong direction returns to take up a better position. Sometimes the adjustment in a hawk’s location takes time as I walk off to retrieve my hawk. Stormy holds her point for as long as it takes—sometimes more than forty-five minutes—for me to return and move up to initiate the flush of the game bird. This means I have a very good pointer indeed.

My dog and I must find and flush game for my bird, for only then will we be judged good partners in his eyes and he will continue to work with us. My raptor views the chase ending with the take of game as the reason for life itself. For me, to watch the other two work together, to observe the dog’s head swing about as her nose catches the scent and her body follows into a stone-still point, to see the mad pursuit or the hurtling stoop of my bird, and to retrieve my raptor safe and sound at the end are all I need to make the day perfect.

Not all days in the field, however, turn out to be perfect. Some seasons ago, with Stormy having passed her eleventh birthday, one of the worst things that can happen to a hunting dog happened, and this time it was not a hawk attack. Impalement upon sticks or other obstacles as they run through fields is a common cause of serious injury to dogs during a hunt. The previous winter southern New Hampshire had suffered a severe ice storm which brought entire trees crashing down. The Timberdoodle Club, a place where we often went hunting for game birds, had been hard hit, and the clearing of the damage was ongoing.

In early fall I was in one of the Timberdoodle fields, hunting with Storm, one of my Harris’s, my apprentice Abi, and Joe, an accomplished falconer. It was a golden, late-September day. Storm was hunting ahead of us, in and out of the covers on either side of the dirt road, when she jumped a big oak fallen during the winter’s storm. I heard a yelp and saw her spin in the air in a somersault, tumble to the ground, and get up only to fall again. She rose to limp a few steps, and then was back to hunting. Storm is incredibly tough. Nothing stops her. I knew there was trouble, but had to call her back to me before I could do a damage assessment. What I saw when she returned to me made my knees weak.

Reluctant to be bidden away from hunting the covers, Stormy came trotting back on my call. Her left flank from the end of her ribcage to her point-of-hip and down her rear leg was laid open in a gaping tear. Her wound was a window to the visible dog. Stormy had connected with the thick, pointed spur of a broken branch on the downed tree. It had entered her flank to run down inside her leg, separating the muscle from the bone, as the vets told me later. She spun on the branch, and when she finished her somersault, it popped out her side through her flank.

We were in trouble. Abi whipped out her cell phone and called the Timberdoodle clubhouse. During the walk back, Stormy insisted on continuing to hunt. Nothing was going to deter her from her mission. I handed my glove, hawk leashed to it, to Joe and started dialing my Hillsboro vet’s office on my phone, but his number was busy. Jim was on a return flight from a business trip. Mentally, I computed the plans for finding a vet, getting care for Stormy, picking Jim up, and getting a hawk home. My brain was whirling in a crazy spin of worry about Storm. Abi began calling her vet in nearby Peterborough.

Abi volunteered to go with me to the clinic, an offer I accepted gratefully, as I was a nervous wreck after reevaluating Storm’s injury. When we arrived, the vets were set up for triage. Storm was whisked into the operating room. Suddenly the door opened and the vet tech approached me. My heart skipped a beat. Was this woman coming to tell me Stormy’s accident had become a tragedy?

“Is it all right if we snip off that bit of a skin flap on her eyelid while she is under anesthetic? She will never know, and she will be so much more beautiful without it,” she asked me.

I mumbled my assent and took a relieved breath.

“See,” Abi said, patting my knee gently, “she is getting cosmetic surgery!”

In due time a very drunk Storm-dog was brought out to me, complete with dozens of staples, a drain, and an Elizabethan collar, the plastic appliance used to prevent canines from licking or chewing at a wound. Abi and I were rescued when a UPS driver helped us load Storm’s sixty pounds of dead weight into her crate. It was easier when I got home to just let Storm ride my shoulder as I lowered her to the ground. She teetered alongside me into the house, where I re-crated her (this was not easily done with the Elizabethan collar).

During her four-week recuperation period, Storm annihilated three Elizabethan collars. The backs of my knees became black and blue from where her cone of shame had collided with me. Her spirit—perky, bossy, and always up for adventure—never changed at all. During the following winter, I nearly lost her three times when the portion of her small intestine that had been poked by the limb shut down in a functional blockage. Each time, with vet care and much worrying on my part, she got better. Still, the horrendous wound and the ensuing sicknesses took a toll. The vets told me to expect arthritis would set into her leg, and that has happened. I do not want to strain her, but I need to work my younger pointer, Trouble. It is next to impossible to leave Storm at home when she knows we are loading the car for a hunting expedition.

On a trip out to hunt the fall after Storm’s impalement, a falconer from Massachusetts joined our hunt, bringing his German shorthaired pointer pup and a young goshawk. I hunted with Storm and Smoky, one of my female Harris’s, in the morning. We got the lovely action of several points and flight-chases but no success until, at the very spot Storm was injured the year before, she went into a dead-on, stock-still point, the tip of her tail aquiver. With the flush, my hawk sprang into a chase that ended in taking the chukar in good fashion. It was an exciting conclusion to the morning’s hunt.

We lunched at the clubhouse and afterwards started back out to the field to work the other fellow’s pointer and his goshawk. The falconer had watched Stormy all morning as she worked methodically. “Could we put the old dog back out?” he asked. His line of thinking, I am sure, was it would be better to work his green bird with a solid pointer, one that looked enough like his pup so his bird would not realize it was not his dog she was working over.

I had not planned to exert Storm so much, but she was delighted to be out for more hunting. She got a good point on a pheasant, but, when the game bird flushed, the excited goshawk dove straight for Storm and fastened to her head. The falconer ran to get his hawk off my dog. As soon as she was released, Storm was back to hunting. She got two additional solid points with flushes of big pheasants and his goshawk got two chases that afternoon, the goshawk having learned it was better to chase the game bird than grab the dog. By now the day was late. Stormy had to be tired, but she was energized from the hunt. She leapt into her place in the back of our SUV. By the time we arrived home, she had stiffened. I had to lift her down from the back of the car.

For the next week, I helped the old gal up and down the stairs. When I faced the onset of another hunting season, I wondered, How will I manage to leave this dog behind when I am going out to do the thing she loves best in the world? I am not the first hunter who has faced this dilemma, I know, in pondering how to tell a partner it is time for her to become “retired.”

When things are going right between my dog and hawk, I think, It does not get better than this. During these moments I feel as though I have never lived so keenly as in this precious space of time. The teamwork between the hawk, the dog, and the falconer is for me the most thrilling experience falconry holds. For the falconer who is fortunate in having a good dog and a good hawk, it is nirvana.