It is to be an air-to-ground attack. Time: twilight. Target: a feral chook.
Noel Hyde holds his gloved fist aloft, the better for Ruby to look about her. With a mantle of lustrous blue-black, an apron exquisitely dashed with triple-choc delight, and yellow feet protruding from a pair of rufous, ragged-hemmed leggings, the veteran falcon is dressed to kill. The hooked beak, the scimitar talons, the eyes of coal now locked on the dirt-pecking flock a stone’s throw across the paddock—these tell of her trade as a top predator. Both handsome and deadly, she is irresistible.
Ruby bobs her head mechanically three or four times in succession.
“Range-finding,” murmurs Hyde.
Next, with feline stealth, she lifts and replants first one foot and then the other. She is poised. I hold my breath.
Soundlessly, she launches, sliding earthwards before sculling at thistle height with rapid, shallow strokes, closing rapidly on her target. Within seconds she’s there—shrieks of alarm, a burst of movement, an explosion of feathers.
We hurry across. It isn’t quite over. Raked naked down one side, the unlucky fowl has somehow slipped from Ruby’s clutches and sprinted free. Ruby scoots across the grass in hot pursuit and pounces on it from behind. She buries her beak in the back of its neck, crunches, pulls and twists. Its plaintive protestations are cut short.
Ruby mantles the corpse, spreading her wings protectively, and looks round to check for lurking robbers—a greedy harrier, perhaps. Beak open, she pants from her exertions.
As Hyde approaches, she seizes her booty in one foot and starts to drag it away. But a juicy rabbit’s leg proffered at arm’s length immediately takes her fancy, and while she is distracted, Hyde steers her back onto the glove with the kill dangling beneath.
We make our way home through the gathering darkness. Back at the house, Ruby starts to feed in earnest, tugging and tearing. We manage to slip the glove onto my hand without disturbing her, and as I pose for a photograph I am showered with bloody fragments.
“Oh yes,” chuckles Hyde, “you have to share their meals with them.”
Ruby is a New Zealand falcon, or karearea, one of just three species of raptor native to the country. There is also the Australasian harrier, or kahu—a common sight patrolling unhurriedly over open landscapes or picking at carrion on the road ahead—and the nocturnal morepork or ruru, more often heard than seen. Of the three, only the karearea is endemic. It is also the rarest.
Being female, Ruby is more than one-and-a-half times as heavy as a male karearea, weighing in at around half a kilogram. Able to take prey up to the size of a hare six times her own weight—she dines with ease on the common larger birds such as paradise shelduck, pheasant, black-backed gull and pukeko. She can attack at such speed—200 km/h or more—as to kill on impact. Failing that, she delivers the coup de grâce by biting into the cervical vertebrae with her tomial tooth—a serrated fixture unique to falcons and shrikes on the cutting edge of the upper mandible—and then wrenching with her powerful neck and back muscles. Males are just as fierce, but they are also smaller so are at their limit with a shelduck.
At 13 years of age, Ruby—aka The Diva—is the most senior avian resident of Wingspan Birds of Prey, the only facility in the country dedicated entirely to the welfare of raptors. It is also the only place in New Zealand where the techniques of falconry—the ancient practice of harnessing a raptor’s innate hunting ability in order to catch game are put to use.
Located just outside Ngongotaha, near Rotorua, Wingspan was born through the vision of local raptor enthusiast Debbie Stewart. Registered as a charitable trust in 1992, it relies on corporate sponsorship, grants, donations and volunteer help. It has been on its present site, where the buildings of a failed hydroponics business have been converted into aviaries, since 2004. By then, Hyde had left his job as manager of Te Papa’s bird collection to join Stewart in running it.
While falcons, harriers and moreporks make up the majority of Ruby’s fellow inmates, these are not the country’s only birds of prey. Also at large are the introduced little owl and vagrants from Australia such as the nankeen kestrel (a frequent excursionist) and the black kite and barn owl (rare visitants). One barn owl, no longer able to fly after a tangle with a wire fence resulted in partial amputation of a wing, enjoys permanent lodging at Wingspan.
Even the almost certainly extinct are not forgotten. Prompted by a number of reported sightings over the past 25–30 years, a Wingspan working group (dubbed Project Giggle) has gone so far as to sally forth at night in search of the laughing owl or whekau—the last recorded specimen of which was found dead at Bluecliffs Station in Canterbury in 1914. So far, however, no joy.
Wingspan’s self-imposed brief is fourfold: captive management and breeding; rehabilitation of sick or injured birds; research into raptor biology and ecology; and raising public awareness of birds of prey.
Its breeding programme dates from 1996. Some birds are paired and left to themselves, others are mated using artificial insemination. Fostering (of either eggs or chicks), artificial incubation and hand-rearing are all integral to the process.
As for injured birds, some 40 or so are brought to the facility every year: harriers hit by cars or caught up in haymaking machinery while on the nest; moreporks that have flown into windows while chasing moths or been hit by cars when dazzled by headlights; and an alarming number of falcons that have been shot. Most permanent invalids are passed to other facilities, but a handful are kept on, together with a select few captive-borns, for breeding and public display.
The majority of captive-bred juveniles are released into the wild via an artificial nest box, or hack. Injured birds that can be healed and returned to full strength are also set free but require special treatment in preparation. This is where the falconer’s art proves invaluable.
Falconry has its origins in a past so distant they cannot be accurately traced. It is certain only that they lie in Asia, possibly in more than one place, and millennia rather than centuries ago.
Reaching Europe in about 400 AD, falconry became thoroughly entrenched in society. Both a pastime and a symbol of nobility, it served as a marker of high social status and enjoyed almost boundless popularity among not only the upper classes but also the merchant and other lower orders for over a thousand years.
Eventually, the advent of the hunting gun relieved raptors of their high office and reduced them to vermin, competitors for the game they had previously been flown at and therefore to be shot. At the same time, the overthrow or reining-in of monarchies and the subsequent loss of royal patronage contributed to the sport’s decline.
Today, although much diminished and circumscribed by legislation, falconry lives on in numerous parts of the world, including the United States. Indeed, it was there that a modern renaissance began and raptors enjoyed a change of fortune.
In the decades immediately following the Second World War, the widespread use of the insecticides DDT and dieldrin led to precipitous declines in raptor populations, and it was falconers who pioneered the captive-breeding techniques and provided the breeding stock that underpinned a general recovery. Falconry and conservation therefore became entwined, and captive breeding—which ended the falconer’s dependence on wild birds—gave falconry a shot in the arm. Raptors, including novel hybrids with flying styles to match, are now readily available.
The most desirable birds have always been those that, owing to their size and temperament, are convenient to handle and train, and which—most importantly—are a thrill to watch. Falcons and hawks fit the bill best, being both wieldy and spectacular in action. Eagles, for all their majesty, speed and aggression, are something of a specialist’s handful. Kites, buzzards and harriers tend to glide or soar rather than dart and dash, and also frequently scavenge rather than prey, so make poor falconry material except for the learner.
Although “hawk” is a generic label for any falconer’s bird smaller than an eagle—and a common misnomer for the kahu—true hawks (genus Accipiter) are quite distinct. As denizens of woodland or bush, they typically have short, rounded wings and long tails, the better for manoeuvring at speed around the many obstacles they inevitably encounter. Falcons (genus Falco), being inhabitants of more open environments where speed is of the essence, are generally built the other way round, with long, tapering wings and shorter tails.
In days of yore, “longwings”, or “noble hawks”, were the prerogative of the upper classes, while “shortwings” (that is, true hawks) were “ignoble” and left to lesser mortals—who, strictly speaking, were austringers rather than falconers.
Although it is a bird of undeniable nobility, the karearea (F. novaeseelandiae) has something of the accipiter about it, being relatively short of wing and long of tail for a falcon. This makes sense given that one of the three intergrading forms the species takes frequents the forests of the North Island and north-western South Island—typical hawk territory—and is known as the bush falcon. That there is also the eastern falcon, found in the open country of the eastern South Island, and the southern falcon at home in coastal Fiordland, Stewart Island and the Auckland Islands, underlines the karearea’s adaptable, generalist nature.
Consistent with this, it is a hunting opportunist with a variety of ploys for catching prey. Long-distance pursuit, surprise attack from behind a building or patch of bush, the mid-air dive or stoop, and interception are as much a part of its hunting repertoire as Ruby’s nip and grab on the ground.
It is also fearless: approach its nest and you’ll need a sturdy hat if you value your scalp. As Debbie Stewart puts it: “The karearea isn’t the fastest falcon in the world, or the smallest. But it is the meanest.”
Although New Zealand boasts a “hawk” of such distinction, falconry has never been part of its culture. Pre-Maori Polynesians knew nothing of hawking, while European settlers came at a time when old-country raptor persecution was at its zenith. The Kiwi hunter has always been a gunman, and to this day there are plenty of gun-owners who consider birds of prey a nuisance and therefore fair game. There has been the occasional solitary dabbler in falconry but nothing in the way of a shared tradition.
Until the 1970s, that is, when Nick Fox came to New Zealand. Today, Fox is many things: falconer, wildlife and animal welfare consultant, raptor biologist and breeder, farmer, government adviser, author and documentary-maker. He divides his time between south Wales, where he breeds some 300 falcons every year, including karearea, and a home in Marlborough’s Waihopai Valley, with occasional forays to the north of England to ride with the Northumberland Crow Falconers.
Thirty-five years ago, he was a PhD student studying the karearea, about which little was known at the time. “People had only recently been arguing about whether the juvenile plumage and adult plumage, or the male and female, were two different species,” he says.
As well as doing much to rectify this state of affairs, Fox founded the Raptor Association of New Zealand (RANZ), a forum for anyone with an interest in birds of prey and where he shared his knowledge of and enthusiasm for falconry. Having adopted an orphaned kestrel while in his early teens, bought a Swedish goshawk a few years later and then flown various birds while at university, he was by this time an experienced practitioner.
While falconry still didn’t catch on in New Zealand as a sport or trade, it did begin to find favour as a means of raptor rehab, a recuperative regimen for victims of falconine misadventure. Two early RANZ recruits who learnt from Fox and went on to apply their knowledge were Debbie Stewart and Noel Hyde.
An injured raptor needs more than vetting and nursing before it can be released: it must also be restored to full strength and fitness. A predator not in full possession of its faculties soon perishes, especially if, like a karearea, it relies almost exclusively on live prey. A young patient with minimal or no flying and hunting experience has even more ground to make up.
Just as an athlete comes back from injury under the ministrations of physiotherapist and trainer, a raptor does so thanks to the falconer. But whereas an athlete is self-motivated and understands the treatment, the raptor is a savage and knows nothing of human intentions, so must be brought under control before embarking on a training schedule.
A raptor is governed through its appetite. Crucially, the falconer is its sole source of food and can regulate its diet to a nicety, so that offering a morsel of fresh meat elicits a desired response. In this way the bird can be induced to eat off the falconer’s glove, and then to step, jump and fly to the glove. (A satiated, or “fed up”, bird will lack motivation and fail to respond.)
The falconer also “weathers” and “mans” the bird familiarises it with its surroundings and habituates it to human activity. This is done by leaving it tethered to a perch outside and carrying it about on the glove, patiently lifting it back up with the other hand whenever it tries to escape.
Over a period of several days, the bird learns to trust the falconer, to associate him or her with food, and, attached to a light line called a creance, to fly on cue—a whistle or call—knowing it will be rewarded with a tidbit. At this stage it is introduced to the lure—an object, such as a strip of leather or a duck’s wing, tied to the end of a string. With a piece of meat attached, this is swung through the air to attract the bird’s attention and then, once the bird is on its way, thrown on the ground.
When the bird is flying about 30 m to both lure and glove without hesitation, the creance is removed and the flying distance extended further. In addition, with a fast manoeuvrable bird like a falcon (but not a sedate soarer like a harrier), the lure is used in an increasingly sophisticated manner. To begin with, it is simply kept in the air so the bird can take it on the wing. Then it is pulled away just as the bird is about to strike but kept circling to encourage a second pass. Over the ensuing days, this drill can be built up, two passes becoming three, then four, then five. A full day’s workout for a bird at peak fitness might involve several sessions with up to a hundred passes in total.
To watch a falconer on the lure, whirling it first one way and then another, as a falcon homes in, reaches forward with open talons, misses by a hair’s breadth, flies on, climbs, turns and swoops afresh, is to witness a rare combination of human artistry and animal athleticism.
As well as being the raptor equivalent of a multi-gym, the lure is the falconer’s only means of recalling a bird should it fly out of earshot. The movement catches its eye and signals food, to which the bird is irresistibly drawn.
Once it is making good progress on the lure, the bird is encouraged to look beyond the falconer at the world around it, to spot prey, and to prove itself a killer.
A drag lure or “dummy bunny”—a stuffed rabbit skin attached to a long line and dragged across the ground will attract the attention of a bird on the glove and prompt it to fly, especially a ground hunter such as a harrier. So will plenty of wildlife. Carried outside during the spring flush, when blackbirds, starlings, finches and silvereyes are numerous, a fit but hungry karearea doesn’t take long to get the idea.
As soon as it has made a kill, the falconer approaches and picks it up on the carcass, distracting it with another tasty item if it tries to make off with its winnings, and lets it eat on the fist. (If the catch is for the falconer’s own table, a deft swap is made.)
Success now breeds success, and the bird soon defaults to “Hunt”. Once it is “in yarak”—focused on potential prey and raring to go—whenever it is brought outside, and adding regularly to its tally of prey, final preparations for release are made.
Back in the aviary, dietary control gives way to sweet indulgence. By gorging on the richest meat available, the bird accumulates an energy reserve to see it through its first few days of freedom while it gets its bearings and discovers where food is to be found in its new home range.
To keep the bird calm during transit to its release site, it is fitted with a leather hood or housed in a dark box. Diurnal raptors have super-keen eyesight: to see is to be highly stimulated and, if restrained, prone to fits of unmanageable behaviour; enclosed in darkness, however, they become tranquil and compliant. A small telemetry tailmount or backpack is attached, and the legs are banded.
At last the bird is at liberty. As a further insurance against going hungry over the next few days, it can be lure-trained to a board on which supplementary food is placed.
From the first day of training to release takes about a month. “The whole process,” says Stewart, “is about stacking the odds in the bird’s favour to give it the maximum chance of surviving.”
It is also undeniably about something else: forging a bond with a wild animal, observing it at close quarters and delighting in the experience. Although falconry [through the ages] has ostensibly been about putting meat on the table, there have always been more efficient ways of doing that. The real attraction, for the therapist as much as the hunter, is the bird itself—its physical beauty, its prowess on the wing, its speed in pursuit. Also the rare accomplishment of training and deploying it, for this is not something just anyone can do, but the occupation of a talented few.
In New Zealand, falconry remains the preserve of the few involved in raptor rehabilitation. The karearea and ruru enjoy absolute protection, the kahu partial protection, which means that anyone wishing to keep one or other in captivity must have a permit. This is something DOC has so far reserved for conservationists and researchers, such as Wingspan, excluding would-be recreational and jobbing falconers. But is an opportunity being missed?
In many other countries, falconry is not only a popular leisure activity but also a means of employment professional falconers find work clearing areas of nuisance birds, such as pigeons from town centres or gulls from airfields or landfills. The many introduced species that flock on New Zealand’s vineyards, orchards and arable fields, inflicting considerable damage, and the rabbits that infest some parts of the country present similar problems.
So far the use of raptors for pest control has been confined to the re-establishment of resident falcon populations—through the trans-location of wild falcons and the hacking of captive-bred juveniles in places where crop-eating birds are particularly troublesome, such as Marlborough’s Wairau Plain. But perhaps there is a place, too, for the falconer. Hyde and Stewart see no problem with novice falconers cutting their teeth on harriers. Common and widespread, these may be shot if caught bothering livestock such as free-range poultry, and DOC culls them where they interfere with the conservation of endangered native species such as kokako and black stilt. “Surely if you can kill a protected bird of prey,” argues Hyde, “you should be allowed to care for one.” Until such time as this view prevails, however, most raptorphiles must be content with their binoculars and their dreams.
Falconry has been transformed from an ancient pastime into a modern scientific application. As a means of returning sick or injured birds to full hunting fitness it is ideal, and along with other conservation techniques it helps underpin efforts to re-establish or bolster wild raptor populations. While some will continue to see birds of prey as a nuisance, nature lovers can take hope from the benefits it offers. Nowhere more so than in New Zealand, home to one of the world’s rarest falcons.