I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while but have been inundated with writing other posts as they happen. The Arkansas Hawking Association holds an apprentice workshop every year. I haven’t been able to get a handle on how long they’ve been holding it, but my impression is only a couple of years. The idea behind it is that you get all of the apprentices or those planning on being apprentices together and demonstrate some of the fundamental skills of making falconry equipment. This is actually really important as a falconer typically makes most or all of the leather equipment for their birds. There are a few reasons for this:
- The equipment has to fit each bird so as not to cause irritation, which means custom fitting. This is especially important with leg cuffs as ill-fitting cuffs can cause leg scales to separate. This kind of leg damage has to heal before the bird can hunt again and may end the season at best or require a trip to the vet. Hoods must also fit tightly enough so as not to let light enter but not be so tight as to touch the bird’s eyes or cause undue stress.
- Certain items wear out relatively quickly. Jesses, for example, should be switched out when they become worn, which may be as frequently as 3-4 times per hunting season. It’s therefore cheaper in the long run to make your own.
- There’s also a certain pride that comes with flying a bird using equipment you’ve made and a connection to falconers of the past that went through the same steps.
The workshop this year (2013) was on August 3 at the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center in downtown Little Rock. The center is right next to the Arkansas River and the Clinton Presidential Center and a 3 hour drive from Fayetteville. The workshop started around 9:30 am and I wanted to make sure I had some extra time in case I couldn’t find it or parking was a mess so left around 6. The drive itself was pretty easy, major highways to within a half mile of the center. Trying to find parking was difficult though – we were allowed to park at the Presidential Center, but I never did find the lot for it. I ended up finding the parking lot for Julius Breckling Riverfront Park a quarter mile away around 9:20 and hoofed it as quick as I could. It turns out that they weren’t very stickler about the 9:30 start time and I ended up chatting with some other apprentices until we started around 10.
The first thing we did was make jesses and cuffs. The club provided the leather and tools and Francie was kind enough to do the demonstrations. Both cuffs and jesses are easy to make but it’s definitely easier to understand the process and proportions when you do it yourself.
Next we made lures. A lure can be elaborate – some falconers make theirs anatomically correct in proportion and look to the bird’s desired quarry – or plain and utilitarian. There is some debate about this but it seems that the birds don’t care overly much. The most important aspect of the lure is that it be recognizable (i.e., don’t put a glove on a string, the bird may be confused with the falconry glove you wear as they look the same) and that it be kind of heavy but supple. The bird will be hitting it with some force and you don’t want the bird damaging it’s feet. Some people use to make lures out of padded horse shoes, but these are way too heavy; as a consequence this practice has all but faded from modern use. The lures we made are vaguely bird-shaped, constructed of two pieces of leather bonded with contact cement with a string on either side to hold meat. Provided I don’t lose the lure or leave it in the rain it should least a considerable amount of time.
We had a bit of a break for a pizza lunch. I talked to some of the more seasoned falconers and looked over the bal-chatri traps someone brought. We never really went over them as a group, so I’m glad I made an effort to check them out. That definitely helped when I constructed my first one, though I’m still not sure if it’s big enough.
Heath and the other organizers decided to hold the apprentice-only raffle right after lunch. There were enough prizes that each apprentice got two items. I was lucky and was picked second, so my first prize was a copy of Emma Ford’s “Falconry: Art and Practice“. Some people don’t like this book very much – it’s written for British falconers so none of the law section applies to the US and she has rather disparaging views of kestrels – but I found it to be useful when studying for the apprentice exam. The second prize I got was some biothane. This is a synthetic webbing that can be used to make cuffs. This also has some controversy around it. Some people have had problems with it chafing their birds’ legs while others have used it for years with no problem. I think the consensus is that many of the problems are caused by improper fit because biothane retains a tear-drop shape when shaped around a birds leg instead of rounding out like leather does. This can be partially alleviated by forming the biothane around an object the approximate size of a birds leg and dipping it in boiling water for a few seconds in order to reform it.
After the raffle Heath demonstrated the basics of hood-making, mostly how to sew the leather together so stitches don’t show. He also showed us the blocks you use to form the wetted leather of a new hood.
Rusty took a group to demonstrate how to make giant hoods. I missed it as I talked to Heath more about hood making. It should be pretty easy to make a giant hood, especially when using corrugated plastic, as it’s basically a large box with a door and pearch installed.
Finally, Ash brought his red-tailed hawk Trout so Rusty could demonstrate the proper techniques for coping a beak, which is when you grind or file the beak down because it’s become overgrown. Not doing this can result in a beak that cracks and can be very difficult on the bird. Rusty also clipped Trouts talons. This is needed as overgrown talons can puncture the bottoms of the feet and allow bacteria to grow, resulting in a condition called bumblefoot.