Hunting With Hawks

PAYSON PEOPLE

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The raptor that you may find perched on Jason Pollack's gloved hand is an immature Red-tailed hawk named Dax.

Dax is not Pollack's pet.

"We don't really treat them as pets because they are just put in our charge for a while," Pollack said. "A pet is a companion, like a dog or a cat, who is loyal and wants to be around you for a long time. Raptors (hawks and falcons among them) don't care.

"If I don't work with him for a week, he'd revert back to wild just that quick," said the man who must spend two to four hours a day training Dax.

Consequently, having a hawk is more time-intensive than the usual family pet.

The practice of falconry dates back to at least 680 B.C. in China and some 400 years earlier in Japan. Possibly earlier than that in Persia and Arabia.

Trade with Europe increased, and between 500 and 1600 A.D., according to "Ancient & Medieval Hawkry: Origins & Functions in Medieval England" by Shawn E. Carroll, it became a highly regulated, revered and popular sport among nearly all social classes in Europe.

"It was a different practice of falconry at that time," said Pollack. "Where you were in the pecking order said what kind of bird you could have. Kings were the only ones able to have the gyrfalcons. The kestrels were the lower end."

Kings had huge housing areas for the raptors and had one squire who took care of the birds.

Pollack does all of that himself now.

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The process of teaching a raptor to return to the hawker begins with the bird attached to a lead on its leg. The bird can fly, but cannot fly away. It must return to the hawker's gloved arm, which usually has food to lure the bird.

If he wants to take a vacation, he must have another falconer he trusts take care of his bird of prey.

Dax is Pollack's third bird.

He said there is not much difference in temperament between male and female, it is just that each bird, like humans or dogs or cats, has his or her own personality.

"Males might be a little bit more high-energy."

Pollack said he has wanted to pursue the sport of falconry ever since high school. He and his father went to Phoenix where the Peregrine Falcon Fund was having a meet at the Lost Dutchman State Park. Pollack was amazed at the birds and their caretakers. Then he didn't have the time or the money to pursue the sport, but, "A couple of years ago I decided I was in a stable place and could do it," he said.

There is a two-year apprenticeship program and a test by the Arizona Game and Fish Department before one can be called a ‘general" falconer. Then it takes at least another five years to become a "master."

A falconer must build or buy all of the equipment, such as the eight-foot-by-six-foot "muse" (cage) for the bird.

The muse Jason built has two windows for air circulation. The vertical rebar is spaced so a hawk can neither escape nor hurt himself by getting caught between the bars or hanging upside down on them, which would kill the bird over time.

Through a process of trial and error, a human is able to teach a bird of prey to hunt.

According to Pollack, "in the first year (in the wild) they usually die of starvation or electrocution or are shot."

He feeds and trains Dax on a diet of jackrabbit.

Of course anything Dax catches on his own when out hunting is his to "eat his fill of -- usually packrat or the occasional jackrabbit -- then whatever is leftover I usually pick up and put in the freezer for later."

Raptors are usually tamed down enough within a couple of days, and then basically it is a process of teaching them to come back to the hawker.

This is done initially with the raptor attached to a lead so he can fly, but not away, just to a gloved hand with food in it.

Pollack estimates he will keep Dax another year before scouting for the ideal spot to return him to the wild.

"They are very task oriented," Pollack said. "Once they are back out in the wild they revert real quick. We condition them to go back out into the wild over a two-week process. Basically we feed them so they have a week's worth of food in them, so they have some time to learn the area and actually start catching game. We take the trust of humans back out of them, so that when someone is hiking around in the forest they won't have a red tail just land on them. It's a little disconcerting to most people if a bird just comes up and lands on your shoulder," he said and smiled. "After they are back out in the wild and we've done the conditioning, they usually stay away from humans just fine."

Next year he is considering getting a Harris hawk.

Weighing in at 700 grams (under two pounds) Dax is not heavy on Pollack's leathered arm and has not bit him.

"In actuality it is the talons you have to really watch out for," Pollack said. "They use their talons more than their beaks and they will just grab on. They have about 250 to 300 pounds of pressure in their feet. The great horned owl has a little more than 500."

Talon punctures are a part of the sport of hawkry.

Dax comes back to Pollack now because when he is set free to hunt, a lead is attached to his foot. "The glove always has food on it. If he lands on the glove he gets a piece of food. Over time hawks will learn if we are out in the field hunting, we are scaring up game for them so they usually stay somewhat close," he said.

Pollack clearly loves the sport he has chosen.

"Watching the different flights of the bird, watching what they catch and how they do it is really the neatest part about it. Every day out there is a good day. Last year my brother-in-law Forrest and I spent the whole day just flying our two birds. We spent a whole day chasing bunnies."

It is not a sport for those who don't love the wilderness. "You have to remember," Pollack laughed, "you are chasing a winged animal as it hunts."

Profile

Name: Jason Pollack

Occupation: Gunsmith

Employer: Pollack Custom Works

Age: 30

Birthplace: Phoenix

Personal motto: A bad day hunting is better than a good day at work.

Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Hunting, hiking and time with good friends.

Words that describe me best: Easy going.

Dream vacation spot: Anywhere but work.

Why Payson? We moved to Payson for the weather, the things to do and the small-town atmosphere.

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