Hunting with Emmy the red-tailed hawk: North Fork Outdoors

Waking prior to sunrise on a cold winter’s day, I go outside to Emmy’s mew (enclosure) where she has spent the night dreaming about today’s squirrel hunt. Lifting her from her perch, I place her in a large plastic transport box, known as a giant hood, and load her into the back seat of my truck. I then toss my hawking satchel and walking stick into the truck and we drive off to one of our hunting locations.

With Emmy riding shotgun, we arrive at a local North Fork farm where the owners have graciously granted us permission to hunt. We are extremely fortunate to have received this permission, as suitable locations to fly Emmy are getting more difficult to find each year. With the continued development of the North Fork, hazards to Emmy become increasingly more common. For example, tall, wide mesh deer fences are great at keeping deer from eating your prized hostas, but can be deadly to hawks. A squirrel or rabbit can run through these fences with ease, while a hawk attempting the same maneuver will break its neck on the thin, barely visible wire.

As I turn onto the farm’s bouncy dirt road, Emmy senses what is about to happen and begins to vocalize. At first, these vocalizations are low in tone and infrequent. After I park the truck next to a small wood lot and turn off the engine, her calls become louder and more frequent. She now realizes we are mere moments before the commencement of the hunt.

As the sun begins to break the horizon, I open the door to the giant hood and Emmy quickly hops onto my gloved hand. I fit her with a radio transmitter that will allow me to track her should I lose sight of her. After a quick survey of the area, Emmy flies to the top of the nearest tall tree and waits for me to enter the woods with my walking stick in hand.

Keeping pace with my movements, Emmy flies treetop to treetop, paying close attention to my every move. Although a hawk has amazing eyesight, it is most effective when the prey moves. The presence of a hawk will cause squirrels and other quarry to remain motionless, hoping not to be spotted. As I walk through the woods, I shake vines and kick through brush piles in an attempt to flush game for her.

falconry

Emmy moves in on a squirrel. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Approaching a large oak tree that is covered in big grapevines, I see a squirrel scurry around the backside of the tree. I yell out, “Ho Ho Ho” (a signal to Emmy that I had spotted something), and she quickly flies in my direction and lands in an adjacent tree. As I walk around the tree, the squirrel continually stays on the side opposite of me. When it finally becomes visible to Emmy, she swoops down on it in the blink of an eye. At the last minute, the squirrel darts around to the other side of the tree, barely escaping Emmy’s sharp talons. Having missed on her first attempt, she flies to the top of a nearby tree and gets in position for another attempt.

This “cat and mouse” game went on for about 15 minutes, with each attempt made by Emmy foiled by the squirrel zipping to the tree’s opposite side. Possibly realizing this could go on forever, the squirrel decided to make a last-ditch effort to escape by jumping through the air to a branch of a neighboring tree. Miraculously, the squirrel avoided Emmy’s aerial assault and entered a large hole located at the base of that tree.

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Having realized the squirrel had escaped, Emmy resumed following me through the woods, looking for another opportunity to score some breakfast. It did not take long before a second squirrel was spotted. This one, too, was in a large oak tree and appeared to be using the same playbook when it came to eluding Emmy, including the escape plan of jumping to a nearby tree. This time, however, Emmy waited patiently for the perfect opportunity and snatched the squirrel as it landed in the next tree. With the squirrel in her talons, she flew down to the ground to enjoy her hard-earned meal.

When on the ground, Emmy spreads her wings in a behavior known as mantling to conceal the squirrel from potential thieves, especially other hawks. Wasting no time, she breaks into the chest cavity to feed on the nutrient-rich organ meat. After she’s consumed these tasty morsels, I offer her a piece of food from a previous catch, which she eagerly trades for the freshly caught squirrel. The squirrel is placed in my hawking satchel and I start walking back to my truck. After Emmy finishes her meal, I pull out another piece of food and blow a whistle to get her attention. In an instant, she flies through the woods, lands on my gloved hand and we walk back to my truck. As soon as I open the giant hood, she jumps onto the perch, ready to return home a successful hunter.

Ensuring that Emmy gets out hunting three to four times a week, building and maintaining suitable facilities, and providing proper health care requires a level of dedication that is like no other sport/hobby. The bond I have formed with such a majestic animal has made all the sacrifices worth it.

Chris paparo