Housing Birds of Prey
Since the 1970s the number of falconers and hawk keepers has been increasing exponentially, due to several factors eg, more leisure time and money to spend on leisure, more interest in the countryside and nature, access to falconry centres and flying displays and the ease of buying a captive-bred hawk (not possible before the 1980s). There have been more new developments in falconry in the past 40 years than in the previous 1400, in fact prior to the seventies the last great innovation was when medieval knights brought back the hood from Arab falconers they met during the crusades. This article explains some of the whys and wherefores of housing birds of prey in the 21st century.
There are two types of housing required for raptors that are being maintained in captivity for the purposes of falconry. These are
- Housing for the hawk during the hunting season or when it is in training and is being handled on a daily basis.
- Housing for a bird that is not being handled regularly. Raptors typically moult once annually and during this time some falconers prefer not to handle their hawks. There are other reasons why a hawk might not be handled, for example ill health, rehabilitation of injured wild birds, breeding or conditioning for breeding (including deliberate imprinting), hunting closed-seasons or even simply that the hawk is so unusually tame that this is possible.
Bate: when a hawk attempts to fly while tethered and is held up by its leash.
Hawk: ornithological term for birds of the genus accipiter. Also the word used by falconers to describe any raptor kept for falconry, regardless of species (NB you can call a falcon « My hawk », but you can never call a hawk « My falcon »).
Mews: the building where the hawk has its night perch.
Mutes: faeces of a hawk.
Main Considerations in designing housing for a hawk that is being handled daily.
Damp in the mews is a catalyst for decomposition, which increases bacteria and fungi, no problem for a wild hawk, if it healthy, but for the captive hawk spending its nights in an enclosed mews high levels of pathogens and spores are more likely to cause health problems. The aspergillus spore grows in rotting plant matter, more so in damp conditions, and the spores become airborne when conditions dry out. When inhaled by the hawk, they cause the disease known as aspergillosis. This is especially deadly to hawks. It is difficult to detect and treat and is almost always fatal once contracted.
Drafts at any time of year are uncomfortable, but have more serious consequences in winter when frostbite can occur. This affects either the wing tips (wing-tip oedema) or less often the toes of the hawk, causing the loss of the bird’s flight feathers (rendering it flightless) or the loss of its toes.
A block perch
Perches are one of the most important aspects of hawk husbandry and also one of the more difficult to get right. An unsuitable perch can be responsible for broken feathers (or even limbs) or swollen and infected feet, a condition known to falconers known as bumblefoot. It is usually caused when the hawk rubs a pressure sore on the bottom of a foot and infection enters and spreads. Effective veterinary treatment is now more readily available than in the past but unless treated very early this is expensive and lengthy. Bumblefoot can also occur when a foot is punctured; either by accident e.g., on a kill or on an unsuitable perch that allows the talons to completely encircle it. Fortunately, recent improvements in perch design and new materials like astroturf are causing a much-celebrated decline in bumblefoot amongst captive raptors. The correct design and manufacture of a suitable perch for a hawk is not always a simple task. The variety of different species of raptors, of the ways that they are kept and of their individual habits have meant that many different and practical designs of perch have been produced and many different materials employed. This is of course an ongoing process, driven by the motivation of falconers to continually improve their husbandry techniques and get better results from their birds. There are some basic considerations to remember when making a perch for a hawk. It must be comfortable for the hawk to sit on and be suited to the design of the hawk’s feet, which are different from species to species. When the hawk becomes restless it must not be able to damage itself on the perch or on its own equipment. The surface the hawk sits on must not cause the skin on the feet of the hawk to wear and allow infection to enter. With all perches short-tethering is safer than long-tethering since there is less of a shock if the hawk bates.
The block perch used for falcons of all types whose feet are well adapted to the flatter surface provided by the block perch. Most often used as a daytime perch and placed on a lawn outside, it can be used in the mews as well. The hawk’s leash is tied to a ring placed on the trunk of the block. This ring rotates around the block and on some designs also moves up and down so the hawk can move freely without its leash becoming tangled. The top of the block must have a suitable surface for the hawk to sit on.
The bow perch is used for accipiters and buteos who when wild typically perch in trees, which the bow perch is intended to simulate. Like the block perch it is usually used as a daytime perch, but can also be used in the mews. The perch is shaped like a bow in the middle of which the hawk sits. The hawks leash is tied to a ring that can slide freely along the length of the perch. This ring prevents the leash from becoming entangled around the perch when the hawk moves. The middle of the perch must have a suitable surface for the hawk to sit on and must also be smooth enough for the sliding ring to pass over unhindered.
The Shelf Perch is a fixed indoor mews perch for a falcon. It can be either a complete length of shelving a foot or so wide covered with suitable material, such as Astroturf, or an individual half-circle similarly covered. The falcon sits on this with her leash short-tethered to a fixed ring directly beneath her. If the perch is positioned above a mute-tray which collects droppings then the tether must be short enough so that she can hop up and down easily, but not so long that it allows her to drop over the edge. If the perch is just above the ground only then length is not such an issue. The height of the perch above the ground or the tray should roughly equal the height of the falcon to its beak.
Water. Most hawks do not often drink water, gaining their fluid requirement from their food. However a shallow bath must be made available to all captive hawks for several hours each day so the choice of whether to drink or not (or bathe or not) is theirs. In cold and in very wet weather the bath is removed before midday to make sure the hawk is completely dry when it is put in to roost. Wet hawks at night in cold weather are susceptible to wing-tip oedema.
Space. Any area in which a hawk is perched must be spacious enough to ensure it cannot damage itself on any wall or object. The minimum requirement of space for a thethered hawk is as follows: the hawk must be able to move to the end of its leash in every direction from the perch without touching its beak or wingtips on anything other than the ground underneath it.
Environment. All effort should be made to make sure that hawks are not kept in a stressful environment. High stress levels increase a hawk’s susceptibility to sickness. Stress levels are often unavoidable in fresh hawks starting the training process for falconry. However, it is in the interests of the falconer to get past this stage of the process as quickly as possible and to render the hawks environment and daily routine stress free. Although some species of hawks are more difficult than others, it can become easier as the hawk progresses through it’s training and becomes comfortable in its new surroundings. The falconer dealing with the bird will be able to judge from the hawk’s behaviour whether or not it is unnecessarily agitated and to make the changes necessary to calm the bird. But obvious mistakes like perching a fresh bird in building site should not happen. Repeated bating, panting and lying on the ground at full leash length all indicate stress in tethered hawks. In hawks housed in pens indicators are repeatedly flying against the walls and roof netting. In either case the source of the stress must be removed from view. Hooding a tethered hawk or moving the housed hawk into a closed pen where it cannot see out is usually adequate.
Hygiene. A healthy hawk has an effective immune system that can easily deal with most pathogens that it will come in contact with. Therefore a high level of bio-security is not necessary for preserving a healthy hawk. The hawk’s mews and perch should be designed with the frequent removal of mutes in mind to prevent build up of high levels of bacteria. Some falconers make the floor of the mews easy to clean by putting down lino, others cover the area where the hawk drops its mutes with sand or gravel which catches the mutes and can easily be removed. The perches themselves must be cleaned occasionally, possibly with a mild disinfectant. This should be done more often if the hawk is allowed to feed on its perches. Rotting food remains harbour bacteria. If the hawk suffers an injury to one of its feet (for example during hunting) an infection of the injury will be less likely to occur if the perches upon which it sits are clean. No plant derivatives, like straw or woodchip, must be used to catch mutes dropped or be put anywhere else in the mews. These will rot and harbour fungus.
Safety. The hawk must be kept safe from predation. Some problem animals to be aware of are domestic cats and dogs, foxes, mink and even ferrets. Falconers who keep ferrets should ensure they are securely caged as escaped ferrets have killed many hawks. Rats can be a problem for small hawks. Usually making sure that there are no holes in the structure of the mews and having securely closing doors and windows will be sufficient protection. “Predator” includes other hawks kept by the falconer. Where more than one hawk is kept, even of the same species when not a matched breeding pair, they must be kept separate from each other, or if they are not stressed by the sight of another hawk at least out of striking distance. A useful formula is at least six times the leash length between the perches of tethered hawks.
Ventilation. Permanent ventilation is difficult to arrange in a mews without causing unwanted drafts, the disadvantages of which have already been discussed. However, the exchange of air in the mews is important to prevent any possible build up of fungal spores or toxins that might be harmful to the hawk. Unless the circumstances are unusual simply leaving the door (and possibly a window as well to encourage air flow) to the mews open in the daytime while the hawk is not inside will provide sufficient ventilation.
Main Considerations in designing housing for a hawk NOT being handled daily.
Considerations with regard to damp, drafts, ventilation, stress, safety etc. all apply equally to hawks not being handled for whatever reason. Sunlight and seclusion pens, used mainly for breeding so the pair cannot be disturbed or frightened by anything outside the pen, are of solid walls of sound timber construction with the main part of the roof netted, but open to the elements. A roofed section over a high perch or ledge allows shelter from the worst weather. Perches should be of a variety of materials offering a choice. A bath of fresh water is in the open part of the pen at all times.
Free lofting pens (for single moulting hawks, hawks out of the hunting season or exceptionally tame hawks) are usually solid roofed and with part or all of one or more walls allowing the hawk to see out, depending on how tame the hawk is. This can be a window barred with vertical dowels or an entire wall of weld-mesh. Mesh is only suitable for very tame hawks indeed since feather damage will occur to any hawk that habitually lands on it. Again a variety of perches and fresh water are both offered.
Size. A large pen is not always appropriate. For any hawk kept loose in a pen the first consideration as to the pen’s size should be the acceleration capabilities of the hawk from a standing start. If the hawk is startled and flies hard, the longer its pen is the worse the impact when it hits the side. In other words a square pen is better than a long narrow one of the same area. The actual size decided on by the falconer will depend on the species involved, how tame the individual is and the reason the hawk is not being handled daily. A very rough guideline for a breeding pen for large hawks would be 16’x16’x8’ high. Free lofting pens for a single hawk could be anything from 6’x4’.