Courtesy of John Hawley
Courtesy John Hawley
SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. — John Hawley’s interest in falconry hatched when he was a teenager.
“When I was 15 a neighbor caught a hawk in his coop,” he said. Hawley and couple of his friends went in together and bought the bird. It was 1964, and there were no laws against keeping birds of prey, he said.
“The following year I sent $15 to the California Department of Fish and Game and they sent me my first falconry license,” he said.
“We took a young red-tail hawk from a nest for my friend Nick and my friend Paul took a nestling barn owl, which lived in his laundry closet. And then we all got kestrels, (tiny falcons), which we all trained to hunt,” he said.
They all went off to college and the birds were released back to the wild.
Fast-forward 15 years. By 1981 he had become the winemaker for Clos du Bois, and for Kendall-Jackson in 1990. In 1996 he started his own winery.
“In 1997, I contacted California Fish and Game about renewing my falconry license,” he said. The laws had changed a lot. He had to take a 100-question test about birds of prey, their diseases and falconry laws.
“I joined the California Hawking Club and found a local falconer to apprentice,” he said. He built a new mew, a special room with smooth walls, floor and ceiling, bars for windows, perches and an anteroom to prevent escapes.
Hawley also purchased a transmitter and radio receiver to track the bird.
This was a revolutionary idea. Previously, the only way to track a bird was to follow it with binoculars or to fit it with bells.
“I built a special trap, bought a hamster as bait and headed out to find a bird,” he said. “After a couple hours of driving I finally located a large immature red-tail. We watched the hawk hunt for field mice. Then I put out my trap and moments later I had my new falconry bird.”
But that was just the beginning.
“Everything about falconry is long, slow and tedious,” he said. “You spend days on end ‘manning’ the bird so it totally loses all fear of you. You train the bird to fly to you for food. First just a jump, but soon the bird is flying 100 yards to you.”
All training is based on positive reinforcement, he said.
“The next step is entering on game, and this is the tricky part because the hawk must be successful or he will lose confidence and refuse to hunt,” he said. “Most birds can be trained to free fly in about a month.”
Hawley said he sometimes hunts in vineyards, but doesn’t use his bird of prey for the abatement of birds that feed on grapes. Often, just the appearance of his bird is enough to cause other birds to leave.
Vineyard managers often hire abatement hawks and falcons, which are not trained to kill birds and animals, but to get rewards for just chasing them. He practices falconry, which is hunting with birds of prey.
Hawks are distantly related to falcons, which have long, pointed wings and are more social than most hawks. Hawks have fan-like wings with finger-like projections.
“I love the flight of falcons,” Hawley said. “We falconers like for our birds to take a position 1,000 to 2,000 feet above our heads. Then we flush the game and the falcon closes its wings into a tear drop shape and comes down out of the sky like a missile, hopefully striking the quarry at high speed. Generally the quarry is dead when it hits the ground. Hawks, on the other hand, squeeze their prey to death.”
There are about 200 falconers in California, he said.
“Owls are good for nocturnal pests, but they don’t do anything about birds in the vineyard. A single peregrine falcon can protect 500 acres by just overflying it. Typically an abatement person has several falcons as well as a Harris hawk or two. That way they can keep a raptor in the air all morning and all afternoon.”
It is a lot of work and can be frustrating to the falconer when things don’t go well, like when a bird decides to fly over to the next county, he said.
“It’s a real three-ring circus,” he said. “The abatement work day starts before sunrise. You need to have a bird in the air as the sun comes up because that is when bird flocks send out their scouts, looking for a safe place to feed.”
Hometown: Dry Creek Valley, outside Healdsburg, Calif.
Occupation: Owner, Hawley Wines, falconer
Quote: “This (training) is all about trust, so you must always treat falconry birds with great respect and care.”