SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
January 16, 1967
After 10 years of observing and logging the habits of hawks, usually while crouched under a damp blind, the writer is witness to a rare and rewarding event
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January 16, 1967

A Visit From A Proud Stranger

After 10 years of observing and logging the habits of hawks, usually while crouched under a damp blind, the writer is witness to a rare and rewarding event

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From late fall until early winter one of the spectaculars of the natural world is played along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. There and then the diurnal birds of prey make their migration from northern breeding grounds to winter ranges in the southern U.S. and Central America. Such is the appeal of the raptorial birds and their concentrated flight that hawk watching has become something of a specialty among ornithologists. On a good flying weekend in the fall, several thousand spectators will be perched on exposed locations along the migration route: at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary near Drehersville, Pa.; at Waggoner's and Cowan's gaps, also in Pennsylvania; Black Rocks and Washington Knob in Maryland; Mount Weather in Virginia; Berkeley Springs in West Virginia.

For 10 years now I have been going up the ridges, not only to watch the birds of prey, but to try to live-trap them in an ancient and ingenious device called a bow net. Occasionally a bird so trapped is retained to train for the sport of falconry, but most of them, some 30 or 40 a season, are examined, measured, ringed around the leg with an aluminum band provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and then released to continue their southward flight.

My notes from the 10 seasons of bow-netting are bound in a loose-leaf folder that now weighs four pounds, slightly more than a large female red-tailed hawk. This log indicates that during the past decade I have gone up to the mountains 211 days and spent 1,354 hours hunched in a brush-covered blind manipulating the lines of a bow-net trap.

Hawk blinds, high up in the wind, are cold and cramped. Hawks are easily spooked, so the trapper must sit as nearly motionless as possible, his only exercise being to swing a pigeon on a rope, hour after hour, and to move his eyes back and forth across the horizon.

Quite recently four of us spent a day in a hawk blind, seven hours during which we experienced both rare and ordinary pleasure. If there is an answer to those who ask why you do it, it is probably to be found in the events of my 211th day of hawk trapping.

On the night before, three friends, Bill, Bob and Ruth, who collectively had driven 700 miles to get here, assembled in the kitchen of our house, which, like a hawk blind, sits on a mountain spur. We listened to the rain outside and talked weather and wind, which are the sine qua non of the hawk migration. Because the objective of the birds is to fly from north to south and the general configuration of the Appalachian ridges is a more or less east-southwest arc, the very best winds are from the northern and western quadrants. These winds strike the steep sides of the ridges, creating strong updrafts. The hawks seek out these buoyant, up-welling currents and glide upon them effortlessly, congregating above the ridgetops. South and east winds confuse the flight, scattering the birds across the valleys. No wind, no updrafts from any quarter, is bad, and worst of all is rain. Then the birds do not fly at all. The water makes their feathers heavy, and they sensibly wait out the storm perched on the interior limbs of sheltering trees.

On this night the rain signified the approach of a high-pressure system moving out of the upper Midwest. If it passed quickly it would leave behind a good hawk day—high winds, brisk and clear. If the front and the rain lingered over the mountains we would have no day at all. Whatever agency administers the affairs of high-pressure fronts put in a good few hours' work while we slept. At 5, when we got up, though it was still dark the cloud cover had broken and the tattered remnants were being chased toward the Atlantic by stiff northwesterlies. By sunup we had driven 50 miles, turned off the highway on an abandoned logging road and parked at the foot of the ridge, on top of which is the blind. A good hawking ridge must be narrow, with a bald, cleared spot on the summit in which to set the bow-net rig. This is an old device—perhaps 1,000 years old—brought to a high point of refinement by medieval professionals. The first part of the rig is the blind—"an organized brush pile," as Bill calls it. A low pole frame is set into a thicket on the edge of the clearing and covered with branches and burlap. When it comes to seeing and reacting to movement hawks have the finest eyes of any living creature. Therefore the only uncovered openings in a blind are a series of narrow, head-high observation slits looking out over the clearing.

In the center of the clearing is sunk a 25-foot section of straight, peeled sapling, the lure pole. A strong line runs from the top of this pole into the blind. To this line is attached a pigeon in a leather harness. The leather harness is cut with slits for the wings and feet so that the pigeon can, though restrained by the lines, flap his wings and fly in place. From the blind the trapper swings the pigeon in circles around the top of the pole, so that to an oncoming hawk the lure will appear to be exactly what it is, an entangled bird, an easy mark. If in God's own good time a hawk is attracted and dives into the clearing, the lure pigeon is dropped to the ground and scuttles into a small sanctuary box set at the bottom of the pole. The trapper must then transfer the hawk's attention to a second, or bait, pigeon, which is tethered within the circumference of the bow net. The bow net is a semicircular frame, with a three-foot radius covered with a tough mesh. The horns of the frame are fastened to the ground by a stake pin-axle arrangement, over which the net swings freely. When set, the frame is bent back against the tension of heavy rubber straps or springs, and pegged to the ground by a trigger, which can be tripped by pulling on another line that runs back to the blind. If a hawk is brought to the clearing by the flapping lure bird, the trapper jiggles on the line to the bait pigeon staked in the net. If the hawk then pounces on this pigeon the trigger is pulled, the bow spins up over its axles and slaps to the ground, the mesh enveloping the hawk.

Taking a hawk with a bow net has been compared to fly-fishing in the sky. This is a suggestive but purely figurative analogy. Unlike a fish in a pool, a hawk has an almost unlimited area of maneuver and is a far stronger, quicker, more resourceful creature than any trout ever hatched. It takes, for example, about .8 second for a quick bow net to flip over its axles and slam shut against the ground. If there is any delay—a slow hand on the trigger line, a sticky spring—a hawk sitting flat-footed (so to speak) on the ground can beat the net, turn and fly free before it is covered by the mesh.

Once we had laid out the lines and set the net and trigger, the two pigeons were put in place. Not many pigeons are sacrificed, and the occasional sacrifice is not as bloody as nontrappers assume. However, the fact remains that to catch a live hawk you must offer him two live pigeons to kill. There are many rationalizations: pigeons used for hawk trapping are jacklighted in barns, where otherwise they would be shot for befouling the hay; you eat squab, chicken and lamb, put elk's hide on your feet or a hell-grammite on your hook without experiencing any moral crisis, etc. Yet it boils down to a simple matter of the means being justified by the end. You would rather catch a hawk than not sacrifice a pigeon. So you go ahead and tie 500 or so pigeons into the nets, brooding a little each time.

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