Thursday, January 19, 2006

Hunting with hawks

By David Horst

Mira is ready to hunt.
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The gentle jingle of a small bell creates a false sense of peacefulness as silent feathers glide overhead. This is a killing machine, as good as nature can design them.

The bell is tethered to Mira, about a 9-year-old Harris hawk. She flies free from tree branch to fence to rooftop following Randy Stoeger. He is out rabbit hunting. Mira is his weapon.

To Mira, Stoeger is a hunting partner. That's why the master falconer prefers a Harris. Unlike most hawks, they hunt in groups.

"They're aggressive on game and docile with humans," Stoeger says. "I'm just part of the pack."

Stoeger is spending Saturday afternoon hunting with Mira and a young male named Attila, both purchased from Arizona where they are native. He is joined by apprentice falconers Jason LeMay and Lee Schleicher, and Bob Smead, a general class falconer who is the sponsor for Schleicher as a newcomer to the sport.

The four men walk through the field behind the Appleton Memorial Park ice arena, beating the brush with walking sticks with Mira and Attila following within striking distance. When a rabbit bolts from its hiding spot, the men shout, "Hey, hey, hey" to alert the birds. They acquire the target, match its agility on the ground with precision in the air and dive, talons-first.

The hawks are, to say the least, focused. One rabbit dashes for a gap under a chainlink fence. Attila launches himself, crashing into the spot where the fence meets the pavement. "That hawk's not getting up," I think to myself, but Attila shakes it off like an adrenaline-crazed linebacker.