In medieval times, knights and ladies set forth for an afternoon of hawking on spirited horses. Twentieth-Century falconer Mike Horne sallies to the chase in a white Ford pickup. The two red-tailed hawks in the keep of Horne and his wife, Vicki, ride with him.
Horne's fascination with falconry dates from high school, when he vividly remembers watching a friend work with a hawk. Horne admits that since acquiring his first bird last November he has become hooked on the sport.
Fortunately his employment accommodates his obsession. As canine handler for the Thousand Oaks station of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, Horne works evenings, leaving days free for hawking.
Preparing for an outing on a recent Friday morning, the Hornes assembled equipment that has changed little in 500 years of falconry.
A heavy leather glove remains the best protection for the falconer's left hand. When a bird must be kept passive, a stiff leather hood is still used as a blindfold. Bells attached to the hawk's leg before a hunt help the handler locate the bird in the field.
Leather ankle thongs called jesses, which help control the hawk when it is perched on the handler's fist, are the only device the bird wears 24 hours a day.
The first stage of the recent expedition was the daily weigh-in, by which falconers calculate a bird's readiness to hunt. When weather or time constraints prevent the Hornes from "flying" their birds, the hawks are fed according to the reading on the scale. A heavy hawk is presumed to have little appetite.
Placing the birds on their perches beneath his truck's camper shell, Mike Horne remarked on the tact required in handling them. They cannot be punished for poor behavior, he said.
"These birds aren't social," he said. "If you do anything negative, they remember."
Teaching the bird to accept food from the falconer's glove is the first step in training a wild bird to accept handling. It is the hawk's expectation of food that brings it back to the glove while out in the field; a hunting bird is never truly tame.
"These birds are wild--they permit us to be around them," Mike Horne said.
They get to be glad to see you, but it isn't love," Vicki Horne added. "They're more interested in whether you've got food in the glove."
Hooded, the hawks sat quietly erect as the pickup swung onto California 126, bound for a field near a Ventura golf course. It was on this stretch of road near his Santa Paula home that Mike Horne met the man who inspired him to become actively involved in falconry.
"I was driving behind this car that had a personalized plate with 'Raptor' on it," the deputy said. "I looked in the back, and there was the unmistakable silhouette of a falcon. So I pulled the guy over."
Far from crying police harassment, Tim Wilson, a fireman, was pleased to meet a fellow enthusiast. And the meeting was just the incentive Mike Horne needed to embark on the months of study that earned him a falconry license from the state Department of Fish and Game. Infected with her husband's excitement, Vicki Horne also completed the requirements.
Conscious of criticism from animal-rights activists, the Hornes are prepared to defend their sport. With regard to potential rodent victims, Mike Horne maintains that one gun hunter makes a bigger dent in the rabbit population than a pair of falconers.
"On a good day, we never take more than two," he said.
Vicki Horne recalled having some initial qualms about dispatching little bunnies, which she is prepared to do if her bird makes contact but does not kill quickly.
"I remember thinking, 'I'm not sure I can do this!' " she said.
But with the handler prepared to deal the final blow, the rabbit may suffer less than when a hawk hunts on its own.
The Hornes see their birds as pampered--and fortunate.
"In the wild, only 30% of red tails survive their first year," Mike Horne said. "Not only do Shea and Bock get an extra chance of survival with us, but by removing them, we make a place for two more in the wild."
Mike Horne dismissed the idea that hawks must be starved before they will hunt for their captors. And in fact, the birds hunt for themselves. After luring the birds off their prey, the Hornes bag the remains to freeze for later feedings so that their hawks can continue to dine on rabbit after the legal hunting season closes.
As the Hornes see it, housing the birds in wind- and waterproof mews, arranging their daily sun baths and arranging the family schedule around flying hardly constitute hawk abuse, even if the birds are captive.
Since the Hornes appear to be just as eager as the hawks to get out in the field, the birds get their share of free-flying exercise.
"It's a blast," Mike Horne said. "You're out in nature, and the birds do what they'd do naturally--you're just there to watch."
On arrival at the chosen field on their recent outing, it became apparent that the handlers are helpers as well as observers. The birds hunt separately--Shea and Bock are not a mated pair, and would fight with each other for territorial rights. In the Horne hunt system, one handler sights game, releases the bird and jogs along on foot as the hawk gives chase. The partner's job is to "kick brush," flushing rabbits into the path of the hunter.
"The birds have figured out that life is easier when we're there," Mike Horne said, noting that both birds had experience hunting alone before they acquired human partners.
Vicki Horne's female, Shea, was first up for the hunt on this occasion. As Vicki Horne walked along, she removed Shea's hood. Instantly, the hawk stretched to its full height, expectant.
Armed with a big stick, Mike Horne set off energetically through the brush, whacking at likely clumps of vegetation. On Vicki Horne's right, a rabbit appeared in view.
"Ho, Shea, ho!" the Hornes cried.
The birds are learning to link the verbal signal with game, and in a moment, the hawk spotted its prey. Jesses trailing, Shea swooped off Vicki Horne's glove in graceful pursuit.
The rabbit dodged successfully and the hawk perched on a nearby tree, ankle bell jingling faintly as it shifted position to scan the field. Mike Horne puffed very slightly as he met his wife beneath the tree.
"We've hunted here so often, I think the rabbits are getting wise," he said.
Repeated tries flushed more rabbits, but the hawk failed to make contact. The Hornes decided that Shea was too slow on this outing to make a kill. Drawn back to the glove by the lure, the bird made short work of a food reward. Hooded once more, Shea was then returned to the truck.
Mike Horne's male bird, Bock, had no better luck, although it came closer, showing enough interest to land before losing the rabbit in the brush. The Hornes followed the bird in tireless zigzags across acres of broken terrain before calling it a day.
"They're too fat," Mike Horne said in explaining the unsuccessful session. On occasion, he said, heand his wife can find game in under 30 minutes and the hawks can make a kill almost instantaneously.
Reluctantly, the Hornes headed home in time for the deputy to shower and change into uniform for an afternoon court appearance. Plans were made to hunt over the weekend, assuming good weather.
"This gets in your blood," Mike Horne said "You can't let it go!"