Heckled By ParrotsBlue Sky WritingRebecca K. O'Connor

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Can I Stroke Your Buzzard?

I think this is a really nicely edited video and think it’s awesome that the Judge has had an opportunity to embrace something in his life that he has always wanted to do. That said, here comes the snarking…

Why do so many falconers feel the need to pet their hawks?  Yeah, okay, that’s a me being snarky. (One more snark…asper is a fungus not a virus.) Okay, past the holier than thou attitude to my real analytical question.

In August I’m presenting at the Association of Avian Veterinarians on body language in raptors and how it relates to applied behavioral analysis. Well adjusted, well trained, healthy birds work with falconers who strive to learn their body language. These falconers use positive reinforcement and do everything they can to avoid negative interactions.

So explain to me why we need to touch our hawks to do anything other than allow us to change equipment, mess with game and occassionally feel their keel? Fine. Maybe you do pet your hawk, but are you watching her eyes and her body language when you do it, making sure that she isn’t uncomfortable? Watch when he is talking about manning and strokes her chest to the point of her dancing on his glove. Forcing discomfort on a bird, even if its minimal undermines your relationship. Period. Of course, I’m of the school that doesn’t believe in old-fashioned manning. I simply don’t mess with a bird unless I have something positive to offer. I don’t watch television with a bird on my glove to get her “used” to me. I only work with her when she is interested in the food that I have or in coming with me to get out of the rain, etc. When my birds figure out how I fit into their life I don’t want to the interaction to be “Great. Here she comes and there’s nothing I can do about.” I want it to be “Oh, here comes that red-headed girl. Good.”

This is the sort of thing I want to talk to vets about. Isn’t this the mentality you would ask a vet to approach your bird with? If asked, isn’t this the sort of information you would want a vet to pass along to a rehabilitator?

In general the judge isn’t watching his bird’s body. Look what happens each time he takes her out of the giant hood, knocking her tail against the inside of the box. These are the things we seem to fail to teach apprentices. The judge has a hard flying, well-feathered, game hawk and I shouldn’t be knocking him at all. But that’s not going to stop me from using this video to demonstrate the little body signals that falconers far more experienced than myself notice, adjust for and then don’t articulate to those they mentor. So, good falconer. Talk your apprentices. Stop forcing them to figure out things the hard way.

Now,  I hope I don’t ever have to appear in court in North Carolina… and that no one tells my judge father that I just picked on your honor the falconer. I will so get my butt kicked.


  1. Ryan says:

    Amen…Often people ask me how I train my birds without “manning” them. No matter how many times I explain it, many (if not most) falconers still think that there is no way that will work. Great post!

    Also along the Asper lines…
    Vorconizole (sp?) seems to be saving a lot of birds with asper these days. The video says it cannot be treated.

    Your new blog looks great!


  2. Fred says:

    Tell me two falconers in the U.S. that do everything the same way. You do it your way, the judge does it his. Is your way better? No pun intended, but I think falconers need to stop “judging” other falconers and just concentrate on their own birds.

  3. rebecca says:

    Yeah, you’re right Fred, terrible idea to discuss opinions. Someone might disagree and we might *gasp* learn something.

    I knew this post would get me in trouble and I did note “The judge has a hard flying, well-feathered, game hawk and I shouldn’t be knocking him at all.” But I want to talk about it anyway. We live in a world where we can look at video and discuss ideas and opinions with others all the way across the world. If you don’t want to be scrutinized, don’t let people put video of you on the web. Dog trainers, parrot trainers, show professionals and everyone else who invests in training animals pick apart training, have heated discussions and learn from each other. But when you’re a falconer, especially a female falconer, you’re not allowed to discuss your opinions without being dismissed unless you are one of the sacred few. (I doubt the falconry world would buy a book written by me, let alone publish one) And don’t tell me this isn’t true. It’s exactly what you just did. You dismissed me, not my observations. I’ve been flying hawks for 15 years and this is how I’ve always been handled.

    I’m not interested you opinions of me. If you don’t like me, don’t read my blog. I would however, LOVE, to hear why you think I’m wrong. I would love it even more if in that discussion I found out I WAS wrong. Why the hell DO we have to learn everything the hard way when we’re falconers? It isn’t 1950 anymore and you don’t have to steal a library book to figure out how to fly a hawk.

  4. Fred says:

    Well, first of all, I didn’t even know you were a female, I was guided to this site by a link about the video, I just watched it and then read the response below, didn’t even see your name at the top, so to bring up that excuse, well, that tells me a lot about you and this female versus the world problem you have. But back to the falconry part, why do you think he is over manning the bird, I have no idea. I don’t want my red-tails to foot me, so I touch their feet and legs and chest all the time. I don’t see this as a problem. And as someone noted else where, you are sticking your falcon in the face of a dog, how do you think that will make the bird feel? I am not going to get into an argument with you over falconry techniques, as I said before, everyone does it differently, but most don’t start a blog criticizing someone about how they do it. And lastly, you say you are not interested in my opinions of you, but want to hear why I think you are wrong! DUH! How could I possibly tell you why I think you are wrong with out it being my opinion? I am confused, but hey, everyone that knows me knows that isn’t out of the norm. LOL

  5. rebecca says:

    You’re discussing the picture with the falcon and the dog and you didn’t know I was a woman? But you’re right, I shouldn’t bring that up. It’s a sore spot.

    To clarify — I don’t care about what you think of “me” personally. I do care about your training opinions, which you just shared.

    I would have loved it if you would have jumped on and said, “I disagree. I don’t think can man a bird enough.” Like you just did. I don’t entirely agree with this, but you’ve made it clear you don’t want to discuss falconry training.

    I’m sorry if anyone thinks I’m attacking the judge, I’m not. I’m asking why we all do what he’s doing in one minute of the video. (or many of us) I apologize to anyone who thinks its a personal attack. I still think it merits discussion though.

    And actually if you look closely at the photograph of the falcon and the dog, you’ll see that the dog is leaning back and the falcon is in HIS face. Back to the body language. The falcon has his mouth open and is vocalizing, the dog is backing up out of his space. He moved in a little too close, but they’ve worked together in the field for two years, so they have their dynamics worked out. It’s a good photo to use to discuss body language though, thanks for pointing it out. You’re right though, the dog didn’t deserve the falcon in his face. Wish there was video so we could see what I did after the shot. Not sure if it was good or bad…

  6. David Hampton says:

    First of all, if you wanted to discuss these points, you could have used more tact, and generalized many of the issues you had with His Honor’s video. That video, albeit with a few errors (which could easily be attributed to misunderstanding by the reporter) was one of the BEST I have seen as far as positively conveying falconry to the public. Your choice of this video to make your point with (or any video for that matter in which someone is doing something that you may disagree with, but is not harmful to the bird) was in extremely poor taste.

    Secondly, I wonder what happens with your birds when it comes time to treat a foot injury or mount a backpack, or any of a plethora of reasons that arise in the normal course of falconry that require a fair amount of touching and handling of the bird. I can handle my birds with confidence that I am not going to get footed. Have I been footed? Yes. It’s been those few times when I was careless with food. Have I been footed from a ‘defensive’ bird after my ‘1950’s manning method’? Never.

    As for your sob story about not being accepted by the falconry community, and Fred dismissing you because you’re female? Stop using it as a crutch and an excuse and get over it. I don’t like most of the falconers I have met. Maybe that’s because I’m a 36 year old white male? Or maybe it’s just because I don’t generally like too many people to begin with… Either way, my birds still fly, they still kill, and I still have fun.

    Oh, and if I wanted to be ‘snarky’ I’d pick apart the grammar and spelling errors in your blog…but unlike you, I have better things to do with my time than to undo other people’s works…

    And you’re right, I wouldn’t buy your book. Not because you’re female, not because you’re a red-head, and not even because we have differing views on falconry. I simply wouldn’t buy it because I think you lack tact and good taste…

    -Dave Hampton

  7. Matt says:


    You know I pet my hawk (um, stroke my para-buzzard?) all the time. I have my hands on him every day. I don’t think he minds, but then, he’s a Harris hawk—I’ve never seen a peregrine that would tolerate much stroking.

    Falconers can respectfully disagree on this point. There are good, practical reasons to desensetize a hawk to physical contact. For one thing, remducing their personal space reduces the stress they feel when you put the bells and telemetry on. Not everyone hoods hawks for this chore; and you could argue that a tame hawk doesn’t need to be hooded for regular maintenance.

    Again, I know this is something easier to manage with buteos and the like. But note that some falconers throw their accipiters like darts! 🙂

  8. rebecca says:


    I’ve seen you with your hawk and you watch it carefully. You really read his body language and Rina’s too. It is a social hawk and bred in captivity. Do you think it has more tolerance for tactile interaction? I’ve seen Scott stroke his buzzard too, although he and Mike Clark are amazingly sensitive their birds’ body language. And some imprints really seem to respond too it. (although not sure inducing breeding behavior is wise.)

    Do you talk to apprentices about body language? Or are you a total loser like me who mostly gets out of sponsoring.

  9. dan moffett says:

    i would say you are simply misled our dont have the same feeling for your birds as i had, ive known a lot of people who kept their hunting dogs in pens or on cables also . but most ive known didnt do it that way . also ive had passage peregrines lost over night come in at first light to the whistle with a full crop ,wouldnt even take a tidbit ,jump in the car, you wont get that from a strictly hunting machine, i lived with those birds, on a pole perch in my house , watched tv, partyed .whatever. i didnt “pet” them but they did puff up and enjoy being touched under the beak with a feather. nothing wrong with your what i would call cold approach , but i think i had i much more rewarding exp with my birds ,but thats me, only neg thing i can say to you is quit playing the “woman ” card,i doubt if anyone cares about it as much as you seem to . also i cant type so please excuse typos , dan moffett

  10. rebecca says:


    Woman card is off the table.

    I could learn a great deal from anyone who could get a passage peregrine to come in with a full crop. And I’m certain you read your falcons super well. I promise not to criticize or put it on the blog, but I would just love to be able to use a photo of a totally contented p. falcon interacting with a falconer stroking him with a feather. I’m sure he has his beard puffed out and his eyes are almond shaped. But i’ve never thought to do that with mine so I don’t have any photos to document…although I have until august, maybe I should try…

    I feel very warmly toward my peregrine and my hybrid. Especially my peregrine. Seven years now. I’ll bawl like a baby when I lose him. (and my two Brittanys sleep in my bed)

    Mostly, I’m trying to ask questions. Thank you very much for your thoughtful response.

  11. graham says:

    There are as many opinions as there are falconers – which I think is a bit of a shame seeing as we have all this fancy modern knowledge of behavioural psychology at our fingertips.

    Personally I have only four rules.

    1. ignore behaviour I don’t like.
    2. reward behaviour I do like.
    3. never cause behaviours I don’t want.
    4. never go hawking in a hat, or wearing glasses.

    The fourth rule was made up by my hawk. Who am I to argue?

  12. rebecca says:

    and to add to Graham’s comment:

    #5. If you’re a woman (not a card, just a statement) don’t dye your hair some odd color out of the blue. I dyed my hair black mid-season with my second redtail way back when…Had to start all over.

  13. Russ London says:


    I’ve known a lot of falconers and there is one constant: they never agree with one another on everything. They always disapprove of someone but all love their birds and our sport in their own way.

    I fly redtails because I prefer wild caught birds. Some are, by nature, relatively calm and tolerate contact, some don’t. I like those that remain somewhat wild and have the scars to prove it.

    We naturally or, a least, initially stroke and touch our hawks because we are human and actually need the contact just as we hug and kiss our teenage children even though we know they hate us.

    Finally, as a lawyer, I was somewhat disappointed that the Judge would bring his hawk to court as he ignors and disrupts the very dignity of the courtroom. Most judges, however, are politicians and love the spotlight however they can get it. It, again, is their nature but I hope the judiciary commission doesnt see the video.

  14. Jessa Slade says:

    Saw your status on Facebook and thought I’d come learn something new. I had no idea — or more to the point, I never thought about how different birds might learn in different ways and appreciate different handling, just like different breeds of dogs do better with different working styles.

    For example, my last dog was soft; you couldn’t say a harsh word without her crumbling. My current dog is hard and only firm, consistent handling got her past some early issues. Both of them were mutts which meant we had to do a little juggling to find out which, if any, breed traits had carried forward. I suppose you don’t have to worry about that aspect with bird species.

    Anyway, interesting info. And I had zero idea people flew buzzards. Something new every day 🙂

  15. Rob says:

    As a long-time reader of your blog I look to you as a more experienced falconer from whom I hope to learn. On this issue, however, I disagree with you. Other than that one brief moment where the judge’s RT “dances” in response to being touched, the interactions in the video overall look positive to me.
    I frequently handle my PMRT’s feet, squeeze his tarsi, stroke his back and his breast. All this is to desensitize him for ease of handling on the kill and the lure. As a result, my bird will ignore my bare hands touching the garnish or the kill. I can even use my bare hands to prise open his clenched feet from a squirrel leg tied to the lure. Not only has he never footed me, he never has shown any sign that he is thinking of footing me.
    As best as I can tell, frequenting touching has actually helped my relationship with this bird.

  16. Rob says:

    Oops, that should have been “frequent touching” in the last line.

  17. rebecca says:


    I certainly wouldn’t disagree that it works, a lot of things “work” that can be done better though. Breaking a horse works too. And I’ll also admit that manning is often faster.

    I done it both ways. Traditional manning and only touching a bird when necessary and when there is a positive involved. Over the years I’ve probably worked with 50 or so raptors closely, although admittedly only about a dozen of those have been my personal birds. And I honestly prefer the interaction with a bird that has been trained completely with positive reinforcement.

    Unfortunately this crowd has gotten rather unruly. So I prefer to discuss in more detail in later post when everyone has forgotten me and how awful I am and we can all disagree a little more respectfully.

    Nice to “see” you again!

  18. rebecca says:

    Jessa, in the rest of the world a buzzard is a broad winged hawk, a hawk of the genus Buteo. So technically, a red-tailed hawk is a buzzard. I think the United States may be the only country that calls their vultures buzzards and buzzards hawks. But I’m sure if I’m wrong about that someone will correct me.

  19. Jon says:

    Holy Cow – and I thought hunting dog breeding was controversial! Just kidding Rebecca; I am not a falconer and find your blog very captivating and full of information. I enjoy your writing and the perspective you share.

  20. Krys says:

    So the falcon in the picture is not the least bit stressed by the dog? Then why does it feel the need to scream at the dog? In that pic you are doing the very thing you are railing on the judge for. You are ignoring the birds comfort so you can get a picture to post on your blog. I agree with the others, shame on you for ripping apart an otherwise excellent falconry PR spot for the benefit of your speaking engagement whilst you do the exact same thing in pictures on your blog. Woman or not you ARE a hypocrite.

  21. CagTagMomma says:

    My first time here & I know nothing about falcontry; however, I do know from experience on various parrot-related discussion sites that some people can talk about differing opinions w/o resorting to childish slams, while others cannot. Tis human nature it seems. But I do find it fascinating that I can follow this dicussion based only on my parrot experience. Perhaps it’s because that even though tame, parrots are still really wild? Some birds respond to touching & others never learn to. Must always watch body language with parrots too if you want a good relationship. Interesting points Rebecca & also from some others (working on iPod so can’t go back & check names, sorry).

  22. Hi Rebecca,

    Maybe it was misinterpreted by readers….but I think the point is that there are ways to get the desired behavior (in this case touching) via positive reinforcement. This is different than just touching the bird despite body language, or the bird tolerating touching. Really different. When I train, I want an eager participant. Not the one that says…..well, OK, if you must.

    While for sure, the judge is not using anywhere near the king of force I know I have seen others do, the point is……there is a way to raise the bar and actually do it even better.

    How do I know? We just trained touching body parts with some king vultures at a zoo where I consult. We taught the birds to target their beak to a circle we hang on the side of their enclosure. By the way we positioned the target, we were able to get them to lift their foot on cue, allow us to touch and then followed it with a food reinforcer. We also did this with touching their chest. Now we have birds who keep offering the behavior(s) to see what it earns them. And these birds are not jessed or on a glove. They can leave anytime they want.

    These vultures are not he only examples of this type of training out there. At the conference I am attending right now for bird trainers(www.iaate.org), a friend just shared his story of training a falcon to accept an IM injection without restraint using positive reinforcement.

    I think the point is there is potential for even more if we use what we know about positive reinforcement training and apply it to more than just hunting, but every interaction/behavior we want from our birds.

    Barbara Heidenreich

  23. Matt says:


    I haven’t had an apprentice in a while but not for lack of trying. The most recent guy contacts me about once a year—so seldom that he has to remind me we’ve spoken before. I took him hawking this year (about a month ago) and haven;t heard from him since.

    But I have a friend who is training his first hawk, and I’m trying to walk/talk him through it.

    One of the things we’re going over is the physical contact issue. He has had this bird more than a year, nuring it throughh the worst case of avian pox I’ve ever seen. It’s healed now, but he and the bird have developed some disfunctional habits.

    Essentially, I feel he’s TOO sensitive to the bird’s personal space; at this point, the bird needs only flinch slightly and he will stop doing even necessary things like touching to put bells on, place the bird in the box, or the like.

    As an experienced falconer watching this, my impression is that the hawk has trained the falconer completely. It is in the lead. Since my friend has not yet taken a hawk through a complete cycle of training and hunting, he lacks the experience of knowing where he intends to take the hawk in terms of field work. Given that their current relationship is essentially domestic (as in, centered around the house), the hawk has no more idea what falconry is “about” than does my friend.

    My expectation is that once he gets her into the field, hungry enough, and flushes game that she catches, their relationship will enjoy a major breakthrough and renaissance.

  24. rebecca says:


    I don’t know, that sounds like a confidence and training issue as opposed to being a sensitivity issue. Like not getting the body language right and not communicating well. And yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if the hawk has trained him. Can’t fault him for watching his hawk closely, but like you said, I would think it will all straighten out with the confidence of hunting. Bummer about the circumstances, not the ideal first bird situation. I don’t envy either of you…

  25. Mark says:

    Some falconers are serious students of training techniques (“operant conditioning geeks”), while others give little thought to the finer points of training, preferring to follow a recipe aimed at achieving success in the field in the quickest, most direct route possible. Most of us, I suspect, fall somewhere in between. But it seems to me that the best “rule” of training is that guidelines work better than rules.

    Each bird is an individual, and requires an individual approach based on careful observation. I’ve had redtails that did well with a lot of touching, and others that were more “aloof” or “businesslike”. (I put these terms in quotes intentionally, owing to the risks inherent in interpreting animal emotions into human terms.) Graham’s fourth rule above re: hats and glasses, and Rebecca’s addition re: hair color, ought to apply above all to accipiters, right? Yet Talkeetna, my passage sharpie, was oblivious to such concerns. I could fly her with or without sunglasses, bareheaded or wearing a cap–and that cap could be any color, including blaze orange! But I won’t count on that flexibility with my next sharpie, because it may be completely different. Then again, my next sharpie might be more tolerant of people in the field than Talkeetna was.

    I do think this is a discussion worth having, and only wish more tolerance than temper was on display. A number of good, thoughtful points have been made, and I’ll try to check back in to follow the conversation as it continues…

  26. Cyndi Fehler says:

    You mean I didn’t HAVE TO grow up with a falcon in my livingroom??? Now you tell me! My Dad ALWAYS manned birds in the house – around all us kids! TV blaring, dinner cooking, etc. Friends thought it was cool, I thought it was a nuisance! LOL

    In the mid 1970’s Mom had a Harris Hawk that was afraid of men after being taken from the nest really early by some amatuer that tried to give him a live jack rabbit before he was even hard-pinned. When we got him only Mom and I could go near him, and he LOVED being picked up around his chest/wings and cuddled up to our faces – he’d give us little love-nibbles on our cheeks! He loved the attention and you could tell. But if a man approached he went NUTS!

    The most successful hunters we had were also the most affectionate birds, also. I always believe that they hunted to impress us, not unlike the cat who leaves a dead gopher on your pillow as a “gift.”

    I would agree that every falconer is very different. Most (in my considerable experience)are people who don’t really like other humans in the first place! (My own father being a prime example.) And they don’t like to be told that there are other ways of doing things, either! hehe They take it pretty personally. But I don’t think my Dad reads your blog anyway! 😉

  27. Nathan Strange says:

    My RT puffed up her chest and beard every time I brought my right hand up to her. Her eyes would become almonds and you could “feel” her contentment in her grip, posture and overall behavior. My passage coop would literally drop his head between his legs, puffing up his crown to get his head scratched, closing his eyes, visibly contented. He would also drag his catches back to me. Each kestrel has had his/her preferred method of “petting.” I’ve been groomed by several of my raptors. One I could trust grooming my eyebrows – the others would groom my hair.

    I believe in veterinary care. Every one of them handled vet appointments with aplomb – my raptor vet would regularly comment that she’d never seen such calm, well mannered raptors. Nothing phased them – they were rarely stressed, no matter what the environment or situation. One kestrel was an exception – she was just plain nuts. But I released her quickly – I wasn’t going to force her into something that she wasn’t made for.

    We all have our methods and different expectations. As long as we’ve got healthy birds, are getting into the field and taking game, what’s the problem?