Weekly Eagle Journal

A Lifetime with Eagles

A Lifetime with Eagles
by
Joe Atkinson
Vale, Oregon, USA

When I was asked to write an article about my experiences with golden eagles it caused me to reflect. I realized that I have been flying eagles for a long time, some 34 years. And thinking back I realized that golden eagles have been a huge part of my life, shaping, in many ways, the man I have become. My falconry experiences are somewhat eclectic as I fly falcons and eagles, something which, here in the US, is akin to sleeping with the devil. Simply put, long wingers in the States have a strong dislike for eagles. Why? It’s simple…… eagles eat falcons. I don’t consider flying eagles a venture over to the dark side. I believe I am just a falconer who enjoys a good flight, regardless.For the last 20 years I have primarily flown passage eagles that need some help getting back into the wild. How many I don’t actually know, but let’s just say a bunch! I would say that you would have to go a long way to find someone who has flown and caught game with as many eagle as I have. I don’t feel that by making such a statement I am boasting,  it is just a fact. With each eagle that I fly I set a goal to catch 25 head of game, mainly jack rabbits.  Over the years I have had three different eagles go over the 300 head count, all taking jack rabbits off the fist, and one non-releasable eagle by the name of Jackhammer who has caught over 800 jacks and counting.

I received my first eagle in 1976 under somewhat unusual circumstances. I was a college student flying an imprint red tail and a passage prairie falcon on a cattle ranch in Northern California. Living on a cattle ranch gave me access to miles and miles of land to hunt and I took full advantage of the opportunity. It was while out hunting that a man saw me and asked if he could film my red tail and would I be interested in training a golden eagle for filming as well. Little did I know that chance encounter would change my life forever and set in motion a lifetime with eagles. And some 35 years later the journey continues. Not having any idea how to raise an eagle, let alone train one, I was presented with a huge white puff ball that was to be my first eagle. I convinced my wife, Cordi, that this magnificent creature should live in the house where we, mostly meaning me, could watch over it. I had totally sold her on the idea right up until the moment the eaglet took a mammoth slice across the kitchen with a direct hit on the toaster. After that I spent many hours watching over my first eagle growing up out in the barn! I did absolutely everything wrong raising this female eagle and what I ended up with was a raging imprint that hated everything but me! This presented some problems because I was supposed to train her to be filmed, and attacking the cameraman was not in the storyline.

Despite some minor difficulties I did manage to hunt this eagle and, in the end, she was quite the game hawk. I remember the first jack I ever caught with her. I had been flying her off the side of a large hill in the front of the ranch. The entire field was treeless and was covered with ground squirrels which, when hunting with a red tail, are fun flights. With an eagle, however, it is a different story altogether, because the instant an eagle takes to the air all squirrels go underground. Growing tired of soaring her on the hillside, I began to look elsewhere for flights. I recalled her to the fist and approached a patch of wild artichokes that were growing along the bottom of the hillside. Both of us had no clue what was there, if anything, and, more so, what we would do if something flushed. I had seen jack rabbits hiding in there before and I did know one thing — if something ran out from the cover (hopefully a jack rabbit) my eagle was going to launch and fly it down! I entered the patch and nothing happened. My excitement began slipping away as I continued to walk through the cover. With only a few steps left before I was all the way through, suddenly, from out of nowhere, a jack exploded in a dust cloud and headed downhill at breakneck speed. My eagle took one look and was gone, closing fast on the jack that had no place to hide. With its ears pinned and back legs reaching out beyond its nose, the jack was hitting on all cylinders. My eagle went in low and fast and slammed into the jack with such force and power that both jack rabbit and eagle went spinning in a half circle with dust flying everywhere. I stood in total disbelief, what a rush. I could not get that moment out of my head and I was, at that moment in time, hooked for life. I spent the rest of the season hunting jacks with her. I would go on long 4-5 hour hunts, going to every likely spot that might hide a jack rabbit. (Just for the record, we say jack rabbit but, in fact, it’s not a rabbit at all. It belongs to the hare family.)

Where was I…… oh yeah, my first eagle. She did lots of things that are memorable……. like chasing a cameraman into a water canal, forcing him to go underwater; attacking Cordi and pinning her on the side of a hill. This eagle was, to say the least, very aggressive and nothing much backed her off. I remember one day I had been hunting for a long time, walking the hills around the ranch, and my plan was to go full circle and end up above the irrigation canal that ran through the valley. I would come from the back side of the canal and peak over the top of the hill just enough to see if any ducks were there. From this position I could launch my eagle, giving her a good advantage and head start on the ducks below. This was an interesting flight and she actually took a few ducks in this manner. But on this day I looked to see if any ducks were in the canal and, seeing none, I sat on a rock outcropping to rest and enjoy the panoramic view from my vantage point. It was at moments like these, sitting there with my eagle resting on a rock right beside me, that she would launch off the hill and go into a soar. Watching her roll off the rock and seeing the air lift her up, I felt I was flying myself. For me these moments were truly spiritual. But today we both sat on the edge of the cliff enjoying the view below. There I sat, drifting off with my thoughts, when suddenly my eagle turned abruptly, spread her wings and started to hiss. I looked slightly over my shoulder at my eagle who was clearly freaked out by some horrible monster and I thought, I don’t want to look behind me because it has to be bad. My eagle regards everything, and I mean everything, as food and to further add to my now building fear, I had never seen her afraid of anything. So whatever was behind me had to be really bad for both her and me! I couldn’t run away because I was sitting on a cliff, so with no other choice, I slowly turned around! And there, crawling up a rock behind us, was a rather large tarantula. I was, to say the least, relieved. Tarantulas are harmless and very cool creatures but apparently my eagle was not so informed and flew off.

Training passage eagles for release has been an adventure because the vast majority of the eagles I get have been handled, at least in their minds, badly. They have been netted, examined and given shots, along with a whole assortment of things that are intended to help them but, of course, they don’t know that. All they know is that stuff keeps happening to them that frankly pisses them off. My job is to say please forget all that because I am a nice guy plus I have all this really great food for you…… and they don’t buy it at first. My point is that eagles that I train have a long list of things they don’t like about humans. For the sake of this article I will compare two eagles, one a passage male that flew at 6 lbs. that I called The Unit, and an imprint male that flies at 8 lbs. that is more well known, his name being Jackhammer.

The reason I named this small eagle The Unit was because he was like a machine when it came to catching jacks. He wasn’t particularly fast nor big; in fact, flying at 6 lbs., he was the smallest eagle I have ever flown. He just developed a special move when closing in on a running jack rabbit and was very good at it. He came to me after having bumble foot and asper, the double whammy, if you will. His training went smoothly, nothing out of the ordinary, but that all changed the second he caught his first jack. For years I hunted in an industrial area that was a mixture of huge warehouses and ever shrinking hay fields, pretty typical of California’s main desire to pave over all things green, slowly turning everything into a sea of black top and cement. Cordi and I shot our first DVD in this area because it was so loaded with jacks. It was the perfect place to bring young eagles that, above all, needed slips and lots of them in order to perfect their hunting skills. The Unit was ready to hunt and I was eager to see what he would do, for that is one of the most exciting moments….. walking into a field with a young eagle and flushing jacks for it. I don’t recall if he took the first one up but he did go after the first jack he saw, that I am sure of. I never give passage eagles any bags or hampered jack rabbits. First off, it is not necessary and I don’t believe in it. I must admit I have had to do that with some imprints though. They were so inexperienced and so helpless that it was necessary to get them to kill something, anything, just to get them started. But that is the extreme case. Other than one or two imprints I can say I have never seen an eagle that did not know what a jack rabbit was and instinctively chased it. The Unit was no exception and it did not take him long before he caught one. I was most ecstatic and wanted a picture to document the moment so I walked over to the spot where he was mantling over his prize. The second I got to within ten yards he abruptly left his kill and flew straight at my face. I did my best to look like Mohammad Ali and ducked, and he then quickly returned to his jack. I can’t say that has happened all too often. 99% of the time eagles want to drag the jack rabbit off into some bush or something. The trick with him was to stay back, not entering his 10-yard cone of tolerance, wait until he settled down, then make in and all would be well. In time he got over his dislike of me approaching him and would not even mantle anymore. Despite his small size The Unit was a feisty little eagle. In our first DVD, Eagle Journal the Movie, there is a scene where The Unit foots me in the hand and shoulder, but eventually he became a very nice eagle to fly. He would ride in the back of my truck unhooded, both to and from the hunting fields, looking out the rear window at other cars and the scenery going by. When we arrived at the hunting fields he would jump up on the glove and off we would go. I enjoyed flying him so much that he went over the 300 jack rabbit mark before he was released. It’s safe to say he is doing fine.

The Unit

The Unit

Jackhammer is a story all to his own. He is simply the fastest and most aggressive hunter I have ever flown, he will hunt all day long! He was found as a fluff ball, very sick with asper, and taken to an animal hospital for treatment. Fortunately fate smiled on him because the veterinarian he was taken to happens to be one of the best raptor vets in the country, Dr. Vickie Joseph. Jackhammer was to spend the next several weeks in a nebulizer, breathing medication. During the course of his treatment he was imprinted and as time went on his imprinting became more and more apparent. I remember very clearly the day I went to get him. As I walked into the huge flight chamber holding a large fishing net I was told this eagle is different, he is fast and turns on a dime and he is very difficult to net. Okay, I thought, we’ll see. I have netted tons of birds of all kinds, including many eagles, how difficult can it be? The net was big and had a long pole attached. I figured, no problem, I was wrong! There were five other eagles in the flight but it didn’t take but a second to see Jackhammer (at that time unnamed of course). He was racing around the flight pen like a pigeon. I moved to one side, hoping to intercept him as he flew down the side of the flight pen. As he rounded the end of the flight and headed toward me, I raised the net at the perfect moment, figuring "I got you"€¦.wrong. Jackhammer easily checked himself and avoided the net. Hmmm, how embarrassing…. let’s try this again. Same thing, swing and miss, strike two!  Now I was serious, ready to anticipate his move and snag him as he flew by.  Jackhammer made a lovely adjustment, went under the net and I cleanly missed again. Strike three! Okay, I thought, I’ll just out last him, which I did, and finally netted the rascal. Of course I had to endure the "I told you so" looks from everyone. Right from the start JH (short for Jackhammer) was proving to be a challenge. Yes, he was an imprint, which you would think would be a great help. Not so much in his case though because during his treatment he seemed to have developed a rather strong hatred of people and, more importantly, complete distrust of everyone. So there I was, looking at an imprinted eagle that thinks just about anything that moves is food and hates people to the point that he wants to attack them. Not a good picture and……….. I must train him!

My first challenge was to win JH’s trust. Somehow I needed to show him that I meant him no harm. Once I had his trust I could start the training process. JH did everything in his power to inflict pain on me. Remember, he hated people and was NOT afraid of people, which was significant. Frankly, I wished he was afraid, he would have been easier to handle. I knew that if I could only get him out in the field and show him live things to chase, the rest would fall into place, his anger and frustration would have somewhere to go. But winning his trust was more difficult than I first thought. I had progressed to flying JH on a long line with very nice results and he was most responsive to the lure and the glove. So much so that free flight was the next step. I took JH over to the large cattle ranch I managed which was where I had started countless eagles in the past…. smallish rolling hills that go on as far as the eye can see without one single tree anywhere in sight. The perfect spot to start a young eagle. My plan was to launch JH off the fist, let him fly along the side of a small hill, and call him down. Well, the launch part went great. JH flew to the side of the hill, turned around but, at that exact moment, a coyote came trotting by, minding its own business. Without the slightest hesitation JH left the hillside and slammed into the coyote. If you have ever seen a tiercel Harris’ Hawk grab hold of a large hare or jack rabbit by the head, you can visualize the scene. The coyote was doing somersaults trying to shake JH off. Surprisingly, JH had the perfect hold on it — one foot on the neck just behind the head and the other foot on the poor creature’s nose. I say poor creature because I like coyotes. As a fourth generation rancher they have never caused me or our livestock any harm, but then we don’t have sheep! I started to run over to give help, mainly to try and save JH from losing a toe or foot or leg, and as I closed in on the two of them, the coyote, seeing more trouble coming, managed to break free and took off. JH settled himself and then took off in hot pursuit. Once again he flew the coyote down and bound to its head and, once again, I came up on the scene only to have the coyote break free and run off with JH once again in hot pursuit. The day ended with me tracking JH for six miles across many different ranches until I found him too tired to fly and he just stepped up on my glove. Not sure what happened to Mr. Coyote but he had a great story to tell for sure.

It took me several more training flights before Jackhammer would even consider trusting me and even then he would come to the glove but was not happy about it. The first time I took him into the hunting fields he chased several jacks and then flew off self-hunting! Not exactly what I had in mind so, once again, I tracked him down. This time, however, he flew over houses, across freeways and landed in people’s back yards! The thing I found with JH was that I needed to prove myself to him, win him over. What I mean is that he needed to understand that I was his hunting partner and not just someone who fed him. Once that was clear he and I started to hunt in a serious way. Jackhammer has taken my eagle falconry to new levels. For instance, taking a 700 yard slip, missing the jack and flying all the way back to the glove over and around all sorts of trees, buildings and, in some cases, parking lots, back to the glove for no reward. And….. do this all day long. Why? Simply because he knows another slip is coming and that is his reward. He also knows that I will take care of him at the end of the day. He will get his just dues — a full crop of good red meat. Once I realized that food was not JH’s primary motivation to hunt, as I said, things went to a new level. This eagle simply loves to hunt. The few times when he has landed in a tree I stop hunting to show him that nothing happens. On the occasion when he has gotten stubborn, taking his time to return, I have found that if I start hunting going away from him he can’t stand it and comes back. With rehab eagles I will take very few people in the field with me, for the obvious reason of keeping them wary of people but once it was clear that JH was not going to be released, more and more folks wanted to see him fly. JH was very shy at first and would only fly at jacks that were flushed on his left side, away from the guests. When someone flushed a jack rabbit to his right he would not even look at it. So what I did was to put people on both sides and walked slightly in front of the group, and dropped his weight just a touch…that did the trick. It was not easy though. It took weeks and I was dragging anyone I could out to go flying. Jackhammer has since gone on to be in two different TV programs for National Geographic and Nature. The first one was Raptor Force in which JH carried a camera on his back which Cordi and I were both surprised he tolerated. Well, he did up to a point. On the last day of shooting JH landed on a hillside and promptly removed the very expensive camera. Enough was enough! And just recently JH was in Moment of Impact, another PBS production for Nature, which just aired in April.

_MG_0585Joe Atkinson and eagleJoe Atkinson with eagle_1

Jackhammer

Receiving rehab eagles is a challenge, mainly because I never really know what I’m getting. Some are young passage birds that were not making it on their own that I train just like any freshly trapped bird. Others are a little different, having been handled in what, I would say, is a non falconry kind of way, all for their own good  and, depending on what they were suffering from, ranging from being grabbed, netted or chased down, and varied greatly. Those eagles are a challenge because they are ready to fight me very step of the way. One interesting thing that happens, without exception, is that when eagles are being treated or recovering from some sort of injury they do not molt, sometimes for two years or more. The main reason is stress; they are not happy and, therefore, do not molt. Now, eventually they will to some degree but when they come to me they have generally not molted. As they are put into the training process which is one that is designed to cause as little stress as possible, they settle down remarkably fast and are content. I know this because they start to molt, the mews will look like a pillow fight took place inside it.

It’s funny how a mere chance encounter with someone or something can set your life on a course that shapes who you are and how you live your life. I can’t say that if I had not been approached by the wildlife film maker while flying my red tail and offered an eagle that I would have ever flown an eagle or be, in fact, writing this article. But I am very glad it happened, a journey that continues today, and I would 

Receiving rehab eagles is a challenge, mainly because I never really know what I’m getting. Some are young passage birds that were not making it on their own that I train just like any freshly trapped bird. Others are a little different, having been handled in what, I would say, is a non falconry kind of way, all for their own good  and, depending on what they were suffering from, ranging from being grabbed, netted or chased down, and varied greatly. Those eagles are a challenge because they are ready to fight me very step of the way. One interesting thing that happens, without exception, is that when eagles are being treated or recovering from some sort of injury they do not molt, sometimes for two years or more. The main reason is stress; they are not happy and, therefore, do not molt. Now, eventually they will to some degree but when they come to me they have generally not molted. As they are put into the training process which is one that is designed to cause as little stress as possible, they settle down remarkably fast and are content. I know this because they start to molt, the mews will look like a pillow fight took place inside it.

It’s funny how a mere chance encounter with someone or something can set your life on a course that shapes who you are and how you live your life. I can’t say that if I had not been approached by the wildlife film maker while flying my red tail and offered an eagle that I would have ever flown an eagle or be, in fact, writing this article. But I am very glad it happened, a journey that continues today, and I would.