Watching a Grey Squirrel carrying bedding to its drey the other day, I was thinking what an easy life these suburban squirrels must have, with no natural enemies apart from the occasional Fox, which can’t follow them up into the tree-tops. But the squirrels of Spring Mill Park must be well aware of one powerful predator that has been hawking around the area for the last 14 years; this North American Harris Hawk, Parabuteo unicinctus, one of three which belong to a local falconer.
He exercises them regularly but confides to me that it’s now getting a bit too much for him. When the bird goes down on prey it’s not like a retriever dog, it won’t bring the prey back to him, so it might end up half a mile away – as the hawk flies – up the slope in one of the pastures between Spring Mill Park and the motorway.
This hawk can easily tackle prey such as Rabbits and Magpies but if you’re hawking for Grey Squirrels – which, for all their cuteness, are often seen as a pest species, here in Britain where they’ve been introduced – the hawk needs to be equipped with special leg-guards as the squirrel, when caught, can swivel around and use its impressive incisors to bite into the back of the hawk’s legs, potentially inflicting permanent damage.
Flying weight is critical for hawking; fly a bird that’s even a few grams over its ideal weight and it will happily soar about all day without bothering to go for prey. This female Harris Hawk, I’m informed, needs to weigh in at precisely 2 pounds, 1 ounce and 3 grams, when it is taken out to hunt.
The falconer was once surprised, when he was calling back one of his hawks, by the sudden appearance of a Goshawk which flew down and perched on the fence nearby. It had jesses so he managed to get near it and take it back to his avairy. The ring, which all captive falcons wear, revealed that it had been lost by a falconer who lives at Addingham, 23 miles to the north-west of Spring Mill, so he was able to reunite the bird with its owner.