(Editors Note: The following is a legacy article from the old publication of Falconers.com)
From casual reading as a teenager I knew that falcons couldn’t actually be made to do anything – imprinting aside, they remain essentially wild with all their instincts intact. Nevertheless, as a layman I was surprised to hear that many birds could spend their entire lives without ever venturing to fly above, say, 200 feet, thus depriving their owners of the spectacle of a full-blown stoop.
Falconry is an ancient sport, and the training techniques and tools of bygone days are still in use today. The basic equipment is virtually identical to that found in ancient illustrations, apart from the use of transponders for tracking. With this long history, falconers are understandably protective of traditional methods that have stood the test of time, and are fully justified in maintaining a healthy skepticism toward anything new that comes along. After all, fads come and gone.
I have built kites for specific tasks before: the official UK endurance record holder (for 18 years); one that flew for 15 days tied to a fence post (as a bird scarer); kites for altitude record attempts, altitude sprints, and aerial photography. One was used to loft an aerial in TV’s “Secret life of the Radio Set”. Then there was the design for a cloud seeding experiment on the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean. But nothing in the previous 20 years compares with the avalanche of reported successes by falconers since they started training with kites. Arch sceptics have been transformed overnight into proselytisers with an almost religious fervour. Some had thought the technique just wouldn’t work, while others doubted their ability to fly kites. The speed of their conversions was sometimes astounding. It often took but a single afternoon, I’d receive a phone call saying “my tiercel has already gone to 500 feet the first time out,” or ,’my 18 week old Saker is up to 7 or 800 feet on the third day”.
One customer even used the technique with a large mature accipiter, going up in four steps over a period of several days. Griff Griffiths of the Welsh Hawking Centre, with his expanded breeding programme, says that without the kites he couldn’t possibly train all the birds in time. Several falconers have reported that, like Pavlov’s dogs, the hooded birds begin to show excitement at the first rustling of ripstop nylon fabric. As soon as the hood comes off, the bird cocks its head, marks the kite and takes off. As long as they’ll go to a lure, they’ll respond to this technique, with some birds interestingly varying their tactics every flight. Experienced falconers who wondered how those young whipper-snappers have got their birds to fly so high, even though they’ve only been at it for two years, have been finding out! Kites have quickly become an essential tool for falconry. So far, I’ve supplied kites to falconers in Britain, Europe, Arabia, and America, where David Scarbrough has led the development of this as a system of training and also for year-round exercise and rehabilitation. We have corresponded at length about winds and the flying qualities of kites, and why they need to fly to steep angles (it’s so the rings the lure lines are attached to slip freely down, rather than sliding back and jamming on the kite). He’s tested different colours – it doesn’t make any difference. He explained to me how it all began with weather balloons – which get blown down when the breeze picks up. Prior to about the mid 1970s suitable kites for this didn’t exist. Commercial kites were either too small or required half a gale to get off the ground, and in any case weren’t capable of steep flying angles. The first efficient nylon light wind deltas were being made in America. but they relied on extra drag for stability and were unable to achieve steep flying angles at high altitudes.
Armed with mathematical tools from my American guru, I was able to develop the first light wind delta kites with radical geometries and scalloped trailing edges. Drawing on experience in aircraft engineering design, I built prototypes with near absolute precision and tested one variable at a time. This has not resulted in the perfect all-purpose delta kite, but rather in a range of kites, each suited for segments of the range of wind speeds from Force 1 (1 -3 mph) to Force 5 (19-24 mph). It so happens that birds of prey are most often flown in the same winds as most of my delta kites.
There have been two distinct approaches to kites used for falconry. The first is the large, stable lifting platform, a heavy-duty all rounder for carrying electronic releasing mechanisms. The second, and by far the most widely used, is the medium sized kite that can achieve a steep flying angle at 1,000 feet or more. Lures are suspended using a simple clip arrangement, typically ordinary clothes pegs or Garner fishing line indicators. The lure line is usually connected to the flying line with a slip ring or mini-karabiner, preventing the birds from gliding into the next county. Another system uses a small box with the lure dropped through a trapdoor by remote control, encouraging the birds to dive.
There have been a couple of reports or rumours of accidents involving birds and kite lines. 1 have occasionally seen wild birds (not falcons) clip the flying line, but most dodge it at the last minute, and none have been injured. 1 have heard of a falcon getting a claw somehow entangled in Dacron braid. Using pre-stretched and waxed deep-sea fishing Dacron would preclude this, but it is expensive.