By Yelena Toklkacheva
One of the founders of the Belarusian Society of Hawkers, Sergey Usov, resides in Vitebsk and has raised twenty birds of prey to date. His current hawk is Temirtas, which lives in the attic of Sergey’s private home. The majestic creature looks attentively at me, yet keeps its cool; its training does not allow it to be afraid of anyone.
“Temirtas came from the village where my parents live; it flew into a cowshed, so the local residents gave it to me. It’s a young male goshawk,” explains Sergey. Traditionally, falcons and hawks are used for hunting but falcons are registered in the Red Book of Belarus as being endangered, so only hawks may be trained.
At first, the hawk is ‘swaddled’ — almost like a baby; this prevents it from escaping and allows it to become familiar with people; it’s called ‘nurturing’. Sergey even takes his birds to the shops. They are later taught to come to order, with a special glove worn for protection. The hawk is called by a special whistle, causing it to fly from one corner of the attic at lightning speed, to settle on the hawker’s hand.
I ask how he taught the bird so effectively and Sergey admits that he has his ‘own tricks’. “At first, I sat the bird in one corner of the room, tempting it to me with a piece of meat in the other corner. Then, I began to interchange, giving meat one time but not the next, so that it would remain unsure,” notes Sergey. “In this way, the bird is taught to fly to the glove, not to the meat.”
Hawkers have to keep an eye on their birds’ weight, as they have no impulse to hunt if they are overfed, and may even consider escape. If a female bird usually weighs 1.4kg, its hunting weight should be 100 grams less. The hawk is weighed before each hunting expedition.
Mr. Usov tamed his first bird thirty years ago. He caught a dove as bait and went to the forest. He placed a cord around the dove’s leg and, from a secluded shelter, waited with his tethered bait, net at the ready. Almost immediately, a hawk appeared in the sky, keen to catch the dove. At its first attempt, it neither caught the dove nor was caught itself. The second attack finished with the bird being caught in his net and he spent the next fortnight training it. However, a neighbour came into the courtyard, causing the bird to take fright and fly away.
I ask whether some hawks simply don’t get along with people and Mr. Usov admits that it’s true. “I’ve faced such cases. There’s no sense ‘re-educating’ such a bird. It’s better and easier to let it go. Once, a young hawk settled in my house but, when it saw me, it screeched loudly. Although it later became used to me, it was so noisy that I let it go,” he recollects.
Hawkers can tell by a bird’s eyes whether they’ll be able to live with people. If, after a few days in the house, the pupils of its eyes are still narrowed, this means that it’s still frightened and won’t respond to training. If its pupils are dilated, it’s more likely to be brave enough to take a piece of meat by hand without flying away. Hunters can also tell in other ways. If a bird is fat, it’s clearly healthy and a good hunter. If its claws are scuffed, it has been hunting squirrels and martens; if not, then it has been hunting only birds.
Recently Mr. Usov returned from the International Festival of Falconry, organised in the United Arab Emirates. There, hunting with birds of prey is a national tradition, with hawks costing many dozens of thousands of Dollars. A white gyrfalcon — a subspecies of hawk — can cost at least $100,000. In Belarus, no such costs exists.
Hawkers are confident that this rare type of sport is one of the most humane. Mr. Usov tells us, “When a hunter shoots an animal at almost point-blank range, it’s like murder. True hunting is a struggle for survival. When the hawk hunts a hare, the latter has a real chance of survival. When a small animal desperately fights for its life, I usually let it go.”
The hunter himself decides whether to keep the hawk after the hunting season. Several people, after taming a bird, keep it in captivity, but Sergey always returns his to the wild once the hunting season has ended. He rings the bird and lets it go in the forest. Hawks are freedom-loving, so quickly forget their human connection and become wild by the third or fourth day.