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Wetland Explorer: Powerhouse hunting – Kansas Wetlands Education Center

Wetland Explorer: Powerhouse hunting

By Pam Martin, KDWPT educator

Intent on his prey, a black-tailed jack rabbit, the golden eagle glides over wheat stubble in pursuit. Golden eagle talons exert over 400 pounds per square inch of pressure, 15 times that of the human hand. The braided cord trailing from the eagle's legs are jesses, used by the falconer to hold the bird on his or her glove.

The goal: find black-tailed jack rabbits to hunt, using not a bow or a rifle, but the eyes, talons and sheer power of a golden eagle.

As soon as Chase Delles, Minnesota, removed Dexter’s hood, he straightened on Delles’ heavily gloved hand and began surveying the wheat stubble with piercing, amber-colored eyes. After eight years together, the two make a formidable team and both were ready to hunt.

About 15 additional people, most members of the North American Falconers Association, were on hand Nov. 12 to watch the team hunt east of Ellinwood. Falconers Nate Mathews, Wichita, and Phillip Lee, Nickerson, had made hunting arrangements the previous day, when the falconers and their birds were grounded due to high winds. Kansas hosts the NAFA annual meeting once every 10 years, and for the first time it was held in Hutchinson.

Delles gave those attending instructions. He would walk upwind at the end of the line, slightly ahead, providing Dexter an advantage dealing with the steady north wind. Normally, Delles and Dexter hunt alone, covering a lot of ground to flush game, today they had help. Forming a line, walking about three feet apart, the observers tromped through the yellow gray wheat stubble, hoping to flush jack rabbits.

Suddenly, about a third of the way into the field, a jack rabbit exploded out of the stubble six feet in front of the startled walker. At the shout of “rabbit”, Delles released Dexter, who immediately lifted off in pursuit. The rabbit shot forward and then veered south. Dexter missed and settled gently to the ground.

Waiting patiently, Delles stood apart, as the observers quietly watched. Dexter rose, flew a few yards

and landed. He repeated this action two more times, hop scotching across the field before swooping onto Delles’ hand to claim his reward – a piece of meat.

None of those present, except the Kansans, had ever seen a jack rabbit, actually classified as a hare, and were amazed by its size and remarkable camouflage, rendering it nearly invisible. They also had never heard sandhill cranes, which passed overhead, emitting their rolling trumpet call.

The line reformed, and began walking east again. It wasn’t long before another jack rabbit sprang forward from the middle of the line.

This time, Dexter was after the rabbit immediately, focused and on target. As Dexter closed in for the kill, the jack rabbit veered 90 degrees north, into the wind. Dexter turned after him but swept up into the wind and rolled south, landing further down in the field.

Turning around at the end of the field, the line began marching again.

“Rabbit,” shouted a participant, just yards from Delles and Dexter.

The release didn’t go as planned however. Dexter had just bated – trying to fly off Delles’ glove, but the jesses – strips of leather attached to anklets on the eagle’s legs – held him tight.

The piercing stare of a golden eagle elicits awe in humans and fear in its prey, with eyesight four to eight times greater than humans. Golden eagles are named for their golden head and neck feathers.

“He saw it before I did, and I thought he was bating again,” Delles said. “I didn’t release him in time.”

Golden eagles in the wild make successful kills about 20 percent of the time. Luck was about to change however, as Delles decided to try another area.

Dexter caught the daily limit of four jack rabbits, using a long, low-angled glide, increasing speed while closing in on the rabbit. Just before impact, his wings open, tail feathers fan and talons, capable of exerting 400 pounds per square inch of pressure, grab the rabbit. Once prey is in an eagle’s talons escape is virtually impossible.

Delles retrieves the rabbit from Dexter, who gets another food reward. Since they have hunted so many times together, Dexter has “talked” to him in the past, Delles said, helping him locate where he has made the kill. True teamwork by man and bird.

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