In between the golf course and the place where someone started, then stopped, building big, expensive houses lies a stretch of tall weeds, big trees, a dry creek and a tangle of briars where Mike Johnson can practice the ancient and elemental art of falconry. "I figure I'll be able to use it for one more season," says Johnson, who works in personnel management at the National Zoo and keeps two Harris hawks, Tara and Osada, in his Vienna back yard. The birds' workaday week is split among a shed, an outdoor flight cage and the Johnsons' utility room, but on weekends from October through March they hunt rabbits, squirrels and other small game in the Virginia countryside. Removing the birds' leashes from around the carpet-covered perch in the back of his car, Johnson replaces the standard leather jesses (leg straps) with Aylmeri jesses, which are used for hunting because they don't have slits in them and can't get caught on tree branches. "Okay, sugarplum," he adresses Tara, the older and more experienced of the pair, who is sitting on his gloved fist. "Ready to do some hawking?" Tara bates, or flies off the fist, and Osada, whose name means "brave" or "fearless," is rasping in readiness, but Johnson holds the younger bird firmly and plunges deeper into the brush calling: "Ho, Ho!" "I don't want you to go yet," he tells the bird. "I just want you to get excited about it." Bells on their legs for tracking purposes and short jesses for easier retrieval, the birds fly low over the brush and land in a clump of bushes, their sharp, protruding eyes constantly scanning for quarry. "What happens next is that I get in the bushes and start beating," explains Johnson, whose equipment includes a long stick. The dried goldenrod and sumac and Queen Anne's lace and the undergrowth of vines and briers make thick cover and slow going, and Johnson, his leather pants covered with burrs and thorns, works harder than the hawks, which seem to get bored and fly off just above weed level. "She's looking for someplace to land," says Johnson, following Tara with his eyes. "If she sits on the ground, she'll never get a shot. Those are things hawks have to learn, and she has. She's lost a couple of bunnies that way." Both birds have flown to a towering oak and are rasping loudly and turning their heads left to right, left to right. A mockingbird in the same tree is teasing them, but the hawks resist temptation and keep their eyes trained toward the field below. "You notice how the mockingbird always stays behind them?" says Johnson, who concludes that it's time to move on and blows a whistle so the birds will follow. "Tara, over here, come on," he calls, walking across the field toward an uprooted tree stump. Tara follows, and Johnson is pleased. "She's doing what you want her to do," he explains. "You move up, and she's flying along with you. Tara takes a few minutes to get turned on, but now she's doing it right." Osada, who is trailing far behind, half- heartedly chasing a covey of doves, is less responsive, possibly because she was born in captivity and hand-reared and fed. Perhaps also for this reason, she is noiser, rasping constantly. "She's a talking maniac, though I love her dearly," says Johnson, whose account of the hawk's upbringing is interrupted by a furious jingling of bells, flapping of wings and parting of brush. From her vantage point on the uprooted stump, Tara has spotted a rabbit and attacked it in the brush. "She got a hit," interprets Johnson, who is clearly excited because Tara has heretofore made only one kill and that was last season. "But his stick. "You get ready over there," he calls to Osada. "You'll probably have the best shot." Tara got her rabbit last season, Johnson explains, because the rabbit only saw Osada, who flew over first. Tara, however, was right behind in a tree. Rasp, beat. Rasp, beat. The hawk-human team is working hard and Johnson is sure that "that rabbit has to be around here somewhere." After about ten minutes, however, he is ready to try new ground. "Unless you see something, sugar, let's move on," he tells the bird, moving toward the line of trees and across a dry creek onto a hill. From here, you can see golfers in the distance, pulling their carts, and the heads of bikers sailing past on a bike trail and even a multi-colored row of townhouses. Planes going to and from Dulles Airport drone overhead, but nothing distracts Johnson from the elemental search for quarry. "Come on, let's try to find another rabbit," he shouts, waiting for the birds to catch up before he beats the bushes "because if a rabbit comes out now they won't see it." The hawks follow and land in a tree, but Osada, who is younger but dominant, concentrates her energies on harassing Tara. "I've got to get a rabbit going here to take their minds off each other," concludes Johnson, a father of siblings, admonishing the birds to "cut it out!" But when no rabbit materializes, even after Tara has flown back to the stump where she almost got one, Johnson rewards each of the hawks with a tidbit from his pack. Tara gets a dead rat, and Osada gets some dead baby chicks, which Johnson buys from a hatchery. As the hawks feast, Johnson talks about the care and training of hunting hawks. "A lot of people get into this and think it's going to be all fun and games, but it's a lot of work," he says. The hawks have to be fed regularly, of course, and Johnson keeps a freezer full of mice, rats and chicks for them. He checks the birds before he leaves for work each morning, and every evening he conducts mini-training exercises, having them jump off his wrist for tidbits of meat. He weighs the birds daily and keeps a log book on each to make sure the proper flying weight is maintained. Their talons also have to be coped regularly, with nail clippers. Falconers must have a license from the federal government, which is normally obtained after an apprenticeship with a master falconer. A state hunting license is also required. But with all the work, Johnson clearly feels the sport is worth it. "It's an individual sport -- it's between the person and the bird," he explains, putting Tara and Osada, who have gorged on their tidbits, back on their perch in the car. "And it's an art form that goes back thousands of years. They didn't kill anything today, but Tara, especially, did well. She's a good hunter. She knows what it's all about. She kept flying back to that stump because that's where she saw the rabbit. That makes me happy." HUNTING WITH HAWKS
Anyone with a serious interest in learning the art of falconry should contact the American Falconers Association through its president, Roger Thacker, Department of Animal Care, University of Kentucky Medical Center, Box l0, Lexington, Kentucky, 40536. Johnson recommends the following how-to books on the subject:
AMERICAN HAWKING, by Hans Peeters and E.W. Jameson Jr., Davis, California, 1970.
A HAWK FOR THE BUSH, by J.G. Mavrogordato, HFG Witherbee, London, 1960.
A FALCON FOR THE FIELD, also by J.G. Mavrogordato, Knightly Vernon, London, 1966.