Black hawk up in Tobago

In Tobago, as Jonathan Ali discovers, falconry isn’t just a mediaeval sport – it's a great new form of pest control

Indian eagle owl. Photograph by Mariamma KambonStalin perches on his handler’s arm. Photograph by Mariamma KambonTraining one of the great black hawks. Photograph by Mariamma Kambon

In a backyard in Canaan, Tobago, there is a great black hawk – perched on my arm. Stalin – named for the acclaimed calypsonian, not the tyrant – sits shiny-black on my outstretched, leather-gloved forearm. But he’s virtually indifferent to my presence, as his curved beak slowly investigates the flesh of a cockerel chick gripped between his talons. Meanwhile, a little distance away, Star, a female great black hawk, herself anxious to be fed, splits the air with high-pitched shrieks as she sits tethered to her post.

Stalin and Star are two of the birds at Kelton Thomas’s Raptor Management and Rescue Centre. The name is admittedly ambitious, as the centre essentially amounts to a partitioned aviary behind Thomas’s house. Unassuming as it is, however, the centre is remarkable for being the only one of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean, just as Thomas lays claim to being the only certified falconer – a person who keeps, trains and flies birds of prey – in the region.

Thomas currently has around ten birds, including a few that were brought to him injured and slowly nursed back to health. In all Thomas estimates he has rehabilitated over 40 birds, noting, “Only when they’re critically wounded and I know they cannot survive in the wild do I keep them.”

Apart from the pair of great black hawks, the centre has three barn owls, a Harris’s hawk, a white hawk, and a bat falcon, the smallest falcon in the world. Thomas also has a peregrine falcon, the fastest animal on the planet, able to fly at over 300 kilometres an hour. Pride of place, however, goes undoubtedly to Lakshmi, a regal Indian eagle owl, burning bright with her tiger-like plumage and haunting orange eyes.

In addition to the day-old cockerel chicks which Thomas gets from a chicken farm in Trinidad, the birds exist on a diet of raw beef as well as the game they catch when out flying. “Whatever they catch is brought back to the aviary and shared between everybody,” he says.

Apart from people coming to visit the centre, where they can interact with the birds, Thomas takes the birds to villages and to fairs. He seeks to educate hunters, not all of whom hunt raptors for meat: some hunt the birds because they are seen as competition. He has also been invited into a number of schools to give talks to the students. “I try to start with the little ones,” he says. “The idea is to get them educated as to the need for these birds within the environment.”

Thomas’s birds also serve a practical purpose: pest control. He uses them to patrol a cocoa estate, where they’re kept busy chasing parrots and squirrels away from the growing pods. They also patrol a number of hotels as well as Tobago’s airport, keeping blackbirds and pigeons at bay. People are, naturally, impressed when they see the birds at work, though Thomas says, “They only ever see the fun side of things, not the hard work that goes into keeping the birds.”

The upkeep of the birds has become something of a family affair, with Thomas’s young son and his brother helping out. Visitors to the centre also help in grooming, feeding and giving medication to the birds. The whole enterprise is satisfying for Thomas, though also a costly one, as he is quick to point out.

Ultimately Thomas hopes to upgrade his Raptor Management Centre to include a lecture room and an arena where the birds are displayed and flown. To ensure there are birds to fly in the future, however, he is more focused now on spreading the message that these majestic creatures, far from being a menace, have an important role to play in the natural world and must be preserved. He says, “If we can get the idea across that these birds should not be taken out of the environment at any cost, then we’re on our way to achieving something.” Stalin, engrossed in his meal, would no doubt agree.

The fine art of falconry

Think of falconry and you’re likely to conjure up images of mediaeval Europe, and knights with hooded hawks. The sport is actually thought to have originated in Mesopotamia, and was introduced by the Huns to the West, where it became popular among the nobility. There was a strict hierarchy of birds and the social rank to which each was considered appropriate; the Book of St Albans, published in England in 1486, proclaims this hierarchy to be “An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, a Saker for a Knight; a Merlin for a Lady, a Goshawk for a Yeoman; a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, and a Kestrel for a Knave”. (A Kestrel for a Knave became the title of a popular novel, turned into an acclaimed film, Kes, about a troubled boy who acquires and trains a bird of prey.)

Thankfully such rules no longer apply, and anyone with an interest in falconry can become involved in the sport.

Kelton’s career

Kelton Thomas’s love for birds began as a boy, when his father, a keen outdoorsman, would point out the various species of avian life on their hunting and fishing trips across Tobago, including the four different types of bird of prey found on the island. After leaving school Thomas became a tour guide, before moving to England in the early 1990s, where he did a three-year course in falconry and raptor management at the Hawking Centre at Leeds Castle in Kent.

In 2005 Thomas returned to Tobago, became a guide again, and set up the centre.

Breeding birds of prey

Lakshmi is imported, as is Coco, the Harris’s Hawk, neither species being native to Tobago. Preston, the peregrine falcon, was born here, although peregrines are not normally known for breeding on the island. The other birds in Thomas’s care are native to Trinidad & Tobago. The great black hawk, though common throughout much of Central and South America, has dwindled in numbers over the years in Tobago, owing to hunting. Thomas estimates there are now only around a dozen left on the island in the wild, and hopes to increase their numbers by breeding Stalin and Star. “There’s a lot riding on this project,” he says. “It’s the first instance that I know of black hawks being bred in captivity anywhere.”

The breeding project is the latest step in Thomas’s efforts to promote the conservation of birds of prey in Tobago. Apart from being hunted for their flesh, raptors are also seen by superstitious folk as jumbie birds, bad omens. To compound the issue, the increased hunting of wild animals such as iguana and agouti, which the larger birds of prey feed on, means these birds are now forced to enter villages and feed on poultry, making them even less liked. “These guys are top of the food chain,” Thomas stresses. “If you take them out, the prey they feed on – snakes, rats and so on – will thrive unnecessarily.”

Raising raptors

Training and maintaining a bird of prey is a time-consuming, methodical business, involving patience, respect and mutual trust. There is no mysterious bond between a falconer and his or her bird; unlike other animals, raptors do not possess a capacity for affection, and will not seek to please the falconer. Their primary motivation is food, and a raptor will only fly when it is hungry.

Once a bird is fully fed, it will not move from its perch.

In order to get a bird to fly, then, it must be kept underfed, at what is known as its hunting or training weight, and not an ounce more. When the bird returns it is fed, and kept at its fat or aviary weight. Every day, after flying and feeding his birds, Thomas weighs them on an electronic scale, to ensure they are at their correct weights and not being over- or underfed. He must also engage each bird in a period of what is known as “manning,” that is, getting these feral creatures accustomed to working with people. Training must start when birds of prey are relatively young, usually no older than a few months, though Thomas has had success with training birds that have come to him at an older age, such as Lakshmi. (Owls in general are difficult to train, though the demand for them among young falconers has risen because of the Harry Potter books and films – the hero has a snowy owl.)

“It’s fun for me to train birds of prey people say can’t be trained,” Thomas says. “It’s not easy, but if you put in the hard work you get the results.”