The Rocrow Journey
Your Roprey model has been specifically designed as a prey for hunting falcons. It’s the result of many years of research and development carried out by a team of experienced falconers and technicians, as well as many thousands of flights by several different species of falcons in different terrains and climates. We have made and flown many prototypes, continually changing and improving the model before reaching the final result.
Although in falconry we tend to recognise two main styles of attack – the pursuit flight in which the falcon starts below and behind the flushed prey, and the waiting on flight in which the falcon stoops at the flushed prey from a position of aerial dominance, in nature falcons use both methods. Some falconry flights also employ both methods, for example, in magpie hawking, or in the anwerten flight at crows. Accipiters and buteos also use both techniques, but often in confined spaces.
As more and more of us use domestic-bred raptors, which have no hunting experience
at all, our challenge is to teach these youngsters how to become as proficient as wild adults. During the past fifty years I have tried out most of these techniques, such as wild hacking, tame hacking, make hawks, thrown lures, dragged lures, hand lures, pole lures, lures pulled from cars, spinning lures, flapping lures, lures lofted on kites, balloons, multicopters, tow planes, bagged prey, and flapping dummies, with varying degrees of success and frustration. All have their limitations.
Getting back to first principles, what are we trying to achieve?
Our newly fledged raptor needs to learn and develop both physically and mentally, while at the same time avoiding undesirable traits, such as lack of focus, raking off, checking at other prey and so on. These are the attributes I’m trying to develop in my young falcon:
- Confident flying ability in all gears and in all situations. Pinpoint accuracy in flying, landing and using wind shear, able to stoop hard down a strong wind near to the ground. Able to climb both in a straight climb but also knowing when ringing is more efficient. Able to confidently negotiate obstacles including understanding wires and fences.
- Excellent footing ability. Knowing to strike at the head whenever possible. Knowing which parts of the body, such as tail and wing feathers, are not worth catching. Knowing the likely last-moment moves of the prey to avoid being footed and how to counteract them. When the two dots converge in the sky they shouldn’t come apart. Being able to do a devastating knock down with an accurate stoop.
- Physical fitness. In falcons, able to sustain a 500 metre (1650 feet) climb without missing a wing beat. Good aerobic as well as anaerobic respiration. Ability to maintain a sustained attack for up to ten minutes. Carrying no surplus fat. In a goshawk, able to sustain a high speed chase for 500 metres.
- Launching an immediate flight the instant the hood is removed, without hesitation or delay, climbing and planning her attack as she goes, and evaluating the skill, power and ability of her prey. Not breaking off the hunt or resting. Willing to take on prey on passage, even with a 200 metre (660 feet) height advantage.
- Flying only at her chosen prey species, not checking at other species, and not changing from one selected prey individual to another mid-hunt. She must lock on and stay focused on a single target.
- Strategic ability. Able to take advantage of the wind and sun to place herself at an advantage for attacking the prey. Not slavishly tail-chasing. Appreciating the relative attack climb angles of herself and the quarry, both into the wind and down wind. Fooling the prey into making a bad move. Making feinting stoops to drive down the prey or put it in a bad position for a second killer stoop. Planning a stoop so that if it misses, she can instantly command good height and position advantage rather than being thrown wide and giving the prey opportunity to escape. Out-performing the prey in a tight turn down wind. In the case of a waiting-on falcon, the ability to attain aerial dominance without prey being seen, to position herself well in relation to the falconer and the wind, and to be confident enough to wait until she is served.
These are the main things I am looking for in my hunting falcons. Of course if you are rehabilitating an orphaned falcon to the wild you may want it to hunt a variety of species, not just one. Or if you are doing flying displays for the public, you may just want your falcon to chase around the sky; the public will not know any better. But if you are a serious falconer, and want your domestic-bred falcon to fly like a haggard, then these are your main criteria.
I’m not going into an exhaustive critique of all the different methods, from hacking to kites to drones etc. If you have tried them, ask yourself: which of the six attributes I have listed does each method or training tool develop? Which does it fail on?
After all these years of experiments, it was clear that I needed a lure that looked the same as the real prey, behaved the same, had similar flight performance characteristics, was controllable at all times, could fly high and freely in the sky, was safe to catch, could withstand repeated attacks and could be mass produced at an economical price for the tiny falconry market, with standardised models that would allow for competitive events.
This was a tall order and we have had many frustrating dead ends and expensive mistakes. Only in the last few years have advances in materials technology and electronics become sophisticated enough for us to achieve what we wanted. Now we have tough and light EPP (Expanded Polypropylene) foam which is rigid enough to fly with, tough enough to withstand impacts and light enough for the falcon to hit. And we have miniaturised electronic speed controllers, receivers and stabilisers, factory made electric ducted fan motors and LiPo batteries suitable for our flight specifications. We can even use FPV (First Person View) or Autopilots if we wish. But bitter experience has shown that the more technical and complicated you get, the more hitches you will have, so yes, while technically we can provide various fancy add-ons, usually the good old KISS method is best. (Keep It Simple, Stupid!).
Being hit hard by a raptor and then crashed to the ground is not the most friendly treatment for a sophisticated technical gadget. Very few items can withstand this treatment. The safety of the raptor is paramount for us, so if anything breaks, we want it to be the model, not the bird. But never forget this is an extreme sport. If our falcons were human we would be wrapping them up in all sorts of safety gear. So the model has to be able to take a beating, to be hit from above, below, on the extremities, on the head, to be clawed, bitten and smashed head first into the ground. Today, tomorrow, and all season. The only way to do this is to have mass-produced standardised parts that can be easily replaced on a modular system. Some parts, such as the head, are deliberately sacrificial because this is where the falcon catches and bites. So the head foam is easily and cheaply replaced as needed. Other parts such as the EPP body and wings will take collision or claw damage. These can all be glued back together usually in a few moments in the field.
Other parts, such as the fan, can get broken and can be replaced, so can the motor itself, without too much difficulty or cost. The internal electronics do not usually take damage because they are protected inside a special double shelled fuselage. There are no wheels; the model is hand launched and no special airstrip or landing surface is needed. The end result is a model that despite taking punishment, can be repaired and have parts replaced indefinitely, a bit like my old hawking knife that has had three blades and two handles – philosophical question: is it still the same knife?
We also got distracted with false starts such as flapping wings. But we could only really test this out by flying the models with falcons and seeing how they reacted. It turned out that while flapping wings are very attractive for getting a young raptor started, after an initial catch or two, flapping wings made no difference. Instead they become a liability. So for example, this magpie that we made in 2005 is really attractive to raptors, but it is so fragile that the first time a raptor hits it, it will wreck it. So, it’s fine as a decoy in a dho-gazza, but not suitable as a training aid (and it doesn’t fly, it’s on a string!).
There are three main flapping wing designs:
- Wings that power flap and make the model fly.
- Wings that flap using servos but do not contribute to flight power.
- Wings that flap passively once the model has airspeed.
The first method is great for studying the theory of bird flight but the mechanisms are fragile and often have exposed hard parts that could injure the falcon. Their flight performance cannot provide what is need in falcon training and, because the fuselage moves up and down, it does not provide a stable platform for FPV. So after initial trials we abandoned that option.
We tried the second option on our first model, the Robara. But again the mechanism was prone to failure and the wings were liable to break during extreme flight manoeuvres. So we use it only in early training of Houbara falcons and then switch to the Sports wing which is fixed and therefore stronger. You can see the Robara’s flapping wings here:
Our second model, the Rocrow or Rokarrowan has a tough one-piece fixed wing. In early training we found you don’t need a flapping wing at all. To make the model more attractive, any fluttering will do, and the simplest way to achieve this is to glue some shredded black polythene bin liner to the tail or trailing edge of the wings. This is virtually weightless and does not interfere with flight performance, but is very attractive to young raptors. After a few catches this is no longer necessary and we remove it. Most falcons never need it.
For pest control we can add flapping wing tips to the Roperegrine. These simple polythene extensions give the wing shape a more pointed profile and flap passively once the model has airspeed. During the stoop they make a scary Brrrrr noise. But our tests so far with corvids and gulls tend to show that the flapping wings do not make much difference. What is important is the flight behaviour of the predator. If the predator makes moves towards the prey or attacks it, then the prey flees. On the other hand, if the predator just flies around, with or without flapping wings, corvids and gulls may well come in and mob it. This makes the problem worse, not better. Flying LOS (Line of Sight) limits the pilot to a radius of operation of around 300 metres maximum. This may be sufficient for a runway or land fill site. For longer chases, the pilot needs FPV and the model must be capable of carrying it. We are doing this with the Roperegrine but need to do more trials before offering it as a commercial option. We also can do an autopilot feature in which the Roperegrine flies on a predetermined route using waypoints, but although this allows coverage of a larger area, such as a field crop, orchard or vineyard, it does not include attack behaviour, so you need to intersperse it with LOS attacking flights and it is complicated to set up. Patrol flights which do not include attacks aimed at specific prey, with or without flapping winged models, quickly trigger mobbing behaviour, or habituation.