Thursday, January 12, 2023

Crow Hawking Diaries: The 15th Crow

I‘ve been spending all my time with Kaya and therefore neglecting my blog and my household duties! It’s astonishing how much time one can devote to a raptor, though we spend more time interacting with her than we’d need to.

We’ve recently hit another milestone. On Dreikönigstag, the last holiday of the Christmas season, M and I went crow hawking with Kaya alone – that is, without a more experienced falconer with us – and Kaya got her 15th crow! The three of us have been out alone before, but we were never successful. Returning home without quarry isn’t all that unusual and happens even when we do go hawking with experienced falconers. The odds are in the crows’ favor most of the time.

This Revier is about a 20-minute drive from home and where we have been invited to hunt deer and wild boar as well. We have sat frequently in Hochsitze and have had sightings of deer, but we have as yet had no good chance to shoot and therefore no hunting success. The Jagdpächter (hunter-tenants) allow us to go crow hawking there as well.

There is a Biogasanlage and farm in the Revier and we have often seen a murder of crows hanging around near there. I’ve missed several great opportunities by not being ready, so the other day I was prepared before I was sure there were crows on that field. On the far side of the building we all saw four or five crows on the field at a perfect distance for Kaya, and all but one took off too soon. I launched Kaya because the last one stayed on the ground nonplussed by her fleeing friends, Kaya flew up above and came crashing down on the confused crow and held on while they both screamed at each other. I ran over to them, “took care of” the crow*, praised Kaya for her good work, secured her to my glove and M snapped a quick photo.

Kaya's manteling over her prize to 
prevent me from stealing some noms for myself.

*Kaya is a Grifftöter (a raptor who kills mainly with her claws). In the wild, a Grifftöter will grab the prey, hang on, start to pluck and eat while the prey dies rather slowly. Nature is harsh. We falconers get to our bird as quickly as possible and end the prey’s life quickly and more humanely than the hawk would.

Our next step is to entice Kaya off the deceased crow using smaller bits of meat she likes – that day I’d thawed a Wachtel (quail) and portioned it to be ready. She was quite happy with the quail but had a Beutekrampf (the talons of one foot were cramp-locked on the crow) and even though she wasn’t interested in it anymore, she couldn’t release her grip. We tried everything we could think of and had seen others do, but in the end we just had to wait it out while she munched on the quail still attached firmly to the crow. 15 minutes after she’d caught the crow, she finally released it when going after the last tidbits we had left.

We were a happy trio in the end, because M and I felt we’d finally accomplished this on our own, and Kaya was stuffed with quail.

By now Kaya is up to 16 crows, which is quite good for a young bird only 8 1/2 months old! But lately it's so windy with strong gusts that we're forced to take some days off. Crow season ends on February 15th, so hopefully the weather will cooperate again soon.

Here’s to more hawking adventures!

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Crow Hawking Diaries: The Fence

On our first crow hawking trip of the year Kaya and I faced something we don’t ever want to have happen again! Anyone who goes hunting or indeed, simply has an animal – working or not – knows accidents and injuries are always a possibility. But when the reality hits nothing can prepare you for it.

We were out with my mentor (B) and her Harris hawk, Hekate, in a new Revier. At one point I launched Kaya at some crows that were sitting well on a field about 20 meters from the road. The crows scurried off and Kaya gave chase even though once the crows take to flight their odds of escaping are better than Kaya’s odds of catching one. As I was getting a tidbit out to call her back, B shouted, “She’s caught in the fence! Run to her!” I took off across the muddy field as fast as I could, running the 60 meters or so to where Kaya was screaming. She looked at me and I swear somehow knew I was going to help her. She didn’t panic more, at any rate, and thank goodness. She was indeed stuck in the fence somehow, and I couldn’t tell right away how or if the fence were barbed wire (it was not). I could see that her head was stuck. I threw off my leather falconer’s glove, talked calmly to her, and felt for where the fence wire was that must be trapping her. It seemed her neck was stuck between the straight top wire and the chain link below it, so I held the top wire and pulled gently on the mesh. That allowed her to get her head out, and she reached out immediately for me, grabbing my ungloved left arm tightly in her talons.

I lowered her to the ground and kept talking gently to her, stroking her and looking and feeling for blood or signs of any wounds. I saw and felt no signs of either, but she was still hanging onto my arm and screaming. Sharp as her talons are, I didn’t mind. B had reached us by then, and eventually Kaya calmed down enough to let go of my arm. I put my glove back on, got her up, and we trudged back across the field to our car.

Kaya seemed ok, but before we headed off again we flew her between us twice to see if she were willing and if anything looked askew. She flew as usual, and we determined everything was fine.

Neither of us had seen that fence in the distance, but even if we had known it was there, I would have set her at those crows. The fence was at least 60 meters away, and usually Kaya breaks off her chase before then. There are all kinds of potential dangers Kaya could face: a car or truck when we’re close to a road, a Habicht (goshawk) when we’re close to a forest, dogs - especially the unleashed ones, and manmade hazards like fences, wires, electrical lines and so on.

It is our job as falconers to look out for these and other dangers and not let our bird go when it’s not safe. When Kaya takes off, she only sees her quarry, not potential dangers. I was reminded that day of how fragile her life is and how quickly things can turn south. We were lucky. 

Hawking can be dangerous, but the safe alternative – not hawking and staying where there are no dangers – would not be in her best interest. She is a raptor and it is in her nature to hunt. If she could choose, I don’t think she’d prefer to stay in her mews. That's safe, but pretty boring. Her body language while hawking tells me that she really wants to do this. When she sees a crow, I can hardly hold her back to wait for the right moment. She wants to GO!

But if she had her druthers, I think she’d happily avoid fences in the future. And that would be fine with me, too!

Saturday, December 10, 2022


One thing I've always loved about southwest Germany is that the winters are SO much milder than what one endures in Wisconsin. The temps aren't as low, the windchill not as threatening and the snowfall usually a joke compared to what one has in WI. We've gone entire winter seasons here only having to use our shovel a handful of times. Other times a broom is sufficient. Yes, we've had some significant snowstorms as well, but at least the streets get cleared well (so one doesn't have to drive on a sheet of ice for 2 months, unlike in WI) and the snow doesn't last long.

My snowbird. Or maybe snowhawk?

I didn't pay much attention to nighttime temps because I've been snug under my Federbett with the window tilted open all winter long.

Bring on December 2022, the first year we have our Harris hawk, who lives outside in her mew. FFS, I've not noticed temps this cold for this extended a period since I moved here! It's still nothing like Wisconsin - in fact I just converted the coldest upcoming temp and found it to be still double-digits-above-zero °Fahrenheit! But we can't bring her in because the temperature differential between inside and outside is now too great that it's not healthy for her to go in and out.

Unfortunately no one can convince me that "she'll be fine." It's like when a mom puts another sweater on her kid because the mom is cold - except I can't put a sweater on her. I had a brief "Ah-hah!" moment the other night when I pondered on the fact that I was warm in bed because I was covered in...feathers. But then the next night I had to add a blanket on top of my Federbett.

Kayas first snow:
I feel like she's screaming, "WTF?!?!"

M put up another perch today in the inner mew, this one with a warming cord running along the wood, covered with something like Astroturf (perching on that is good for her feet, but she also has perches that are just branches because raptors need options). And he added a layer of insulation on top the inner mew that should keep it more comfortable in there, especially when it's windy. We didn't turn on the heat yet (we'll test it tomorrow) because we want to be present when it's warmed to make sure all is well, it works but is not too hot, etc. But Kaya did accept the new perch and went to sleep there for the night.

I've read in two books about Harris hawks that the cold is not a problem for them as long as they are in a dry and draft-free mew. The ground of her mew is natural earth and grass, and the ground in Germany is never dry in winter. But her perches are high up off the ground. She does have protection from drafts, especially if she chooses to sleep in her inner mew.

These books were written by experts on Harris hawks in Germany and in the U.S. They have many, many years of experience and know what they're talking about. And still I worry about her out there in the cold because I would hate to have to sleep out there regardless of how many layers I might be wearing. Every morning when she starts squawking (sometime between 5:00 and 6:45) I jolt awake and my first thought is, "Oh thank God, she's ok!"

I've spent some time thinking fondly back to August, when she was new here and I worried about her because it was so hot. I can't believe she's only been with us for four months!

This is my "I hate winter" face.
She's looking for crows.

To date she has successfully bagged 10 crows and shows herself to be a willing and enthusiastic hunter. The ones she hasn't bagged were often because of a mistake I made, sometimes because she was too enthusiastic and flopping around and banging me in the face with her wings, thereby alerting the clever crows to the danger they were in, other times because the crows out-maneuvered her, and sometimes just dumb bad luck. We continue learning together and will keep trying until the end of the crow-hunting season in mid-February.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

A Stolperstein for Hedwig

Recently I learned that there would be a Stolperstein laid in a town not far from us, and I knew I wanted to be there. And by being present I met some wonderful people.

I have told many friends, family and students about the Stolpersteine project and the people memorialized through it. Stolpersteine are always a part of the tours I give in Esslingen, Tübingen, Ulm and Berlin.

First let me tell you a little about the project:

The German artist Gunter Demnig remembers the victims of the Nazis by installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavement usually in front of their last known address, sometimes their school. There are now about 100,000  Stolpersteine (as of 2022) in over 1800 towns and cities in 28 countries. The project began in 1992, and since 1996 the stones have been laid with official permission.

Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer is the sculptor who creates each Stolperstein by hand in his studio in Berlin-Pankow. Each letter and each date is pressed into the plague individually. Mass or machine production is out of the question.

Gunter Demnig cites the Talmud saying that "a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten". The Stolpersteine in front of the buildings bring back to memory the people who once lived or studied there. Each “stone” begins with HERE LIVED or HERE LEARNED… One “stone”. One name. One person.


Now to Hedwig Levi. Her story is not mine to tell, but all the info I can find about her online is in German and I’d like to tell a little about her in English. Her story was told at the ceremony while the current owner of the house and her son placed her Stolperstein. Afterwards the organizers handed out pamphlets (put together by the Jewish Community in Rexingen) in German and English to those gathered.  

Hedwig was born in Rexingen (the small town not far from us) on August 7, 1879. She married Alfred Levi from Rexingen in 1909 and they lived in his parents’ house in the town, in front of which the Stolperstein was laid on October 30, 2022. Their only child, Irene, was born in 1914. After Alfred died, Irene moved in with her mother to help her for a few years. Irene became engaged to Helmut Kahn, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1939. After Kristallnacht in November 1938 Irene moved back in with her mother out of concern for her safety, and at that time she was preparing for her emigration to the U.S. to join Helmut. From there she tried to arrange her mother’s immigration but was unsuccessful, something which plagued Irene the rest of her life.

Hedwig sold her house in Spring of 1940 as her health was failing, but she was pleased to learn of Irene and Helmut’s marriage later that year. Hedwig spent time in the hospital in Horb in January 1941, but after returning home her health had not improved. Three days after sending her last postcard to her niece in Brussels and with no prospect for better health or escaping from Germany, Hedwig took her own life. She is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Rexingen.


the house in Rexingen

Hedwig’s granddaughter, Hazel K., her two daughters, Alison and Jessica, and son-in-law Brent had flown in from the U.S., and family members from the Kahn side, now living in Switzerland, attended as well. Another honored guest was Ursula R., who still lives just down the street from Hedwig’s house and was the only person present who had known Hedwig.

Hazel's family with Simon and Davorka in the middle
and Ursula just behind in the chair

My intent was to stay in the background, take in the experience and take some photos, but I did introduce myself to Hazel and Jessica, thanked them for the touching remarks they delivered to those gathered, and offered to help translate as the Americans and the locals chatted with each other.

The current owner of Hedwig’s house, Davorka P., moved to Germany from Croatia. When she and her husband were contacted and asked if they would be open to a Stolperstein for Hedwig being placed in front of their home, they not only welcomed it but said they would do the cementing of the stone themselves. It was Davorka and her son, Simon, who did this while the organizers spoke about Hedwig.

I was able to provide translation help as Davorka answered some questions about her and her family’s story as well. After doing so, Hazel’s son-in-law invited me to join their small gathering for lunch in Rexingen’s former Synagogue. I sat with Hazel’s daughters and we had a lovely chat! Horb’s Bürgermeister was at the table on one side of us and on the other was a man who said to me, “I think we’ve met. Aren’t you the one with [tapping his arm] the bird?” LOL We had met on the Marktplatz two days earlier when Kaya and I had gone for a walk in town.

Rabbi Brent and I spoke about why Stolpersteine are not welcomed in every community and about the very different ways in which Germany and the U.S. face the demons of their past.

I felt very honored and grateful to be included in the lunch and pleased to make a connection with this lovely family.

The artist Gunter Demnig cites the Talmud as an inspiration for the Stolperstein project he started, saying that "a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten". Now Hedwig Levi’s name and story will not be forgotten.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Shop Local: Poultry Farm Shop

This blog post combines two of my favorite things: Falconry and shopping in local farm shops!

It's perhaps not a post for vegetarians, but Kaya is not one of those and neither are we.

Our mentor showed me this farm shop in Neustetten, a tiny town about 18 km / 20 minutes from home. The big grocery store is just four minutes away by car. Is the drive worth it, with gas prices so high? 

ABSOLUTELY!!  (especially with our electric car...)

This is the shop connected to a chicken farm, and our mentor told us they slaughter on Mondays, which means on Tuesdays they have fresh chicken and chicken parts for sale. So whenever we're running low on tidbits for Kaya's training, I make a drive here on Tuesday morning. I buy two packs of Hühnermägen (chicken stomachs) and today I also picked up Hühnerherzen (chicken hearts).

Gross, you think? I beg your pardon! This is Swabia, where generations ago many people were poor. Nothing - or very little - from the animal, be it cow, pig or chicken, was wasted, and Innereien (offal, giblets) were turned into delicacies that are still enjoyed today. Ok, not by me, but when I told my Schwiegermutter what I'd bought this morning, she did not know if it was for Kaya or for us. A family friend has cooked Hühnermägen and according to her, M liked them when he was younger!

In fact I plan to get there within an hour of the shop opening, because I want to make sure they're not sold out of the giblets. Because the demand is perhaps not SO high, these bits are also not expensive. From one package I can get portions for 12 training sessions, and it only costs €2,50.

Hühnermägen rinsed and ready to be cut up for tidbits.
It's just meat, really.

This shop is not just about chickens. They sell fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, plants, flour, oil, canned and jarred goods, nuts, noodles, and today I saw traditional German Christmas treats like Zimtsterne, Lebkuchen and Schoko-Vanillekipferl

Later I spent half an hour cutting one package of Hühnermägen into tidbit pieces for training, and when we trained Kaya this afternoon she had fresh (not frozen-thawed) tidbits, which she must have enjoyed even more than usual.

At the end of training; she's still manteling
to let M know she'd happily take some more.

These local farm shops are one of the many reasons I love living where we do - basically out in the countryside. We will keep doing what we can to support these shops even though they're not as convenient as the big stores where all the goods arrive on delivery trucks from who-knows-where.

I bought more today than what Kaya needs, of course. I brought home some Hähnchenkeulen (drumsticks) to make Jamie Oliver's Hit-and-Run-Chicken, along with all the vegetables that go in it. Bananas, raspberries, and shelled walnuts topped off the items I snatched up. 

Their special for this week reflects another southern German tradition:

November 1st is Allerheiligen (All Saints' Day) and November 2nd is All Souls' Day. Allerheiligen is a stiller Feiertag here in the south, which means stores, schools and businesses are closed and people visit their relatives' graves, decorate them for the season, and light candles. The shop is offering Grabschmuck, or decorations and flowers most fitting for the pre-winter planting.

On the way home I stopped at another favorite family-owned shop - the bakery in our neighboring town. Fresh bread, rolls, croissants, and a sweet treat. Those were all for us humans, though. Kaya is all about the meat.

I wish you a happy end of October!