With wide, long wings, the golden eagle launched itself fast enough to leave Nate Mathews amid a backwash of stirred air.
Yet it wasn’t the fear of being beaten by a powerful wing, or grazed by a long, sharp claw that had Mathews nervous.
It was not knowing whether his hunting buddy would return to his gloved hand.
“I honestly don’t know what to expect; he may take off and go,” Mathews said minutes before. “I’ve waited three long years to get to this point, so we have to do it, but I just don’t know.”
What is known is that Mathews, a Wichita, Kan., falconer, had invested much of his life caring for the male golden eagle he had named Isaiah.
“The king of birds”
Mathews was raised an outdoorsman and had successfully hunted everything from doves to deer by the time he was in college in 2001. That’s when he considered falconry, which is hunting small game with birds of prey.
“I’d shot about everything and was looking for something to really get my heart pumping again,” he said. “The more I learned, the more fascinated I became with these birds.”
After passing many federal requirements and working with experienced falconers, Mathews was allowed to trap and train a young red-tailed hawk he named Kate. Together they successfully hunted rabbits and other rodents. He has since spent time working with other birds of prey, including Cooper’s and Harris’ hawks.
It was a natural progression that led to a serious interest in golden eagles in 2010.
“I just realized that all other birds are inferior when it comes to catching jackrabbits, and they’re about the biggest and hardest prey to catch (in Kansas),” Mathews said. “But that’s a golden eagle’s main diet.”
Mathews said goldens have been referred to as “the king of birds” in northern Asia and Europe for centuries. Using them for falconry was often reserved for royalty, which sometimes used them for hunting things bigger than bunnies.
“A golden eagle has to eat warm, fuzzy things every day, and they’ll take on some sizable animals,” he said. “In some (countries) they use them to hunt coyotes and foxes and (small) deer.”
They’ve been documented killing antelope in western Kansas and other states. It was the species’ fondness for some domestic meats that led Mathews to Isaiah.
For decades across the American West, golden eagles have feasted on young cattle and sheep. The ease of getting tender lambs has caused major financial losses in some areas; Mathews said it is common for up to a dozen young goldens to set up hunting grounds where big herds of sheep are bearing young.
Federal wildlife officers often spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars trying to drive such eagles to other areas and natural foods.
In spring 2011, Mathews was given the chance to take a young golden eagle from such an area.
“I think there are probably only about seven or eight people hunting with golden eagles,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I know them all.”
In 2011, only six people were given permits to attempt to trap problem golden eagles in Wyoming, the only state that allows the practice for falconers. It took a week for Mathews and some helpers to capture Isaiah in a live trap.
Training began in June, as Mathews taught the bird to be calm around people and to associate sitting on his gloved hand as a natural perch from which food (meat scraps) could be obtained.
Isaiah was a quick study and adapted so well that Mathews hoped to start the bird on jackrabbits that October. A few days before the big first hunt, the golden eagle escaped Mathews’ facility.
“I was beyond heartbroken,” Mathews said. “I felt like I lost a kid.
“I got online and did everything I could to find the bird, but I knew the odds weren’t good.”
In March, about 18 months after the bird’s escape, Mathews heard of a golden eagle captured in Arizona that was wearing falconry equipment. The big bird had been trying to kill chickens and was beaten when it was trapped inside a coop.
Mathews got a friend with the Arizona wildlife department to verify whether the eagle was his. It was, but the news wasn’t good.
The bird had become reclusive around people, and most of its feathers were broken from being repeatedly captured in a fishing net.
Mathews said his friend was appalled by the treatment but pleased when the eagle hopped onto a hand covered with a falconer’s glove.
“Even with all he’d been through, and all that time, he remembered the good things that happen with a glove,” Mathews said. “That’s just amazing.”
For much of this spring and summer, Mathews worked with Isaiah, getting his weight back up to a healthy 81/2 pounds and regaining the bird’s trust and willingness to return to a meat-baited glove while on a thin rope.
The first hunt
A week ago, Mathews made the two-hour drive to west of Lyons, Kan., to some broad and flat short-grass fields that jackrabbits love.
When the bird’s hood was removed, the eagle alertly began looking around. Mathews noted the bird had its wings tucked in, a sign that it was ready to fly and not fatigued.
It sat on Mathews’ gloved left hand as he walked a field of withered alfalfa. When a jackrabbit flushed, Mathews hollered “Ho, ho, ho,” the sound the eagle had been trained to associate with food.
The eagle launched into flight but could not get up enough speed to pursue when the rabbit headed into the stiff wind. It landed about 50 yards from Mathews.
The moment of truth was at hand. Would the bird return or set off for parts unknown? Mathews placed a bit of raw rabbit meat on his hand, tooted a high-pitched whistle, and Isaiah flew back to his leathery perch and gobbled up the meat.
Isaiah did not kill a jackrabbit in those few hours of hunting, but he pursued several and returned to Mathews’ glove after every chase.
“He should have caught some of those, but he will eventually,” Mathews said as he headed for his truck. “I’m pleased with what I saw.”
A few steps later, Mathews didn’t see a cottontail rabbit that flushed nearby, but Isaiah certainly did and launched with no verbal encouragement.
Mathews was even more proud after that failed flight.
“I honestly couldn’t be more pleased,” he said. “I’m as happy as if I’d just killed a big buck myself.”