Although Hill ‘n' Dale Farm is just as polished a facility as any other Central Kentucky Thoroughbred farm, with miles of fields and neatly-trimmed lawns, Hill ‘n' Dale President John Sikura sees something a little different when he scans the property. Lifelong hunter and naturalist Sikura looks at the fields and woods as ecosystems, with plants and animals (including horses) existing in balance.
“The entire farm is an ecosystem, and while we raise horses on the farm there's other species and animals and trees that we like to support. I enjoy wildlife on the farm,” said Sikura. “To see birds nesting and squirrels in a wild, natural place I think that's the best environment for the horse. It's an environment the horse feels most settled with if it's not so sanitary there's no wildlife on the farm.”
It is perhaps no surprise then Sikura's appreciation for the balance of nature led to a fascination with birds, particularly birds of prey. When he was a child in his native Canada, Sikura remembered rescuing and rehabilitating an injured great horned owl for a season. After he released the bird back into the wild, she appeared at his bedroom window every couple of days and tapped on the glass, looking for a morsel of food. Sikura knew he wanted to learn more and get up close with birds of prey again.
“I've always found them to be really noble birds,” Sikura said. “I never had the time to devote to getting a license and training a bird. As you progress through life, to stay interested and interesting, you have to learn new things.”
So, he began studying falconry under the guidance of Northern Kentucky-based master falconer Paul Bronk. After 18 months of learning, Sikura passed a two-hour, federally-mandated exam, testing his knowledge of state and national laws and the husbandry of birds. There are various levels of licensure which allow the license holder to keep different species of birds for hunting purposes, though no licensee is permitted to keep endangered species.
With the aid of a mentor, Sikura captured his first bird, a young red-tailed hawk he christened Daijin, after Grade 1 winner Touch Gold's sister and his all-time favorite Thoroughbred.
“You have to take a wild bird who at first sight thinks you're going to eat it, and somehow tame that bird and form a kinship where she sees you as a hunting partner and someone who provides feed and comfort for her,” he said. “It's a real challenge and it was very rewarding.”
Sikura estimates it took approximately 15 days to teach Daijin to come when he whistled to her, land on his fist, and take food from his hand. The pair hunt with no restraints on Daijin, who soars from tree top to tree top looking for prey, usually squirrels or rabbits, following Sikura as he takes a walk around the farm.
“She flies free so at any time she could decide to keep going and not come back, so it's not about keeping a captive bird,” he said.
During hunting outings, Sikura takes Daijin away from high-traffic areas like the stallion barn and keeps her away from areas where songbirds gather. Daijin's targets are not captured or restrained in any way – in fact, Sikura said the squirrel wins the hawk vs squirrel match-up much of the time. When Daijin does make a capture, Sikura keeps the meat for feeding Daijin through the rest of the year, so nothing is wasted.
When she's not hunting, Daijin has an extensive indoor/outdoor structure where she has space to fly and move around comfortably. Sikura must weigh her daily to ensure she is “keen” or flying-fit, and factors in her recent work and the weather to anticipate changes in her metabolism.
Though some people may balk at the idea of taking a hawk out of the wild, Sikura sees the ancient practice of falconry as a conservation effort in modern times.
“The statistics show 75 percent of all first-year birds [in the wild] don't make it through their first winter from not being able to hunt well enough or soon enough, weather, injury,” said Sikura, who points out Daijin has already surpassed the odds.
A few months ago, the young hawk broke a critical bone in her wing when she hit a tree, which is a common injury for birds in the wild. Sikura had the wing x-rayed and worked carefully to minimize her movement and adjust her feeding routine so she could rest the wing for the full two months required for healing.
“A lot of wild birds are killed hitting fences or hitting trees, or getting some sort of infection. They're survivalists. If they don't kill they don't eat, and if they don't eat, they die,” said Sikura, who was given a 15 percent chance Daijin would survive her injury and return to normal activity.
After her recovery, Sikura had to adjust the hawk's feed to help her regain fitness. Now, he said she's wrapping up hunting season and is back to normal. Daijin and Sikura's riding horses have learned to work together, although Sikura normally takes Daijin out on foot, as it becomes a little challenging to juggle horse, hawk and prey all at once. Sikura emphasizes his relationship with the hawk as (very much like that with a horse) one of mutual respect – Daijin's sharp talons could easily go through his hand if she chose, and it's important not to think of her as a pet. Still, there's no denying the two have formed a bond.
“I'm on the farm all the time and it seemed like a great way to get to know the farm more intimately,” Sikura said. “It takes a lot of patience and it's not an easy skill to learn, but like a lot of skills it's very rewarding.”
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