Peregrine Spring: A Master Falconer's Extraordinary Life with Birds of Prey - Nancy Cowan (2016)

Part I. OWNED BY A HAWK

Chapter 11. Thin Ice and Pheasants

Before moving to Deering, I had taken on the sponsorship of an apprentice, a young woman named Beth, who had her own red-tailed hawk. A requirement in New Hampshire is that apprentices hunt with their sponsors at least twenty hours each for two years. To ensure Beth would finish her apprenticeship neatly in the two-year period, I took her out hunting with me sometimes. This slender, comely young woman with no hunting background loved her bird so much, she had converted a bedroom in her condo into a mew. Beth was always up for learning anything new, so I invited her to a winter hunt at Chase Farm and told her to bring snowshoes. I knew we would need them in the deep snow of the fields.

Once at the farm, we left her bird in her car since we were flying Injun first. After I cast off Injun to take a perch in a tree, I walked ahead. Soon after entering the field, I thought I heard a sound behind me near where Beth was walking. I turned and asked if she had heard it. When she answered “No,” I continued on. My hearing is poor, so I figured if Beth had not heard it, I must have imagined the sound.

Suddenly Injun was nowhere to be seen. I searched the trees bordering the field and could not sight him. We retraced our steps, looking for my bird, and I found where a chukar game bird had blasted out of a hummock. I could see the scattered ice and snow right behind Beth’s snowshoe track. She had very nearly stepped upon where it was hiding. I realized then I had heard the chukar’s bleating squawk as it took off. The sound was so alien to my apprentice, she had taken no notice of it at all. It looked like the chukar had headed straight for the alder bushes thickly clustered in the swamp between the hunting fields. That would likely be where Injun had gone. Beth and I might be less than expert at hunting, but he would have been in pursuit of the game bird immediately.

Beth started around the outside perimeter of the swamp while I headed straight in. In the black alders, it was impossible to move wearing snowshoes. I slipped them off to walk cautiously between the thickets. By now I was well into the swamp, and I knew when snow is deep the ice under it can be very treacherous because the snow acts as an insulator against the cold temperature of the air. I was treading with careful steps. Once past the thick part of the brush and now in the very center of the swamp, I saw my bird gorging himself on the chukar he had caught and killed. He let me attach my leash to his jesses and lift him and the remains of the chukar to my glove. So far, so good.

I took one step and the bottom suddenly dropped out from under my feet. I went through the ice and up to my shoulders in freezing water. As I fell, I cast Injun and his prize onto the snow. I managed to get my free arm up to crook my elbow over the ice. There I hung. I could not get a purchase on the ice with one arm to drag myself up, and if I sank down to the bottom, the mud would latch onto my boots with a suction-like grip. I was in serious trouble. It does not take long in cold water for a human’s body temperature to drop, impairing muscle and brain function to the point the person cannot help herself escape. In a short time the situation deteriorates to become a matter of life or death. This dangerous predicament was much worse than my comparatively benign experience of falling into a snowmelt stream. People have died from falling into frigid water and being entrapped, as I now was. And, needless to say, it was cold.

I yelled for Beth, who answered me and gingerly came into the swamp—still with her snowshoes on—to find me. I wondered if an apprentice who weighed ninety-seven pounds soaking wet could pull me out. She may have been slight and pretty, but thank goodness she was wiry!

Beth grabbed my coat collar and heaved. She pulled and I struggled. Eventually we were able to get my upper body atop the ice. I warned Beth to step back so we both did not end up in the swamp water. I wiggled myself free until I could swing my feet up out of the water and onto the ice surface. By now I had practically no feeling in my fingers, so Beth assisted me in attaching my snowshoes. Every stitch I wore was soaked. My boots were full of cold water, and I was coated in mud to my waist. With absolutely no dignity, but with a great deal of gratitude towards my apprentice, I retrieved Injun and his game bird, by now mostly eaten, and made my way out of the swamp. Beth took my arm, pulling me along as we started from the field to my car on the hilltop above the swamp. It was becoming hard to move in my frozen clothes. My teeth were chattering during the drive home, the car’s heater going full blast.

I would not soon forget the day, and neither would Injun. Aside from screaming and glaring at me after I launched him off my glove when I fell through the ice, Injun was very content with his day of hunting. He had pursued, caught, and killed his prey. Now his crop was full of his chukar dinner. For the hawk, it had been a highly satisfactory day.

Injun was not always so successful at Chase Farm. On another winter excursion, we chanced to flush a hen pheasant. Injun was out of his tree in pursuit immediately, but the hen went straight up for fifty or sixty feet and then leveled off to fly directly into the swamp. Injun was close behind. When he dropped down below the height of the brush, I lost sight of my bird. This time it was safe to walk across the swamp ice. There was barely an inch of fluffy new snow covering the surface. As I entered the alder thickets, I came across the fresh tracks of the pheasant. By this, I knew Injun had not been successful. Pheasants are very big game for a bird flying at only twenty-one ounces, but I had hoped the hens, smaller and without the spurs of the cocks, would be small enough for him to take.

I backtracked the trail of pheasant footprints and came to a long skid mark across the ice. It was clear something had slid across the swamp with great force. At the end of the skid mark, there were dual wing prints in the thin snow—the pheasant with a hawk on its back. I looked around, and there in a sapling sat Injun, dazed and shaking his head as though trying to clear his brain of fog.

The story written in the snow told me Injun had landed upon the pheasant, which in turn had dealt him a good solid kick. Injun’s body had been the object propelled with force across the ice. He had managed to fly up into the small tree till he could gather his scattered wits, while the pheasant had hightailed it for thicker cover. Injun may not have been successful, but he learned a lesson about pheasants which he never forgot, and he hated to have game elude the grasp of his talons. Inside my bird a vendetta against pheasants was brewing.

How well Injun remembered his first outing on pheasants was demonstrated late the next fall. Jim and I had been at the upper field of Chase Farm to fly Tabasco, our old red-tail. We were walking back down, each with a hawk on our glove, when a cock pheasant suddenly flushed beside the path. Injun launched from my glove with such power that he pulled his jesses loose from my grasp and immediately gave chase. There was an exciting pursuit before the pheasant went into a hole in a stone wall. Injun peeled off to perch in a tree above the wall. As we walked over to see where the pheasant had gone, the big bird flushed again and the chase began anew.

I was a bit worried how Injun would handle this large cock and fretted when the two crashed through a hemlock limb hanging down over a small brook to disappear from sight. I ran to the spot and lifted the limb. There in the brook in several inches of water were both birds. Injun stood atop the cock’s chest. He had pinioned the foot the cock had raised in an attempt to spur my bird. Injun’s other talons grasped the head of the pheasant in a killing grip. Injun had figured out how to handle bigger, dangerous game. My hawk was not about to let himself be kicked again if he could help it!