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

Part I. OWNED BY A HAWK

Chapter 13. Bird Years

After moving to Deering, I was asked to provide a program for a big event held by the Cub Scouts. Programs done for youngsters are my favorites, and Injun’s calmness with groups of children was a big asset. It was too bad, I thought, that the program had to be indoors and at night, as I would have loved to have flown Injun for them, but after arriving at the clubhouse, I began to envision a plan.

I had never flown Injun indoors before, but here I had a large rectangular room with windows with drapes that could be drawn closed (one of the biggest hazards in flying indoors is the raptor does not see clear glass as a barrier, and if the bird flew into a windowpane, it could easily break its neck). Behind me was a huge stone fireplace taking up nearly the whole wall of the rustic building. I sized up my audience: more than a hundred first-grade boys sitting amazingly still on the floor, all of whom, at the warning they could not see the hawk if they made noise, had become perfect angels. I told them about predators and birds of prey. I then made a bargain with my audience: If they would not move if the hawk happened to land near them, I would do something I had never done before. Could they keep the bargain? More than a hundred small heads nodded vigorously. I instructed the Scout leaders to draw the drapes.

“Okay,” I said again, “I really mean this. You have to promise if the hawk lands beside you, you will not scream or run around.” Again, I received the serious assent of the youngsters, each of whom, if the truth were told, would have been delighted if the hawk had landed next to him.

So began the debut indoor flight for Injun and me. I perched him atop his giant hood and walked across the room to turn and whistle him to my glove. He came as straight as an arrow. We tried it again, and he came again right to me. I went for a third flight. By now Injun was comfortable in the room. He flew over the boys’ heads towards the adults sitting in chairs at the back of the room. There was some involuntary ducking from the grown-ups as he wheeled about and headed back to land on top of one of the andirons in the fireplace. He sat there teetering back and forth to maintain balance on his slippery perch. I knew when enough was enough, so called him to my glove.

The wonder of the program was not the accomplishment of indoor flight, but that one hundred six-year-old boys sat still for thirty minutes. They were an orderly, attentive audience, but at the end of the program one of the leaders confided in me, “You didn’t make us adults promise not to scream and run around. We were ready to head for the exit for a moment there!”

Later, when I told Jim about the evening, I asked, “Were you worried about me, going to do a program alone at night?”

Jim laughed. “I never worry about you with that hawk on your glove. Anybody who tried to grab you would get his mind changed in a hurry. Injun won’t let anyone get close to you.”

When Jim and I present at schools, sometimes we touch on concepts of behavioral science older students will encounter in textbooks. Words like “imprinting,” “instinct,” and “involuntary reaction” are superbly illustrated by raptors. Sometimes we present to fifth or sixth grades because they have just read Jean Craighead George’s classic, My Side of the Mountain, about a young man who goes to live on his own in the forest with a peregrine falcon for company. For younger children, our talks most often follow what I call “Predator 101,” in which we explain how wild raptors live their lives and how they catch food to feed themselves and their young.

Whatever the topic of the day, we know we will have an attentive audience. The most memorable experiences from doing talks and programs invariably occur when we do demonstrations for children. Adults predictably ask the same questions, but one never knows what a child will ask. There are several instances from these experiences I shall never forget.

For instance, Jim and I once did a program for second-graders at Matthew Thornton Elementary in Londonderry. We kept the lecture simple and illustrated our words by having a hawk and a falcon there to show to the children. Part of our talk was based on explaining how our birds still had all their wild instincts, only they were not afraid of us.

Finally we told the children we would bring the hawk around so they could touch the bird. Our falconry school licensing enables this physical contact, as limited and protected as it is. I always choose our steadiest and calmest hawks for this, and I stress “touching” is not “petting,” as raptors are not, nor ever should be, considered pets. I take the child’s hand in mine and hold it to lightly stroke the breast of the raptor with a fingertip, the only part of the small hand that is exposed. The feathered breast of a raptor is very soft, not at all what is expected. Touch is one of the most basic of senses we have to learn about the world around us, so touching the hawk is an unforgettable learning experience.

On this particular occasion, the children were seated on benches forming a large square, with each student waiting for his or her turn as I walked around the inside of the square. As I started down one side, I saw a little boy down the row. He was waiting to touch the bird, but he wore thick winter gloves in a bright neon color. I knew the hawk was going to be startled by the vivid color, so when I reached the boy I told him he needed to remove his gloves if he wanted to touch the bird. He made me wonder if perhaps he was frightened of the hawk and thought the gloves would protect him. I hastened to assure him he did not have to touch the bird if he didn’t want to, and the gloves were off in a flash. The touch was completed and I continued down the line of children, but when I heard him speaking, I stopped and turned.

The boy was turning his hands first palm up and then palm down to make a thorough inspection as he said to himself in the solemn tones of an elder statesman, “I suppose if it had been a very dirty bird, I should have to wash my hands.” I realized this child must have been admonished by the adults in his life not to touch wild creatures, as they might be “dirty.” I was glad the boy took the chance to touch, despite what he had been told. I have since wondered if he told his parents he had touched something “wild” that was not dirty at all.

There was another unforgettable occurrence with a little boy that happened at Underhill Elementary School in Hooksett. On this day I had the hawk for the flight demonstration and the peregrine falcon I brought with me to exhibit. It was a fun time, with a lively audience of first-, second-, and third-graders helping me watch the skies for wild raptors before I turned my hawk loose to fly.

At the end of my program, the kids lined up to return to their respective classes. I found myself beside the first-grade students, many of whom were itching to break out of line to come closer as they waited their turn to enter the school building. A pair of boys edged nearer. One of them was the most beautiful little boy I have ever seen. He was perfectly groomed, with neatly trimmed hair and shiny black oxford shoes. Dressed in linen Bermuda shorts, immaculate white kneesocks, and a starched white shirt, he was as crisp and well pressed as a haberdasher’s model. He was accompanied by a tousle-haired friend wearing scruffy sneakers, worn dungarees, and a striped T-shirt.

The pair moved still nearer, bending the straightness of the line. The beautifully clad youngster’s eyes were fixed upon the peregrine sitting on her perch, but he was hanging back behind his friend. The intrepid owner of the sneakers, meanwhile, was working hard to get my attention. I turned and smiled at them.

“He wants to ask you something,” Mr. Scruffy Sneakers told me as the handsome child stood shyly behind him.

I turned to the shy boy and said, “Yes, what do you want to know?”

The child pointed to the peregrine and looked at me earnestly, “Is that a danger bird?” he asked.

An assistant teacher came over to shepherd the pair back to the line. She giggled, “Oh! He wants to know if the bird is dangerous!”

“No, I don’t think so,” I said, holding out my hand to stop her from herding the pair away. I turned to the youngster. “Are you asking me if this is an ‘endangered species bird’?”

Eyes wide, he gave an affirmative nod to his head.

“Well, the peregrine used to be an endangered species, but now there are more of them. Now they are listed as ‘threatened,’ so the peregrine has made a good recovery and there are many living in the wild again.”

Pleased with my answer, the little boy linked arms with his friend. The first-grade version of the “odd couple” returned to their places in line. I turned to the teachers’ aide. “Do you have any idea how advanced a question that was for a first-grader?” I asked, shaking my head in amazement. I was flabbergasted to have had such a conversation with a six-year-old. 

“Well, yes,” she admitted. “We have been told he is a prodigy.”

“Yes, I think so, too.” I felt fortunate to have met this interesting duo of first-grade boys. I wonder if this child is elected president, will he promote environmental laws remembering when he, as a child, met a “danger bird” face to face? I wouldn’t be surprised if his campaign manager is the school chum in the striped shirt and scruffy sneakers.

“Does he ever talk to you?” a little girl at Greenfield’s elementary school asked me when Injun and I were there to do a presentation.

“Well, yes.” I answered. “Not like a parrot talks in people language, but I know by how he holds his body if he is cold or unhappy or angry or interested. Harris’s hawks are very ‘talky’ in Harris’s hawk language. He has a nasty-sounding, loud scream if he is displeased about someone coming too close, or if he sees a strange dog. That scream says quite plainly, ‘Get out!’ He has a squawking, rasping call that sounds kind of like croaking or a creaking door that is his ‘I am happy’ song. Sometimes he has a very quiet, pleasant sort of a hum he makes when he is content and friendly. He is doing it right now as I speak to you. Can you hear him?”

She shook her head no. “Oh, this is hard,” I said. “I never realized it before, but all the time I am speaking he is humming at me. As soon as I stop talking, he stops.” I kept trying to stop my speech abruptly enough so she and the other children could hear my bird, but I could not manage it. Injun’s “hum” was a low murmuring sound he made as I spoke . . . and the instant I was quiet, so was he. The children had to take my word for it, as they never got to hear his most companionable and friendly voice. I guess he reserved it for me alone.

Another school visit was equally unforgettable, but for hundreds of reasons which gave the day overtones of a horror movie. When I’m contracted to do a visit anywhere, I never guarantee to do a flight demonstration. I have to see for myself if the area is safe for flight. Until I have made a visual inspection of the area for hazards, I do not know if I will allow my hawk to fly. I especially need to see if there are any airborne dangers such as red-tailed hawks. Another concern is whether there are crows in the immediate vicinity. Crows will swiftly gang up to drive a hawk from their area. They are good at it, and many times I have seen “a murder of crows” (the term for crows in a flock or group) noisily driving away a wild raptor.

On this day, at an elementary school on the outskirts of Keene, New Hampshire, I had inspected the schoolyard upon my arrival. Everything looked fine. The playground behind the building was enclosed by surrounding trees and well away from hazards such as roadways and power lines. The first portion of the program would be a lecture I delivered to the student body inside the gym. Concluding the talk, I left the peregrine perched in the gym and walked alongside the principal as I carried Injun on my glove, onto the playground as the children settled around the perimeter. Just then, I chanced to look up. Two crows had taken flight from nearby perches and were flying off.

“Well, there goes trouble,” I remarked to the principal.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“That pair of crows looked like they were headed out on a mission. I hope they don’t come back with some of their friends. If they do, it will be with the intention of driving my hawk away.” I cast Injun off from my glove as the children watched. He took a perch at the top of a jungle gym, and I began to explain to the students how I called Injun in and how he would respond. Within five minutes I was shouting. It was impossible to speak loudly enough for the students to hear me. My voice was drowned out by the cawing of hundreds of crows. Every tree around the schoolyard had turned black with perching crows. Their cawing was a monstrously loud roar. It was a scene straight out of the Hitchcock movie The Birds.

I took a look around and made a guess that about six hundred crows, give or take a few, had joined my audience. Injun knew they were there for him. He flew down from the top of the monkey bars when I raised my glove. I cast him off again, and he wisely flew no higher than the height of the school equipment, choosing a landing spot on the crossbar of the swing set support. There was no doubt in his mind or mine: This “murder of crows” was bent on murder!

I raised my glove, but there was no need to whistle to him. Injun responded instantly. I caught up his jesses and turned to the principal. “I am so sorry,” I said. “I cannot continue flying. It is too dangerous for my bird. Those crows are here to drive him away, and they mean to do it.”

The principal was very understanding. “That is fine, Nancy,” he responded. “I think the kids just got a great lesson about nature.”

Please don’t think Jim and I consider crows to be the enemy. Sometimes we enlist their help in finding raptors that have gone missing during a hunt or a flight. If a hawk has settled out of our view and for some reason is not returning on signal, or if a falcon has tired and has taken up a perch out of sight on the opposite side of the swamp, we need to know where to go to retrieve our bird. Telemetry can be a very fallible device in New England with its hills and heavy vegetation, but crows are almost never fallible. The first thing we do when trying to locate a raptor gone missing is to listen for crow vocalizations. When we hear their repeated, raucous calling, we follow the sound to see what or who has upset them. This has led us to successful retrievals on more than one occasion.

Meeting children, explaining raptors to them, and wondering what impact on their lives our presentations will have makes doing school programs very worthwhile. I still remember the live animal programs brought to my school long ago when I was in first and second grade.

My all-time favorite visits are when a kid stumps me, like the time I had concluded a talk to an assembly of second-graders. I always end with a question-and-answer period, a most important part of the presentation to young people. Often in primary grades, the first question sets the tone for every one of the next twenty questions, so I knew I was in trouble when the first question was “How old is the hawk?” It went just as I had thought, with questions on the bird’s birth date, how old would he get to be before he died, and so on.

The hands waved wildly as each second-grader expressed his or her variation on practically the same question, but it was the final question that floored me. It was delivered by a little girl who fixed me with her stern seven-year-old eye and asked, “But how old is that in bird years?”

“Uh?” She had me neatly skewered with that one. I could not even manage to voice, “I don’t know.”