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

Part I. OWNED BY A HAWK

Chapter 14. The Importance of Being Injun

One day I lost Injun as he was pursuing a chukar into the swirling mist. Had he been unsuccessful, he would have returned to the treetops and begun working his way back to me, following the sound of my whistle. But the chukar must have gone to ground under one of the boulders at the woods’ edge, taking Injun with him. None of us could find him and it was getting dark, with fog creeping up from the marsh below. We would have to leave before total darkness and come back the next day, hoping that Injun had survived the night, during which he might become prey for another, larger predator.

When we made the acquaintance of Randy and Colleen Martin, owners of a hunting preserve called the Timberdoodle Club in Temple, New Hampshire, the ensuing friendship resulted in our providing falconry demonstrations for members and guests of the club. In return, Randy offered us use of the grounds, which were abundant with pheasants and other game birds. Flying our raptors at Timberdoodle was wonderful as long as we were careful our own birds were not hunted by wild hawks drawn by the proliferation of prey. Injun provided many exciting moments for the spectators, such as the time he pursued a chukar right into a crowd of onlookers, scattering everyone across the field.

As exciting as that day was, it was the day Injun disappeared no one at Timberdoodle will ever forget. The day was a big event at the club, and a number of people came out to watch us hunt. Injun missed on a pursuit of a chukar. He knew where the bird had gone, so he took off into the dark evergreen woods to catch it . . . and vanished. It was one of those cool, fall days when the moisture floats as mist in the air. There are a number of large boulders in the area of woods bordering what Randy calls the Falconry Field. I knew chukars would go to ground beneath one to hide. A hawk, once it grabs game, is bound by the involuntary reaction of its talons grasping prey. I stood and listened hard, hoping to hear the tinkle of Injun’s bells. Instead, I heard the mewing of the chukar, its death sound, so I knew somewhere Injun was nearby on his prey.

The air was so thick with humidity, it was difficult to discern the direction from which the sound had arisen. And then it was totally quiet. For an hour five of us searched to no avail. We put the dogs to searching but no scent rises in such weather, so the dogs were no better than we were at finding the pair of birds. In a case like this, knowing my bird and his loyalty to me was not going to help. Once Injun had grabbed the chukar, he was likely to be pulled down into the hole by his prey. He would settle down first to dine and then to let the effects of a huge meal pass. What would come later, when he finally emerged in an area full of aerial and four-footed predators, was what scared me. With the mist blowing around, there were no crows about to help us locate my bird.

It grew late in the afternoon, and darkness came quickly. It broke my heart to leave, but searching at dusk became totally useless. Sadly, Jim and I drove the forty-five minutes home with our dog and other birds. I was very aware of both the numbers and the types of predators frequenting Timberdoodle. There were hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, and many other feathered and furred creatures who would love to feed on my Harris’s hawk.

The next day we went to search again, but the dismal weather had settled in and gotten even worse. Nothing was moving in the field. Randy took his own hunting dogs and searched for miles, thinking perhaps Injun had flown out of the field. Jim made gloomy prognostications about the unlikelihood of Injun surviving a stay at Timberdoodle.

On the third day Jim had to return to his office in Boston. “Are you going over to Timberdoodle?” he asked as he left for work.

“Of course,” I replied. My hopes were dim, as it was now actively raining. But as I drove over towards Temple, the weather began to clear. A front was blowing in, and it was sweeping the gray clouds out ahead of it. By the time I drove through the gates of the Falconry Field, the sky was blue with huge, puffy white clouds and the sun was shining brightly. As I got out of the car, I heard the sound of bells high in the trees at the other side of the field. I grabbed my lure, swung it high, and immediately a dark shape darted down to seize it.

I quickly knelt down and caught up Injun’s jesses to secure him to the clip on my hunting leash, but I would have had no difficulty convincing him to come home with me even if I had not attached his jesses. He looked like he had gone through a wash-and-dry spin cycle. And he was ready to go home. I picked him up on my glove, but before I could open the car door, he was on the window glass, clawing at it to get to his giant hood and giving me a look that said, You have no idea what I have been through, and where on Earth were you when I was ready to come home?!

From the windswept, sunny field I called Jim at his Boston office to tell him the glad news. As I drove out, I stopped at the clubhouse and rejoicing began there, too. Injun was such a personality, it was hard for anyone to accept he had been lost. Now he was safely back and things could return to normal.

Fall became our busiest season. Free weekends for hunting were harder to schedule as we accepted more demonstration and exhibition engagements. One of my favorites was an event called Ducker’s Day. The setting was an old farm near Durham. The day was a celebration of all that Great Bay, a large estuary, has meant to the region from the history of the gundalows (flat-bottomed cargo vessels) plying the bay to carry goods and supplies, to the duck hunters of olden times, to today’s fishing industry. Celebrated, too, were the conservation of wildlife and the environment of the inland estuary. At Ducker’s Day, set in a field behind the farm buildings and along the shore of Great Bay, there was great food, music, decoy carving, retriever demonstrations, tours of the re-created early nineteenth-century gundalow, and more. We set up a falconry display and did our flight demonstrations in the fields away from the exhibits.

My favorite part of the day was visiting the artisans’ tent to see the paintings and wood carvings on display. On one occasion, I grabbed a moment to visit a friend who was a very talented wood-carver. Jim White’s display included many types of beautifully carved birds. I had Injun on my glove as Jim and I talked. Suddenly I realized Injun was getting sharp set and looked about ready to make a lunge at Jim’s wooden songbirds. This caused some merriment among the other artists. Jim’s work was so lifelike that it had gotten a reaction from my bird. Soon I was being hailed by another carver, “Bring him down to see my birds! Oh, please, bring him down to see mine!”

I glanced down the long row of tables, and my eye was caught by the second carver’s work. It was awful. This carver’s birds looked exactly like the wooden sticks from which they were made. The angles were all wrong for the heads, wings, and legs. The carver, well intended as he might have been, would have been better advised to take up another craft. I was trapped! I quickly declined his invitation with the excuse that it was almost time for my flight demo so I should be getting over to the field. The carver plaintively begged me to bring my bird down to see his birds. There was nothing for me to do but to stroll down to his display.

I didn’t want the fellow to be disappointed when Injun failed to show any interest. So when we reached the man’s display, I turned ready to hasten away. The man sighed with pride behind his bright red cardinals, yellow finches, and all sorts of other highly colored but badly carved birds. Injun immediately got sharp set again. His eyes were riveted on the cardinal, but he would have been happy to jump on any one of the man’s carvings. The carver was thrilled. His carving was so good, even the hawk was fooled, I heard him telling everyone. I escaped and headed out for the field. “Injun, you have no taste at all,” I muttered as soon as I was out of earshot.

Injun surprised me in other ways, as he did once in front of a room full of adults and children at the Amoskeag Fishways Learning and Visitors Center. This museum highlights the history of the Merrimack River as an ancient fishing place. The center owes its existence to a partnership between the Public Service Company of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, the Audubon Society of New Hampshire, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. It holds many conservation and wildlife programs for the public. This is what brought Injun and me there one evening.

The small presentation room was filled to capacity. Two-thirds of the room was taken up by seating, and the front third I shared with a huge ninety-gallon fish tank filled with a school of medium-size fish. The entire school swam together in quick darting movements, making turns in unison at each end of the tank. It was typical evasive prey movement, and it was driving Injun crazy. I was trying to give the presentation, and he was doing his best to leap off my glove to get to the aquarium. There was no way to distract him. Finally I asked the woman in charge to cover the aquarium with a sheet. That accomplished, Injun was able to settle down on my glove.

I am sure the audience found this episode educational. So did I. As well as I knew this bird, it was a good lesson in how much at the mercy of his hunting instinct he was. It had never occurred to me that Injun would be so enraptured with the fish, but, whether a school of fish or a covey of quail, the movements of prey animals were all the same to him.

During the eleven years Injun and I were flying together, he and I were partners, although I was quick to explain, “I am actually the junior partner, as Injun is the better hunter of the two of us.” This always brought chuckles from onlookers, but the fact was we were uncannily attuned to one another. As readily as he took cues from me, I was reading my bird every moment. I could scope out an area and know immediately if it would lend itself to flying with Injun, as I knew exactly where he would end up taking perches and what his trajectory would be on a path back to me. And, by now, I had to say he was extremely cooperative, as much as I detested this overused reference to Harris’s hawks. He enjoyed every outing, as for him each one constituted something of a hunting event. He even launched into a full chase on a smaller bird at an Audubon sanctuary, which delighted (thank goodness!) the audience of bird lovers.

The connection between Injun and me was so strong that I was able to pull him off the chase of a game bird gone to cover by enticing him to a different location where I knew another game bird could be flushed. Whenever I flew him, I could close my eyes after his release, point to a spot, and know he would be there waiting for me when I opened my eyes. The two of us were working as if one mind was directing us.

After a strenuous flight demonstration, I would sit on the ground with Injun perched on my knee. Suddenly a tug would come at my necklace or I’d feel nibbles on the clips of my vest. I might be giving a presentation when my whistle would suddenly fly by the end of my nose as Injun tossed it playfully from around my neck. I always knew, however, that my partnership with Injun enveloped me and changed me far more than it changed my hawk.

At the Overlook to lure-fly one day, Injun was in remarkably fine fettle. He had reached a superb level of conditioning, and as I managed to elude him with the lure, he turned to come back for re-passing. He was about ten feet above the ground, the dark of his back showing as he circled me with one wing pointed down and the other pointed skyward. When he turned his head to gaze at me, I freeze-framed the image in my mind and said a prayer: Please, Lord, if someday I’m unable to speak or to communicate with the world, let me relive this moment over and over.

For all of the profound feelings I had, there was no sugary sweetness in this relationship, and certainly none in this raptor. I cannot say Injun loved me. Terms of endearment are never appropriate when speaking of a hawk or falcon. I loved Injun, but it was not the same feeling that I might have towards a pet that courted my affection and depended upon me for care. Injun was too independent for that. I love my husband; I love my children. But, do I love my heartbeat? Do I love my right hand? This is what Injun was to me. As much as I might feel he was a part of me, Injun was “the boss,” the “senior partner.” As difficult as it sometimes was to satisfy this finely tuned taskmaster, whenever he flew, my heart flew with him.

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