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

Part II. A TALE OF TWO PEREGRINES

Chapter 15. Tapped for a New Role

The peregrine was beautiful. His dark eyes held mine in a hard, unblinking stare. A furious hiss from his opened beak was barely audible. As I withdrew my left hand, now ungloved to move a leash about, a talon flashed by, piercing the fleshy part of my palm. The legendary reputation of the peregrine falcon as the fastest creature on Earth was no far-fetched fantasy, but as real as my blood welling from the puncture. Its fame as the fastest living creature comes from the peregrine’s hunting method, a dive called the stoop, in which the falcon drops from on high at speeds of over two hundred miles an hour. But this bird, sitting perched and in recuperation from an injury, had lashed out a taloned foot like a strike of lightning. In the air, or earthbound, peregrines are deserving of their reputation for speed.

The falcon had arrived earlier that day from Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, an educational facility and wildlife rehabilitation clinic in Holderness, New Hampshire. His arrival had required weeks of planning, set in motion by a telephone call from Dave Erler, a rehabilitation specialist at the center, saying that one of our state’s native-born peregrine falcons had been found two weeks before and was brought to the center for treatment for what looked initially like a broken wing. A veterinarian later determined the wing was dislocated. Now, having had surgery and treatment, the peregrine was healing. At this point, if the wing would ever be strong enough for release was anyone’s guess. Dave hoped that the falcon could be returned to normal flight and released back into the wild.

“I have been talking with the Concord-based federal biologist, Michael Amaral,” Dave explained, “and we feel that you and Jim are the only people in the state qualified to work with this bird. It needs falconry techniques to get it strong enough for release. If the wing proves to be so damaged as to prevent the peregrine from being able to resume normal hunting, then, of course, the science center would like it to stay here as an educational bird. But Michael and I agree, if at all possible, we want this bird rehabilitated and released to the wild within New Hampshire.”

The question was whether we were willing to take on the difficult work of training the falcon, a task that takes hours out of every day. I knew the answer before it passed my lips. I suspect Dave was also fairly certain of what it would be.

Jim and I had attained the senior rank of master falconers and had developed reputations as advocates for conservation and wildlife management. Some of our presentations on raptors and falconry had been done at Dave’s own facility. Dave knew we were keenly concerned with the population of wild falcons in our state.

Falcons are marvelous creatures. They have physical characteristics enabling them to complete prodigious feats of aerodynamic skill, but the falcon psyche is a fragile and complex mix of utter stupidity, seemingly mystical sensory capabilities, and a swiftness of instinct that leaps ahead while humans are still pondering the moment. Handling a falcon, therefore, is not unlike unlocking the answer to the infamous puzzle box in Dan Brown’s thriller, The Da Vinci Code. One false move, and the puzzle box is ruined and one will never be able to get it to give up its message. Falcons are like that. It takes knowledge and skill in order to be successful handling one. Go off in the wrong direction, and the falconer cannot back up to make a correction. One is left with what, in the historic language of falconry, is known as a “mar-hawk,” a falcon so ruined it will never work in partnership with a human, and it will be a most unpleasant, even dangerous, companion every time a person must interact with it.

My husband’s experience with falcons had begun years before with a prairie falcon named Tater. Tater was a gift to Jim from a much older falconer named Tex, a man who had learned falconry as a youngster from some of America’s renowned masters of the craft. Tater had been purchased from a breeder as a young bird by another falconer who had recently attained the rank of general (the next level above apprentice) and so was allowed by law to buy the bird. Prairie falcons are notorious for being high-strung and for requiring especially skillful handling. In his inexperience, the falconer made mistakes, and the young falcon soon became the worst of mar-hawks.

The man turned to Tex, whose skill and patience saved the bird. Indeed, Tater’s first owner told the story of going to visit them and finding Tex stretched out snoring in front of his television set with Tater on his chest asleep, her head tucked beneath her wing. The young falcon and Tex were like an old married couple, and, in captive-bred falcons purposely imprinted on humans, this is exactly how the relationship appears. On her maiden flight over a Maine potato farm, Tater landed and caught herself a good-size tuber protruding from the earth, thereby earning her unusual name.

A few months later, Tex had to leave the Northeast to follow his job. There was no living arrangement for keeping Tater in his new location. Tex and Tater’s first owner talked over what to do and decided that because my husband was instrumental in legalizing falconry in New Hampshire and was well known by falconers throughout New England, they would offer Tater to him. To save them a long trip, a meeting was set in Concord, New Hampshire, at the home of Steve Wheeler, a biologist and the falconry coordinator with the Fish and Game Department.

This would be the first time we met Tex. A generation ahead of us in age, short of stature, round-faced and jovial, he was not what we had expected. With his twinkling eyes, cheeks covered in white stubble, and stocky build, he looked like Santa Claus.

Shortly after the Mainers arrived, we headed out to a nearby field to watch a flying demonstration with Tater. At the same time, Tex told Jim everything he could about the basics of handling the prairie falcon. Tex also gave Jim the cadge Tater rode upon whenever they traveled in a car. A cadge is a wooden box, open on the top and padded on two sides for perching. The traditional method of transporting a falcon is to have it perched and tethered to a cadge and hooded so it does not become frightened. There it rides as regally and calmly as if it were perched at home.

Tex gave Jim a hood he had made for Tater and a handmade lure as well. His open-handed munificence was as appreciated as it was unexpected. To Jim, it seemed just like Christmas Day. Many years later, Jim still has Tater’s homemade hood in a place of honor among the fancy, exotic, and antique hoods that make up his collection. Jim’s falcons ride upon the sturdy cadge built by Tex. Tex’s lure, which looks like a squashed football, works better than any other lure I have ever used. Jim teases me because I borrow it incessantly.

While Tex was with us, he regaled us with stories of the great falconers who had taught him and of all the falcons he had known. We could have listened to him for hours, but it was getting dark and the wind-driven snow was pelting down hard. Before the Mainers left, Tex told us a final story.

When he was young, he had followed several falconers around as if they were gods from Olympus. Tolerating his presence underfoot and answering his many questions, they eventually let him help with the care of their falcons. The day came when they handed Tex a glove, pointed to a raptor, and told him to “go get your falcon.”

As he stood in the doorway with the snowflakes swirling about him, he said to Jim, “And now it is time for you to go get your falcon.” Then he stepped out and closed the door behind him. We stood there stunned. The scene was like something out of The Night Before Christmas (except for the part where Santa disappears up the chimney).

Tater took readily to Jim’s careful handling and proved to be a loyal, able falcon he flew regularly. As she had with Tex, Tater had a love affair with her new master. I became resigned to sharing my husband’s heart with another female. In fact, I told him he could have as many mistresses as he chose, but every one of those “other women” had best be growing feathers!

As for this injured peregrine, we were happy to accept Dave’s proposal. Like Dave, we believed the rehabilitation of raptors is benefited by the use of falconry knowledge. Falconry licensing and rehabilitator licensing have very specialized and different requirements, however. It was mandatory for the regional US Fish and Wildlife Service permits office at Hadley, Massachusetts, to agree to the bird being under our care and to our training and flying it. For us to have a wild peregrine falcon without proper authorization would be highly illegal under federal and state laws.

The phone call concluded with my unqualified “yes,” even though Jim and I knew that the dislocation of the peregrine’s wing could be more catastrophic than a break, as soft tissue healing can take much longer than bones take to knit. My heart was pounding with excitement in the anticipation of working with a wild falcon as I hung up.

There is literally no way to condition or to test a formerly injured peregrine for flight readiness without actually flying the bird. When in hunting mode, a peregrine falcon will fly high above its airborne prey. Once the prey is spotted, the peregrine folds its wings to drop swiftly down and deliver a strike with its feet and talons. Hawks, in contrast, take a perch to watch for their prey to venture into the open. Then they swoop down with their wings extended in a glide. This means they can be effectively conditioned in a large enclosure known as a flight cage. Flight conditioning of injured peregrines is altogether different. Nothing quite compares to the force the wings of a peregrine falcon must withstand while in a dive. We knew that the fitness level required by the dive could be beyond the capability of a bird so injured it could be picked up at roadside. The successful rehabilitation of this peregrine back to the wild would not be a sure thing.

To train a wild peregrine that had learned to survive and make its own way was an experience without precedent for us. I immediately began thinking in terms of time schedules and dates. Suddenly it hit me that I had contracted with a breeder out west to purchase a four-week-old female peregrine. By the breeder’s reckoning, my eyass peregrine would arrive at the end of May. Jim had a hawk and two falcons of his own, our living to earn, and a horrendous commute as well, so I would be responsible for training two peregrines at the same time—the wild adult male and a young captive-bred female. I mulled over the idea. As busy as he was, I knew I could rely on Jim for experience, advice, and assistance. That, at least, was one plus in my corner. Of all the fifty-odd springs of my life, I mused, this one would be remembered as the “peregrine spring.”

Finally, I called Michael Amaral, whom Dave had mentioned in speaking about rehabilitation of the falcon. Michael told me it was a two-year-old tiercel, or male, hatched from Holt Ledge in Hanover. He thought we could be signed onto Squam Lakes Center’s existing rehabilitator permit as sub-permittee rehabilitators. I was not as certain. The permits office has never been casual about a possible mixing of falconry and rehabilitation licenses. Training the falcon would necessitate it coming to our location. Michael and Dave were in agreement. Both understood enough about falconry technique to know it is based on trust and positive association. Michael felt a solid endorsement of us from the Fish and Game Department might carry weight with USFWS. “I banded this bird myself in 1999, and I want to see it go back to the wild here,” Amaral concluded. Optimistically, we made tentative plans about how and when to transport the peregrine.

A few days later I received an e-mail from Michael. The USFWS permits officer required us to obtain our own wildlife rehabilitation license, which involved a time-consuming and laborious process. Absolutely, he said, the peregrine would not be allowed to come to our location without that permit. I called Michael to share my gloomy prognostications on how long it would take.

“I guess there is no way to get it all done in time to help this peregrine now, Nancy, but I would like for you and Jim to obtain your permits. Just in the event of this happening again, we can keep a bird from having to be sent out of state,” Michael said before he asked me which facility in the Northeast I thought would be appropriate to rehabilitate the peregrine. I gave him my best advice with a heavy heart, unwilling to accept we would not have the opportunity to work with the falcon. “I did get a wonderful letter of recommendation about you and Jim from Steve Wheeler at Fish and Game,” Michael said. “I am going to forward it on to the permit office anyway.” There was nothing left for either of us to say. Our mutual disappointment had colored the conversation. Michael really cared about this falcon he had banded as a fuzzy youngster.

The next morning I made a call to the permits office about becoming licensed “rehabbers.” The man in charge of migratory bird permits had taken the day off, so I told the woman who answered his phone that I understood a permit would come too late to help this particular falcon. To my surprise, she suggested ways to speed up the process, and my disappointment began to fade.

I left a message for Michael saying that I would complete everything quickly enough so that I could rehab the injured falcon. Michael was also buoyed by the woman’s assistance. “We are going to get the transfer of this bird arranged, or I will have to have a very good reason why it cannot be done,” Michael told me.

I downloaded the regulations regarding rehabilitator licensing from the USFWS website. An entire page listed the documents that were required, including a description of our rehabilitation experience and training and the birds we had worked with, along with a letter from a rehabilitator who could vouch for our experience. A report of our raptor facilities was required, along with appropriate diagrams, photographs, dimensions, and even a description of the flooring. A letter from a rehabilitation facility willing to lend use of their flight cage was needed. Also necessary was a list of what we would feed the “rehabilitees” and an affidavit from a federally licensed rehabilitator, again, reflecting knowledge of our training and qualifications, and promising assistance should we require it. The fourth item on the list was a letter from our local Fish and Game conservation officer indicating a need for rehabilitation skills in our region. Another requirement was a signed statement from a licensed veterinarian agreeing to provide medical treatment.

We would have to apply for, be approved, and be permitted under the state as wildlife rehabilitators. A copy of the license (which is not valid unless one also holds a federal permit) had to be enclosed with the application. We needed a letter from a public educational or scientific institution (including federal permit numbers) stating willingness to accept either the carcasses of birds that died while in our care or live birds deemed non-releasable. I set to work immediately to satisfy all the requirements, relying on the federal clerk’s suggestions such as combining requests for requirements to fulfill to agencies that could satisfy several at once.

After contacting the permits officer, Michael called me again. “He restated you have to go through the entire licensing process, Nancy, but he did promise when your application came to his desk, he would process it right away.” This was a huge concession for the Migratory Bird Permit Office to make, as we had been told there was a months-long backlog of paperwork. We were approaching a formidable government office for licensing, the same office staff that held our lives in their hands whenever it came time to renew our falconry licenses.

Despite the promise made to Michael Amaral, we knew there were no “shortcuts” and that if every t was not crossed, every i was not dotted, the wildlife rehabilitator license would not be granted and the injured peregrine would not be coming here. I was in a state of nervous excitement over the idea of working with the peregrine. Fulfilling all the criteria required to obtain my rehab license had become an obsession. This falcon filled my mind every waking moment, and at night I dreamed about the peregrine.