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

Prologue

I am flying. The landscape slips and slides below as I bank into my turns. Around me I sense air currents moving and rising in the warmth of the sunny afternoon. Suddenly I am riding an accelerated elevator upward. As if pulled swiftly by a cable, I ascend higher, so high I am becoming part of the sky itself.

Apprehension pricks my consciousness and pulls me back to my earthbound body. My hands fumble as I pull the lure from my pocket as fast as I can. I begin swinging it upwards at my side in a clockwise circle. I blow my whistle, although my hawk is now too high to hear it. She is steadily rising, following her first cartwheel into the capricious updraft that snagged her into an effortless, soaring ascension. She has never been so high above me. My mouth is dry; my heart is pounding. Will she see the lure? Will she respond to my enticement for her to drop from the heights and return?

She sees . . . what does she see? She sees the lure with a quarter of a quail carcass tied upon it. To her, the lure with its upward swing is prey. For my hawk, to catch prey is to live. Her dark silhouette is tiny and far away, but it changes to an arrow shape as she folds her wings and slips down through the atmosphere. She drops and weaves like a skier descending a steep slope. My breath is in time with the swing of the lure and all the while a part of my brain is calculating, calculating . . . timing the swing so at the final instant I can fling it skyward in precisely the angle to intercept the path of my raptor.

The lure flies from my outstretched hand and the action plays in slow motion as it meets my bird’s descent. My hawk turns sideways as she passes the ascending object and her talons reach out. I hear the rap of those talons hitting the hard leather. Still descending, she swings upright and spreads her wings to slow herself as she rides the lure the last few feet to the ground. I run to join her and kneel beside where she, with mantled wings arched over her prize, begins to tear at the quail.

My hand searches beneath her outspread wings to take up each of her jesses, affixing them to the snap of the leash tied off to my glove while she is busy at the task of tearing morsels of meat. I take a deep breath. The heartbeat pounding in my ears is slowing now that the adrenaline rush is over. Slipping the fingers of my gloved left hand under the lure and holding her jesses in my right fist, I lift her as I stand. Aside from fluttering her wings to maintain her balance on the slippery leather, none of this unsettles my hawk. It is not until I leave the field carrying my bird that I am fully restored to my normal self: a person making her way home with a hawk riding her gloved hand. A car slows as I walk along the roadside. “Flying today?” my neighbor calls out with a smile.

“Yes,” I reply, returning his smile. “I have been flying.”

What is this spell that overcame me so I saw what the hawk saw, so I lived for a moment as she lives and flew with wings able to sense the invisible bumps and ruts of air currents rising? How have I become a partner with a creature weighing barely two pounds, whose brain can’t remember what she saw just seconds ago but can recall a place she momentarily alighted upon years before? We are so different, the hawk and I. Yet we often function in complete unity; my mind is her mind, her body is my body. The bond between us is mystical, but is rooted in practical techniques handed down over countless generations.

I step from the road when I reach my driveway. Having eaten the quail quarter from the lure, my hawk is now sated. Her full crop is a rounded protrusion above her breastbone. Because of this she will not fly again today, and probably not tomorrow as well. I am recovering from the terrifying excitement of having my bird caught in a thermal updraft, a seductive, rising column of air that can carry my hawk in its power until she is beyond retrieval. The experience scared me nearly witless. Were it not for the training fostered upon me by nearly three decades of the practice of falconry, I could have lost her forever. But when the need came, I was prepared to do exactly the things necessary to draw my bird away from her aerial rapture.

The age-old methods did not fail me. My hawk responded as though she and I had planned it all out ahead of time. The ancient art has taught me to come to the field with something capable of exerting a pull upon her more powerful than the enchantment of the spiraling soar towards the heavens. Why else would a humble, floppy device of leather be so appropriately named “the lure”?

I reach her mew, pull open the door made of old barn-boards, and push aside the weighted canvas sheet hanging behind it to step inside. In the gloom of my bird’s quarters, I unsnap the leash from her jesses. The hawk, having eaten all there was to eat, is done with me, with the lure and with my glove. She is as content as a creature such as she can be. She jumps to her high perch, then turns to watch me as I leave. She settles in for the evening as I exit, and I hear the jingle of the bell attached to her anklet.

From my kitchen window I can scan eight small buildings, two lines of four facing one another, standing along the edges of the field to the south. At the north side of the house, there are two more dwellings built into an old post-and-beam barn. Each of these habitations has bars at the window and a double door, and is kept securely locked. The individuals behind those padlocked entryways are not criminals or crazed psychopaths, but are partners with me and my husband at this old farm. All the security measures in place are for the protection of our valued friends within. The buildings and the barn house the four hawks and six falcons living here, but sometimes these feathered entities come inside to share our living quarters as intimately as we share our lives with them.