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

Part II. A TALE OF TWO PEREGRINES

Chapter 18. Meet a Bird Named N-Z

On May 7, Michael Amaral and the injured peregrine arrived. As we took the falcon from Michael’s vehicle, I asked if the bird had a name. At the question, this federal biologist looked at me sternly. “Rehab birds don’t get names, Nancy. It’s to keep people from becoming too attached. Anyone handling a bird or animal that’s going to be released needs to stay detached.”

“Yes, I understand, Michael,” I countered. “But asking Jim if ‘the wild peregrine in rehab’ needs to be fed is kind of a mouthful.”

“It is called N-Z,” Michael allowed himself to smile. “It’s for his band. See?” He pointed to the wide federal band around the falcon’s leg, a strip of green and black over galvanized metal with the large letters N and Z clearly imprinted. When a peregrine is banded, the color combination indicates the year of banding and the sex of the bird, while the letters identify the individual. These are usually read from long distances by biologists and bird-watchers utilizing spotting scopes and strong binoculars.

Within a short time the falcon was removed from the carrier. He was then “cast,” which means gently restrained so his feet and legs could be safely handled and equipped with removable anklets and jesses. His new life sharing a house with two humans had commenced. We wanted to win his trust quickly and to overcome the memories of pain and fear he had felt while being doctored in the healing process.

The bird wounded me when he was still agitated from being handled while Jim carefully fit the soft, kangaroo-leather anklets above the bands on each of his legs. Afterwards, as I lifted him to the glove, his head snaked over to strike my bare right hand. Peregrines have strong, pointy beaks, and he drove the point on his into the bone of my knuckle. It was a hit-and-run attack; the falcon’s head snapped back as quickly as it had struck. He glared at me. The injury was no larger than a pinhole, but blood welled up. I looked closely at the beak that had assaulted me. The shaping and sharpening were precise. The beak itself was dark and lustrous. Any falconer would be proud to have maintained a falcon as well as this fellow had maintained himself in the wild. We are dealing with perfection here, I said to myself in awe.

The falcon’s lightning attack happened as I was placing him into the mini-mew. My ungloved hand as I exchanged leashes gave him an opportunity he took without hesitating. Once the leashes were changed, I put on my glove and set the angry bird on it. Within an hour my hand was throbbing inside the gauntlet.

The early stages of “manning,” or taming, are never pacifying to a bird of prey. In falconry, we are only ever able to teach a raptor two basic things: 1) that we will provide food on a given signal, and 2) we will not hurt the bird. Almost everything else is a matter of the raptor’s instincts.

The bird’s first time upon the glove was an important step in the process. Initially the urge to flee caused N-Z to struggle to launch off the glove repeatedly. I had hoped to keep this to a minimum to reduce the strain on the healing wing. The peregrine persisted for a short while and then ceased. He sat stalwartly upon the glove, not yielding, not liking it, but with dignity and calmness. The wing injury did not seem to hinder the falcon’s bating, although the droop worsened as soon as he tired the weakened wing. After I felt he had sat long enough on the glove to realize that I would not hurt him, I perched him upon the falcon block set up in our living room and moved away to give him some peace.

Now I removed my falconry glove with relief. Where the falcon had punctured me, the palm was red and swollen. Where his beak had drilled my knuckle was raised and sore. I was looking at what boded to become two dandy infections. During my falconry career I had been footed or pierced by talons and bit numerous times, both by our tame birds and by birds from the wild. Hand scrubbing, disinfecting, and periodic applications of topical antibiotic quelled the small infections, just as these latest ones would heal, although it had happened that deep gashes from talons would sometimes require a visit to the clinic for a shot of antibiotic.

Later that day, I put N-Z away in the mini-mew where it had been ensconced in the center hallway of our old house. A dinner of quail had been left for him, and he did not take long to eat it. What would come next would be days of Jim working his falconer magic to calm and steady N-Z to being handled.

Any wrong move when manning can exacerbate the stress felt by a wild raptor being held. The point is to reassure the bird that the glove is a place of safety and the human wearing it means no harm. Thanks to his own injury, Jim Cowan, the most knowledgeable falconer in New Hampshire, had hours to spend working with this wild peregrine.