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

Part II. A TALE OF TWO PEREGRINES

Chapter 19. The Dance Begins

The following week was a busy one for me. Each morning I was up early, dressed, and bundling Stormy into the dog crate in my Jeep so we could head to “pointer school.” Every day was full of learning, training, and practice in a field at the Timberdoodle Club, which was familiar territory because of the falconry demonstrations Jim and I had done there. Stormy and I came home bone-tired and happy every night.

Jim would tell me about his day with N-Z as I fixed dinner. I had little energy for more than a hot bath after dinner, followed by reading over the documents and paperwork that came with the bird. The records on the peregrine made for interesting reading. I now had the names of the people who found the falcon and brought it to the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. One evening I called one of those men and added the details he shared to the medical case history.

The bird was found “nested on the snowbank” by two state highway maintenance workers driving over a shore road along a lake. As they passed the raptor, the men did a double take, stopped their vehicle, then backed up a bit. They got out and approached the falcon. It tried to fly off but could not manage more than a few yards out onto the lake ice. A chase ensued, and finally, exhausted, the falcon lay still for the humans to pick it up. They brought it straightway to the Squam Lakes Center. The date was March 27, 2001.

Dave Erler had added data to the center’s animal record forms Michael Amaral brought down with the falcon. The center staff assumed the wing injury was from a car strike. The medical description read, “Left wing broken—radius close to elbow joint affected (broken?), as well. Large amount of swelling, small wound.” The falcon was transported to a local animal hospital, where the wound was flushed and cleansed and the bird was given fluids and antibiotics. Surgery to repair the break revealed a dislocation instead. The wing joint was carefully relocated and wrapped to immobilize it for four weeks. Ten days after the surgery, the bird returned to the clinic to be anesthetized so the sutures could be removed and the wing inspected. The veterinarian decided not to rewrap the healing wing, but instead gave the center staff instructions to house it in small quarters to prohibit much movement.

I compared the written case history with the details from Dave and with the area description from Chris Martin, who had inspected the site where the bird was found. Via telephone, Chris and I theorized as to how the falcon got hurt. There was no feather damage, which usually happens with a car strike. There were no large wounds or scrapes. There was, on the very top of his cere (the nostril area above the beak), a small dark spot, either a bruise or an old scab, that looked like the bird had taken a blow there.

Although the car-strike theory was logical in respect to where the falcon was first seen, it was unsubstantiated. Chris felt it would be surprising if more than three vehicles a day used the road around the lake in March. Perhaps this peregrine was the victim of an attack by another bird of prey. The wound could have been caused by a talon, and the dislocation by a blow from above. It was possible this falcon was going about his normal, everyday routine when he was hurt. I did not want to think his injuries had come about because he frequented a roadside to hunt. If so, he was not likely to change his habits, dooming him to a swift end or further injury if he was released back into the wild.

My five-day pointer class ended, and Jim was finally able to endure the long commute to his office. The days had warmed; spring was turning into summer. It was time to start working with the wild peregrine. I did not want to delay since we were “on the clock.” Rehabbers are allowed only ninety days to evaluate and condition birds for release or to decide they can’t be released. A non-releasable bird must be turned over to a licensed educator or educational institution to live out its life in captivity, or it must be euthanized. Rehabilitators can petition for another ninety days. N-Z’s rehab period would be up in early August, an ideal time for release, as the weather and availability of prey species are most beneficial. Ninety days beyond that would put his release in the month of November, not an ideal time for a number of reasons.

I was amazed at how much my husband had accomplished with manning. N-Z could now be picked up and carried without fussing or bating. His wing had strengthened during his time in the mini-mew, so he could move to his own quarters. It was important for him to start living outside, as it was time for the new young peregrine to arrive. She would take his place indoors, and by the time N-Z was rehabilitated, she would move to the mew he presently inhabited.

Living loose, or “free lofted” as falconers call it, in a building with perches at various heights, a comfortable sleeping shelf at the highest point, and a large sunny window would give N-Z some limited exercise to get him ready for the time he would start flying free. If Jim had not done such a good job of manning this falcon, free lofting would not have been possible. Flying madly about the mew, crashing into walls or perches, would have undone all the healing, surgery, and care N-Z had received. Although N-Z did not welcome my presence in the mew, he stood quietly and did not bate or try to escape whenever I entered and reached out to pick up his jesses to attach the swivel and leash. Thanks to Jim’s efforts, N-Z and I were ready to begin building the partnership a free-flying raptor and its falconer share.

One of the reasons I love peregrines so much is the effect training and handling them has on time. It stops, or at least it slows considerably. This is probably because the falconer has to focus completely on the training. Because rushing any part of the training may mar the falcon, I prepared myself at the onset to single-mindedly devote myself to the project at hand.

Let me confess right here my initial experiences in training and flying falcons were not all that serendipitous. My first was a lanner falcon given to me by our friend Tom Ricardi seven years before. As well as being a falconer and rehabilitator, Tom is a propagator, or breeder. He kept a pair of lanners from which he produced offspring, but his male had died sometime before. The female he gave me was its mate. She was not young and had, in fact, stopped laying eggs before the death of the male. We perched the falcon in our kitchen. The first thing to do in manning was to get her accustomed to humans again. Although it was rumored she had started life as a falconry bird, her years in the breeding chamber left her extremely wild. We put her perch next to the trash can, which ensured she would get considerable experience with the comings and goings of her human housemates.

Lanner falcons are not native to North America. They were discovered by Europeans when they traveled to the Middle East during the Crusades. The knights took pairs of these small, handsome falcons home for breeding and to be used in falconry. Lanners don’t have the size, power, or ambition for sizable quarry and are usually put after smaller birds as prey. Lanners don’t have the blistering speed of the peregrine and they don’t climb high into the sky; however, the compact flights of these stylish beauties suit them very well in the tight spaces typical of the New England countryside, and their greed, or inability to turn away from opportunities for food, enables falconers to train them rapidly.

Once she got used to our moving to and from the kitchen trash can, the lanner began to trust us. And she liked the meals she was fed on the glove. Soon she was greeting us when we approached. She’d cackle with delight at the prospect of dinner, which resulted in the fond nickname we gave her: “Mrs. Chicken.”

Before long, Mrs. Chicken was ready to be tried in flight. We took her to our backyard and attached a thin line called a creance, which allows us to test fly a bird just trained. Jim held her while I called to her from across the yard. It was a perfect training flight. She left Jim’s glove on the call, came toward me, passed in a semicircle, and came back to my glove. Her textbook training flight encouraged us, so we next tried something more ambitious—no strings attached!

Jim stood with the lanner at our driveway while I walked fifty yards away across the cul-de-sac in the subdivision in which we lived. Again, Mrs. Chicken responded promptly to the call, but this time she did not rise into the air. She came at the height of Jim’s glove and actually lost height as she approached. Moreover, she was laboring hard by the time she reached me and could barely make it up to my glove. She sat on my glove, panting and barely able to focus on the tidbit it held. Jim and I called it quits for the day. A question loomed over us: Was this bird out of condition from years of non-flight, or was she just too old to start over in flying? I got my answer on her next and final flight.

I often refer to falcons, all falcons, as not being the brightest of creatures. Confront falcons with something that overwhelms them in any way, and their usual reaction is a meltdown. I never see them figure out situations with the brain power possessed by Harris’s hawks. But never say never, right?

Mrs. Chicken absolutely astonished me when I took her out to see how she would fly after being rested. Our backyard was a quiet place and a small space in which to work, so I placed her perch near the stairs to our outdoor deck and walked a short distance away before I called her. At the sound of the whistle, she jumped off her perch, turned her back to me, and started up the stairs to the deck, hopping up each one. I was dumbfounded. The deck stood about fourteen feet off the ground. Mrs. Chicken eventually reached the top stair, negotiated it in a final hop, then tootled across the deck to the edge, where she spread her wings and launched herself to glide down to my glove.

It was perhaps the most inventive stoop any falcon has ever achieved. She deserved a medal for the performance. But the result was it showed me I was asking this sweet little falcon to do something beyond her ability, and so we officially retired Mrs. Chicken. She spent the rest of her days with us (which numbered not much more than a year) eating her dinners and occasionally being exhibited if we did a program. She was a hit at every event because she was as endearing as she was beautiful. As far as my career in flying falcons was concerned, I had to wait until the day came that I had a peregrine.

Sometime after the demise of Mrs. Chicken, I was fortunate to be given a peregrine, a failed breeder-bird, from a falcon propagator in the Midwest. She was a beauty: large, regal, and in all ways a perfect reflection of what was called in the Middle Ages “the falcon-gentle,” meaning “best of all falcons.” She was an imprint, meaning she was raised from the time she hatched to relate to humans. This is commonly done with falcons that are to be used in captive breeding programs. It also produces especially loyal and quiet falcons for falconry. An added bonus was she had been trained as a falconry bird by a master (and masterful) falconer prior to her unsuccessful career as a breeder.

This peregrine, “Lass” as I called her, was the epitome of imprinting and training done right, but there was an entirely new set of rules to which I had to become accustomed. Lass leapt into the great void of my ignorance to teach them to me. The first time I entered her mew with a tidbit of food was the last time I entered the mew of an imprinted raptor with food on my glove. My hands were instantly bound together by her locked grasp of the wristbands of my sweatshirt, and I had to yell loudly to get Jim’s attention so he could free me.

From there I moved boldly to my first flight with the big peregrine. The lure I was using had a large spindle for a handle. I became so excited about calling her down that I cast the lure straight up and stood gazing upwards to see the outcome, which came all too soon. The handle fell back along the trajectory of my toss and whacked me a good one across my nose and eye socket. As I stood swaying, dizzy, and dazed, Lass sweetly fluttered down upon the lure which had in the meantime landed beside me. My first flight-with-a-peregrine memento was a black eye that lasted about a week. On the plus side was the enduring and very practical understanding that it is not good to stand under the spot from which you threw the lure, especially a lure with a large spindle handle.

There were many more lessons I learned in the years before Dave Erler’s call about the injured peregrine. And, true to my start, I always seemed to learn the hard way.