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

Part II. A TALE OF TWO PEREGRINES

Chapter 20. Can He Fly?

The falcon circled above, her path a perfect elliptical shape. Down, turn, back, around, turn. Over and over. Whenever my husband wanted to change her flight pattern or bring her in closer, he would slip the lure from out of his coat pocket and give it just one swing before re-pocketing it. The appearance of the lure, however brief, would turn his falcon right back towards him. When he tossed it up, she dove down, snatching it out of the air to land gently on the ground. Watching Jim with Tater was a wonderful lesson for me as I moved past my apprenticeship. I learned why “wedded to the lure” was a trait falconers desired in their falcons.

In falconry, hawks are known as “birds of the glove” and falcons are referred to as “birds of the lure.” That’s because a hawk can swoop down to land and perch upon the glove. After initial training, when a falcon is flying in its normal fashion of stooping faster than a NASCAR driver, calling it to the glove will surely result in injury to the falcon or the falconer. For falcons flying too high to hear a whistle, the upswing of a lure is a strong attention-getter.

Flying lures can look like a bird in flight or like a football someone ran over with a steamroller. Lures have strings for tying on small bits of food, cords by which they are swung, and sometimes handles on the end of the cords. The best lures are small enough to easily tuck into a game pocket, yet large enough to be the size of something the raptor might catch. When calling the falcon down from the heavens, a falconer swings it so the lure is on the rise as the falcon flies at it. This is called “serving the lure.” It is the most important tool a falconer has when flying a falcon.

In the light of day, the eye of a raptor is extremely powerful at discerning small objects at great distances. Added to the recognition that the lure carries food is the fact that it swings into the air much as a bird in flight rises from the ground. Raptor eyes are sensitized to detect prey in motion. Once the falcon is accustomed to the lure through proper training, you have a foolproof callback. Tater, trained with the lure from the beginning, reacted exactly as her wild instincts dictated she should to an easy food opportunity coupled with the enticement of prey movement.

N-Z’s training would follow the same course as Tater’s. The first step is to introduce the bird to the lure, so he is not frightened of it. This is usually accomplished in several days of feeding the falcon meals tied to the lure. While he is sitting tethered to a perch, the falconer approaches, blows the whistle, swings the lure laden with a tidbit, and allows it to drop within the falcon’s reach.

N-Z had already become accustomed to eating from the lure. He welcomed every meal, so when his dinner came swinging at him for the first time, this avian hunter rose from the perch to snatch the lure out of the air with both feet. I was thrilled we were off to a good start so quickly. N-Z’s finely honed hunting skills and his appetite for dinner were going to be valuable assets during his training.

Training was interrupted, however, on May 30, when I made a trip to Manchester Airport to meet a passenger flying in from Idaho. I arrived as the plane was landing. My traveler would not be off-loaded until the human passengers and their luggage were unloaded at the main terminal. It seemed like hours before the desk clerk brought out an animal carrier and set it on the counter. I could not wait a second longer to look at my new charge. I asked for a pair of scissors to break the cable ties holding the door closed. Carefully I cracked open the carrier door and peeked in.

Seemingly composed mostly of white fluff with eyes of obsidian and a huge beak that made the bird appear like a wizened old elf, it stared back at me without making a sound. What I was looking at resembled the kitchen witch dolls that were popular when I was a girl. Within a heartbeat, I was in love and named her on the spot. “Witch” and I started for home and at the same time began a journey leading me to both exhilaration and despair.

Having a very young falcon in the house is like having a baby in your care. Meals have to be supplied often and plentifully. The eyass needs a safe space which does not stay clean for long, so a large box with high sides was procured and lined with newspaper that was changed often. But one doesn’t box up a baby. Young things need to have stimulation and to bond with their caretakers. So the baby got lots of attention and regular intervals of running about the floor inside or the grass outside. Like other babies, Witch had to be kept out of trouble and protected while she was enjoying these outings. I was busy taking care of a bouncing baby peregrine growing by leaps and bounds whose feathers were suddenly beginning to poke through the white fluff. As the feathers grew, the fluff got shed. The inside of my house screens became covered with down. Witch grew large enough and strong enough to begin scaling to the top of her box. It was time for her to wear anklets and be tethered to the perch she could now jump to and from with ease.

During all this growth and change, I was reading books on training falcons. In one, written by Witch’s breeder, the author pointed out that the more there was for the developing young bird to watch, the better. Once Witch grew large enough to be perched, she loved sitting inside the front screen door to watch the traffic go down our street. Close the door for inclement weather or because we were leaving the house, and she would vocalize her disapproval vehemently. I resorted to a suggestion in the book by perching her in front of the TV, which performed “eyass-sitting duty” for the young falcon.

N-Z’s training was proceeding all the while. With the demands of a job, household duties, and raising Witch, I was kept racing. By now I had started lure training with Witch, too. After I finished working with N-Z, I would fill a bath pan with water and set it beside him. He would bathe and preen in the sunshine as I settled in for the session with Witch. It was an idyllic way to spend part of a summer day, but devoting time to two birds meant the rest of my hours were crowded beyond capacity. Even so, taking the utmost care over every phase of training was a respite from the hectic life I was leading.

We were working on something that builds trust, and the lure was an important part of this procedure. We had already established that whenever I showed N-Z food on the glove and whistled, he would jump to my fist from his perch. N-Z was rising from the perch to the length of his leash to catch the lure in the air. Having caught it, he would devour the portion of his meal tied to it. At this stage of the training I would hover nearby as he ate, kneeling to offer my glove which held the best and favorite part of the dinner, a quail breast. This would bring him jumping to the glove. As N-Z fed on the glove, I would reach down quietly and with utmost discretion remove the lure to the game pocket of my vest. The unwritten contract between a falconer and a falcon is that the human will never steal food or the lure. Taking either before a raptor has given it up constitutes (to the raptor) a theft of the greatest proportions.

Day after day N-Z and I followed this ritual until I could approach him as he ate on the lure and, while he still was feeding from it, reach below his tail and gently pick up each jess and attach my hunting leash to the swivel ring. Then I would offer the glove with a morsel of quail breast and have him jump up, and I would pocket the lure as described. This training plays a huge role in flying a raptor free and is the method of recovering the bird when it has taken game.

This positive reinforcement / consistent training part of lure training pays huge dividends when your falcon has landed and you need to retrieve him. The falcon demonstrates total trust if he allows you to approach and to handle him when he is on something he caught. Especially with a rehab falcon in recovery for injuries, retrieving him from his conditioning flights was mandatory. N-Z took to this training remarkably well. A falcon with the least doubt about the human approaching him will “mantle,” or spread his wings over his food, hiss, raise the crest of feathers at the back of his head and neck, and otherwise make it plain the person is encroaching too closely. Any closer after the warning will earn the falconer a painful “footing” on the falconer’s fingers. If the training is not done well, the falcon will not be waiting around on the lure at all but will be flailing madly at the end of his leash, trying to escape. If he were loose, he would be gone for good.

N-Z exhibited incredible laissez-faire about the whole thing. I wish I could say it was because of my formidable skill as a falconer, but the truth was N-Z, like a trucker at a diner, was just plain tickled pink food came so easily. He had been making his way in the world for two years, and no predator has an easy life. Now he had dinner served to him, and he was downright appreciative. The one thing he didn’t tolerate was if I had been too invasive in my handling of him. If, for example, I was clumsy and touched his tail as I reached under for a jess, he would fix his eye upon me, and I knew he was keeping score. Retribution would usually come after I had returned him to the mew and was removing his leash and swivel. At the very last minute, those black eyes would stare at me and then he would reach over and bite me. It was not an attack, but a tribute to be exacted for being too familiar with royalty. Eventually I got used to it.

Flight training started with the old jump-to-the-glove-on-the-­whistle routine N-Z had mastered. Raptors do not come to the glove for a reward, nor do they feel gratitude for a treat. Rather, they see all food as theirs—only they must get to it. By winning the bird’s trust so the glove is an accepted place to eat safely, the falconer is making himself the path to an easy meal. Birds of prey are programmed like all other predators to seek an easy opportunity for food when it is presented. Far from being masters of the falcon, all of us who fly raptors make use of the birds’ instinctive acceptance of this situation. However, this works only if the raptor is inclined to eat. This means the energy-saving falcon is going to fly when he is ready to hunt, so the falconer must learn what a bird’s “flying weight” should be.

Flying weight is a normal, healthy weight. It is what it would mean to the average person, coming indoors on a crisp fall day after an energetic hike to find a favorite meal already on the table. At that moment food seems like a good idea. This is the way raptors feel when they are at “flying weight.” It is not absolute hunger or starvation. One way we recognize it is by watching how avid the raptor is in response to food. To be able to judge a correct flying weight takes study.

All of our birds are weighed before we work with them, and this pattern was established with N-Z as well. Because he was healing from an injury, I always allowed for him to be a bit on the heavy side. When it was mealtime for N-Z, he was weighed, perched, and then called to the glove. Soon I was carrying him to different places while tying off the leash to my glove so I could distance myself farther and farther away. When I got as far as the leash would allow, the jump had become a flight.

At that point it was time to switch to the creance line. With this thin cord attached now to N-Z’s swivel, I would perch him and walk some distance away, like ten feet, and then call him. Next we would try twenty feet. We did that several times over the next few days. N-Z always responded perfectly, as well as or better than any other bird I had trained. This fellow looked forward to every meal. It was hard to find him at a point where he was too sated to not feel an urgency to come to me. For N-Z, every call was the dinner bell, and he responded promptly.

Knowing I had four thousand years of falconry practices behind what I was doing with this beautiful specimen from the wild, the response of N-Z to my signals was no surprise. Still, when I paused to think about the absolute freedom the air provided him, it thrilled me that a wild bird and I could come to a synchronization of purpose so quickly. The image of N-Z, wild and once again a master of the air, was a vision I held every moment I spent working with him.

Besides evaluating his readiness to return to the wild, I was watching his injured wing very carefully. When he had arrived, there was a pronounced wing droop. By now, N-Z’s wing had improved. He was beginning to favor it less. At times he would tuck it up properly so by appearance there was nothing wrong, but most of the time he carried the wing with a slightly detectable droop. If he tired from jumping up or down from his perch, or if I called him on the creance more than twice, the injured wing would take on a pronounced droop. The wing droop was an obstacle that was slowing down our training schedule.

Every time I held him on the glove and his wing began to droop, I would lightly run my finger down the forward edge of the wing, causing him to draw it up tightly to his body. I did this over and over, hoping this repetitive motion would help to strengthen his damaged muscles and ligaments without putting undue stress upon the wing, but it earned me a bite every day at the end of our sessions because, as I said, N-Z always kept score. The biting did not faze me, but my initial thoughts on how this bird’s injury was in some ways worse than a break returned to haunt me. If N-Z had been one of my falconry birds, I would have put him up for at least a year to rest his badly strained wing. I would have let him rest, eat quail, and rest some more. I would have started a very conservative conditioning program only after I felt time and rest had accomplished all that was possible in healing the wing. But ninety days was all I had.

I cursed the ninety-day rule. The alternative—deciding that N-Z was not releasable—was even less palatable. I wanted this bird back in the air, and I wanted his wing strong enough for him to survive on his own. Could both of my wishes come true?