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

Part II. A TALE OF TWO PEREGRINES

Chapter 22. Flying to Despair

With N-Z now gone, my overbooked schedule opened up, so I could concentrate on Witch. I started her flights in the small field by the house, but it only took one or two times to have me reevaluating my choice of flying areas. Flying Witch was like giving a giddy sixteen-year-old the keys to Dad’s Ferrari. I was not sure I could withstand the adrenaline overload as she wove in and around buildings and trees at top speed. Reaching the west side of the field, she flew straight up the middle of Route 149, and I worried she was going to run people off the road by “playing chicken.” When my heart rate returned to normal, I knew the next step would be the Overlook.

Flying Witch was completely unlike flying N-Z. She was the first young falcon I had trained and flown myself. Previously I had flown trained adults, then had trained and flown N-Z. The difference between a recuperating seasoned veteran and a youngster raised in captivity was profound. I knew part of the peregrine mystique is its propensity to “push the envelope.” While I was trying to keep my sensory overload at a manageable level, Witch was exploring, testing, and stretching every limit of what a peregrine could do.

About ten days after N-Z’s release, the phone rang. It was Chris Martin, the Audubon biologist. His tone was not upbeat, and his sentences came out haltingly. I realized he was giving me time to compose myself. Falconers are more aware than anyone that life for raptors is a transitory thing. I was prepared for whatever he had to tell me.

Chris told me that a peregrine had been picked up after being hit by a car. The car-strike had dealt a mortal blow.

“It was N-Z?” I already knew the answer. “How did he get hit by a car? What was he was doing in the road?”

Chris began relating what he had been told. A fellow had come upon a peregrine lying along Route 47. The falcon had been struck by a car and killed. Recognizing it as a peregrine, the man picked it up and brought it to his wife, a teacher at Great Brook School in Antrim. Knowing the Audubon peregrine biologist should be contacted, she took the body to school to keep it in the science department freezer and then put in a call to Chris. This had occurred two days after N-Z’s release. Chris had gone over to pick up the carcass as soon as his schedule allowed. The band numbers confirmed it was the rehab peregrine. “I did not want to call you with the news until I was sure,” Chris said.

“But what was he doing in the road, Chris?” I repeated.

“He had been hunting. He had a dove in his talons when he was picked up. It was still in his talons when I took him from the freezer.”

“Good,” I said, and I knew this was not the reply Chris expected. I could not help being pleased N-Z had successfully caught his own dinner. “He was hunting, Chris.” If N-Z had been killed just sitting in the road, I would have worried he had been in too much pain to fly. If he had died from starvation, our decision to release N-Z would have been wrong. I wondered if he had strained his injured wing during the hunt and had not been able to escape the approaching car. This would forever remain a mystery. “N-Z was out on his own, doing what he does best. I am so sorry he was killed, but he was free and fulfilling his destiny as a hunter when it happened. I am glad I was able be part of returning him to the wild,” I told Chris.

Together, Chris and I pondered how someone could have run down a sizable bird of prey on a country highway on a clear summer morning. Why didn’t the driver swerve or slow down enough to keep from hitting the peregrine? Together, Chris and I mourned the passing of a rare and beautiful falcon. I had bid N-Z good-bye in the hope he would live a long life, and that he would migrate and come home to New Hampshire to mate and raise young. I had thought one day I might look skyward to see the shape of a wild peregrine and fancy it was my old friend or perhaps one of his children. Now that could never happen.

The news about N-Z left me with a sense of loss, but there was little time to mope. Summer days were shortening, and change was in the wind. I was working as much as possible with Witch, and nearly every flight was a new, hair-raising adventure. In many ways Witch was the ideal falcon. She was loyal, sweet, strong, and courageous. But her youthful high spirits were making me crazy.

At first the Overlook field was the answer to flying the youngster in a larger, safer place, but it didn’t last for long. Witch’s circles over the land as it dropped added many feet to her height in the air. This was great until she went into overdrive and suddenly widened her circle over the highway. The sight of her flying about three feet above the roadway terrified me, so I moved operations farther down in the field. Witch countered by widening her circles still more, which included a big white barn with a turkey pen. Then she began to spend more time flying across the highway to the turkey pen than she spent in flying back to me. I hastily nixed the Overlook field. I didn’t want to envision her becoming a hood ornament for one of the local pickups, nor did I like the idea of retrieving her from the farmer’s turkey coop.

Next we tried a school playing field. Witch negotiated this field at top speed, turning on her side near the trees bordering the edges like a race car using the high curves of a speedway. This field was obviously too small, so we moved on to another school field. She took to this larger field with the same scorching speed and low altitude, bobbing over fences and doing a strafing run just over the heads of the high school marching band practicing there. Her return on the lure signal, flying in and out of the goalposts, almost finished me.

The only thing left was to get over to the falconry field at the Timberdoodle Club where there were pheasants and other game birds to chase. I needed to get her away from busy roads and marching bands and onto catching prey. I loaded up my Jeep with Witch hooded and riding perched on a cadge and Injun, the Harris’ hawk, in his giant hood. We were able to make the journey to Timberdoodle once or twice a week throughout the fall. At Timberdoodle there was hardly any trouble for Witch to get into.

By now Injun and I had been hunting partners for nine years. Together we had done demonstrations, talks, and lots of hunting. Hunting with a hawk is in many ways less complex than hunting with a falcon. There isn’t the burning speed of the stoop or the tendency to “peregrinate,” which means their propensity for wandering the skies. If the partnership with the hawk is working—meaning you have flushed game for him regularly—the hawk will stay fairly close by. He’ll take a perch in a tree overhead, follow you from tree to tree as you walk a cover, and wait for you to flush the prey out for him to chase and catch. This closeness allows you to keep some measure of control (and, at best, you have only a slim margin of control at all) over any unfolding situation.

Like my dog, Injun always knew by the rattle of the Jeep when we reached the dirt road to Timberdoodle. His bells jingled as he excitedly moved from foot to foot. I would take out Injun and work over most of the field before coming back to the Jeep to put him away and then take out Witch. I tried not to hunt cock pheasant but to focus instead on chukars, Hun partridge, and quail, as Injun was not large enough to take pheasants easily. Even so, the game birds we most often encountered were big, strong cock pheasants which outweighed my Harris’s. The hen pheasants were fewer in number because they were the ones most often killed and eaten by the wild hawks. These hawks were a problem for me as well as they were for the pheasants because they were not adverse to the taste of Harris’s hawk or peregrine falcon.

Even without wild hawks prowling about, it was hard to get pheasants to break cover with a peregrine flying overhead, so Witch and I had a hard time catching game. The cock pheasants at Timberdoodle were veterans at avoiding flying raptors. Whenever we spotted a pheasant, it was most often running to the woods rather than taking off in flight. Even so, the introduction of game was improving Witch’s flights. She was flying higher and more purposefully. I also knew I had to get Stormy working with my falcons so we could locate and flush game birds more frequently.

One day as I was taking Injun back to the Jeep after hunting, something very unusual happened. As I approached the vehicle, I could see Witch had dislodged her hood to cast it off her head. Having Witch unhooded did not pose a problem, as she was tethered to her cadge, but it did mean she was able to see the lure I held. I put Injun away into his giant hood by opening the rear passenger door. When I opened the rear lift-gate and tossed Injun’s lure inside, Witch made a jump to get it and was caught up short.

Witch’s jump towards the food set the next event in motion. Suddenly I was eye-to-eye with a wild juvenile peregrine circling me and the car. He barely cleared the open lift-gate of the Jeep. One circle and he took off into the sky. He must have come out of the woods and had been watching us. The pounce Witch made towards the lure instigated an instantaneous come-and-get-it reaction from the hungry young falcon. Momentarily, he had crossed the boundary nature places between the wild and mankind. I smiled at his retreating shape as he rose into the heavens. At least brazen Witch was not the only risk-taking teenaged falcon in the world.

As we all know, catastrophes are often the result of mistakes. I’ve made plenty of errors in my falconry career. Sometimes I have come off lightly and thanked my lucky stars. Other times, the outcome of an error comes crashing down. Then there is the heartbreak. Despite how much one may ache, one must face the choice to go on, learn, and become better, or to pack it all up and never venture out again. My way has always been to go on, but this doesn’t mean I forget the pain. I do not think I am singular in this. When one becomes a falconer, one accepts that the highs are high and the lows are low.

In late October I had promised a demonstration for a teacher friend at his school, so I loaded Injun and Witch into the Jeep and headed down to Wilton. The first part of the program for the fifth-graders was my talk about falconry and Injun’s flight. Everything went fine, and then I made my first mistake. After putting Injun away in his carrier, I decided to fly Witch at the large park in front of the school. I was itching to get her into the air, and I reasoned she felt the same way. The park looked big to me, but in reality it was probably no bigger than the schoolyards where we had flown in early September. It was mostly open except for a line of trees on each of three sides where the park ended at a street. Buildings surrounded the park. I unhooded Witch and stretched out my gloved arm from which she took flight. Before she had gone halfway around the circumference of the park in her signature style, fifteen feet off the ground and at supersonic speed, I knew something was very wrong with my flight plan.

I know biologists don’t like to ascribe emotions to animals and birds, but I’m convinced that falcons get angry. They get bored. They go into fits of pique. The set of Witch’s body and wings coupled with the fact that she didn’t turn her head towards me as she circled, signaled that I was flying a bird who was angry at the boring flight pattern. I should have known better. Witch had been developing beautifully at Timberdoodle where there was open area and, above all, game birds. She took one look around and must have seen no potential for finding pheasants. She may as well have tossed her head and stomped her feet like an infuriated diva when she shot over the rooftops towards the top of the hill above us.

Then I made another mistake. In my panic, I ran after my bird. When flying falcons a falconer has to remain in the same location from where the bird flew because a trained falcon will nearly always come back to that spot. But all rational thought was discarded as I raced after my bird. Well, “raced” is a relative term. I was fifty-four, short-legged, plump, and it was all uphill. I got halfway up the hill when I stopped to catch my breath and look around at the empty sky. I blew my whistle and swung my lure. I turned and ran back, desperate to see my Witch back at her starting point. My teacher friend rushed up to me as I entered the park. “She came back. She was looking for you!” he exclaimed.

There was no sign of my bird.

“They went back behind the school. She is in the woods back there.”

I had no breath to speak and move at the same time. I was in too much panic to question his choice of pronouns. “There,” he pointed, and I saw my falcon sitting on a limb about fifteen feet up in a tree.

I swung my lure. Witch left her perch and headed towards me. “She brought another bird back with her,” my friend said as she burst from the grove with a big shape in close pursuit. Witch passed over me. I saw her look down but she could not pause. An enormous red-tailed hawk was right behind her. My heart turned to ice. My bird was flying for her life, and there was nothing I could do to help her.

My brain foggily recorded that I was frantically running downhill through the town like a madwoman in the effort to keep my falcon in view, dodging cars as I ran, careening down twisted, paved streets, my eyes focused on the sky above. I remembered all too well the lesson learned from N-Z about a falcon not landing and making itself vulnerable. This situation was incalculably worse than the rainstorm with N-Z. Witch tried to stay near me, but every time she hovered over me the fearsome shape would come in just behind her. If she slowed, the hawk would strike at her. Witch could counter by moving and gaining height, but the red-tail had the advantage and would return to the attack position.

Being young and inexperienced, Witch had no skills to evade this killer. She had only her instincts to keep moving and rising. The red-tail, however, was a mistress of the art of pursuit, of aerial combat, and, I knew, of killing prey. Today her prey was my peregrine. As I neared the mill section of town down by the river, the two shapes hung like twin kites far, far up in the sky. I knew my falcon was both frightened and tiring. As I reached the river, it was to see the two shapes drop lower. The birds blended with the darkness of the ridgeline on the western side of the Souhegan River. That was last I saw of Witch.

I was alone, on foot, and exhausted. My car was probably no more than a mile away, but it was a steep uphill trek. Now my bird was on the other side of the river, uphill again, and across the state’s major highway. I needed my vehicle to follow her. I felt like I was moving through molasses. My lungs were on fire, my heart was pounding. Just then a delivery truck headed up the street. I jumped in front of it and flagged the driver to a stop. I told him in abbreviated fashion that I was a falconer whose bird was being chased by a larger raptor, and I desperately needed to get back to my car at the schoolyard. The young man’s eyes grew big. He said nothing but motioned for me to take the seat beside him. I climbed aboard and sat on the edge of the seat to steady myself as the truck negotiated the steep incline to the school. It took only a few minutes to reach my Jeep. The ride had given me a chance to recover enough breath to thank him.

By the time I returned to the mill yard, the red-tail was sunning herself on a branch hanging over the far side of the river. She looked well-fed. My heart clenched painfully. She would never have pulled out of a pursuit she was so clearly winning. I knew she had killed and eaten my young falcon. As I watched, she lazily left her perch and began her flight back to the orchard on the hilltop. I was tired, too discouraged for tears, and sick inside, but I combed the mill yard area and then drove the roads of the western ridgeline. School buses passed by me with homebound students. Now it was late afternoon and the sun was low, leaving the river and mills in shadow. Reluctantly, knowing Jim would be troubled if I was not back soon, I turned the Jeep in the direction of home.

Once there, I told Jim about the events leading up to Witch’s loss. He was as sad as I was and also believed that she was truly gone, something I accepted even as I knew I had to do all I could to find her on the slim chance she had survived. So, I was up before dawn the next morning driving towards Wilton, equipped with quail and my whistle and lure.

Overnight a front had blown through, and it no longer felt like fall. Raindrops were interspersed with pellets of sleet. The keen edge of winter was on the wind. At times I drove through snow squalls that obliterated my sight and forced me to slow the car to a crawl. I covered every roadway west, east, south, and north. During the next week, I walked over riverbanks and through forests, over cultivated fields and hayfields. I wended my way through industrial parks and hazardous waste dump areas. The sun did not shine. It grew colder. I caught a cold and spent the days coughing as I walked. The cord of the lure wore blisters on my fingers and hand. These broke and bled, and still I hunted, heartbroken and searching for the sight of a glad, gay young peregrine eager to join me and return home.

The word that my falcon had gone missing spread like wildfire throughout Wilton. For many days the phone rang with sightings and suggestions. Sometimes the callers just wanted to know if my beautiful bird had found her way home. I followed every lead, knowing it was highly unlikely it had been my bird. The callers were trying to be helpful, so I listened and responded. My falcon had been seen in a tree in a field in Antrim. The caller was certain it was my bird because, after all, it was big and black . . . just like a falcon. At the same time my bird was seen in Antrim, she was also allegedly chasing birds from a bird feeder in Wilton. It had to be my bird, the caller explained, because . . . And what would follow would be both an earnest and improbable description. I responded politely to these people. I went to each location reported. I was out searching from sunup to sundown for five days.

I saw the hilltop red-tail on several of those days and also innumerable raptors inhabiting the valley following the river south. The raptors seemed to wind up at the fields in Milford. Undoubtedly the state fish hatchery nearby was the reason. It had many coin-operated fish-food dispensers that meted out mealy pellets so visitors could feed the trout. The rodent population drawn by the dispensers must have made the area an ideal feeding spot for hawks and owls. I was astounded by the number and the variety of raptors.

At one point, I crossed the highway to an industrial area. There I met a pint-size red-tailed hawk who never ventured from the telephone poles over the weed-covered ditch between the road and the railroad tracks. He was so small he could not have managed to take much in the way of prey, and he followed me as I swung the lure. I threw it down between us, curious to see what he would do. He nearly came for it, but restrained himself at the last moment. I was sorry to see him so hungry and realized he likely had subsisted all summer on the frogs in the ditch water. Now that the amphibians were gone, he probably wouldn’t survive the winter. I left him a bit of quail by the ditch. I bore no ill will towards red-tailed hawks—not towards this little fellow or the big red-tailed hen of the hilltop. Survival is not a given. Only those that are skilled and strong manage to do so.

When Jim and I discussed the loss of Witch, we sought some other conclusion than that she had been killed by another bird of prey. Every evening I would recount to myself the things I had done wrong or could have done better. A totally wrong choice of flight area headed the list, followed by leaving the area in panic. I have asked myself a thousand times if I had been there when she first came back, could I have retrieved her? The question will haunt me for the rest of my life. I also could have outfitted Witch with radio telemetry, which is a common practice among falconers. Telemetry would not have protected her from the red-tail, but I might have been able to track her remains during my searches. There was no guarantee this would have worked, as telemetry is notoriously unhelpful in the wooded, hilly terrain of this region.

When I spoke about it with other falconers, they were quick to remind me that the most common way trained falconry birds are lost is by being killed by wild birds of prey. This can happen when our birds are hunting and are not expecting to come under aerial attack. Wild raptors are wily about taking advantage of a vulnerable moment. Only the most experienced falconry raptors learn to beware their wild brethren. My fellow falconers were profuse in offering sympathy and kindness. They advised me not to hold myself responsible for Witch’s death. One of my closest friends entreated me, “Nancy, please don’t get any more falcons. It hurts you so when they die.”