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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 24. Bubba

The year wound down to end, and as it did the passage of time softened my sadness. Injun filled the void left by the loss of Witch to a degree, but I missed the magical feeling of working with a peregrine. There was the financial loss as well. N-Z had required a huge amount of time and work, not to mention the food and equipment outlay required for rehabbing a bird. Witch had set me back for well over a thousand dollars. I would have to save for a long time to be able to afford another like her. I had to ask myself, considering the money invested, the work, and all the pain, would I do it again? Would I jump wholeheartedly into another year of raising a bird I risked losing whenever I set her free to fly, or of helping another invalid regain his wings no matter what odds faced him? I know the answer now just as I knew the answer then. The expenses were more than repaid in full by sharing my life with peregrines.

Bubba was not young when he came to us. Vic, a falcon breeder Jim and I knew, called to ask if I would accept the “loan” of a peregrine. (Loan was Vic’s way of saying gift, with a “string attached”.) Vic had “loaned” me the beautiful but barren female peregrine falcon, Lass. Now he was offering a male. The bird was presently in a northeastern state with another breeder named Ed whose mews were overcrowded. The breeder was having no breeding success with this bird. I explained I could not take another bird, but my husband could. I thought Jim might wish to add this tiercel to his falconry permit, as master falconers were allowed three birds at a time on their license. Vic proceeded in barroom-bawdy language to tell me what had precipitated him to “loan” the falcon to the northeastern breeder.

Vic had been wearing a special hat that falcon breeders use to collect sperm from the male falcon in order to artificially inseminate a female. In this procedure, the imprinted falcon usually accepts the breeder as its mate and will light upon the hat to copulate with it while it is on the breeder’s head. The semen filters through many holes of the outer covering and is then collected in the upturned brim. Vic’s feisty male bird would have nothing to do with the hat. Worse yet, he seemed more bent on attacking than on lovemaking, and the portion of Vic’s anatomy to which he had affixed his talons involved Vic’s rear. The incident was the reason Vic had given up working with the tiercel. His description made me wince as I listened.

So this is why we found ourselves driving to the rural countryside of upstate New York on a mission to collect a peregrine with a horrid reputation for intractableness. Ed, who had the bird at the time, was both a respected breeder and a knowledgeable falconer with whom we had long been acquainted. Upon our arrival he greeted us warmly and showed us around his breeding facility before he went into the mew to catch the peregrine. The bird fought Ed like a tiger. Angry shrieking from the agitated tiercel made us wonder what was in store for us when we reached home. Exiting the mew, Ed relayed some of the details he knew about Jim’s new bird.

The falcon was a Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Facility imprint of Peale’s peregrine extraction (Peale’s are a strain of peregrines native to the Pacific Northwest and noted for their large size) intended to be part of a peregrine breeding project, but no breeder had achieved success with it. Imprinting is the preferred method of producing birds planned for breeding programs and also for producing docile and calm falcons for falconry. However, imprinting that has gone wrong in any aspect can create a terrifyingly aggressive creature that cannot be easily handled. Knowing the reputation of the Santa Cruz program, it was a given the bird would have been raised correctly. What had happened in the meantime to create a peregrine with such a personality disorder?

Physically, this fellow had a malformed stub of a talon, which was evidence of a past injury. Was this a clue to what had caused him to have such negative reactions about being handled? An imprinted bird loaded with Peale’s genes would normally be an asset to peregrine propagation. Because this fellow’s habit was to attack the breeder instead of landing on the special hat to copulate, he had “flunked out” of the breeding program. Nonbreeding, imprinted peregrines from breeding operations are commonly returned to falconry, so what Jim planned to do with the tiercel was a very good solution.

Our worries about what faced us when we reached home came to nothing. The fellow had calmed down during the trip. We learned, however, not to expect consistency. This classically beautiful falcon was vociferous and volatile one minute, nonchalantly relaxed the next. He reminded me of the boys I had known as schoolmates when growing up in the South: easy-going outdoorsmen and hunters, but quick to act if something riled their sensitivities. I remarked he was a “bubba.” The word fitted him to a T. If peregrines drove pickups, this bird would have had a red one with lights on top, an air horn, and chrome running boards. Ever after, he was known to us as “Bubba.”

Jim soon found he had a uniquely talented peregrine. Bubba seemed to enjoy being at the forefront whenever we did falconry demonstrations, conservation programs, or school presentations. He was the consummate showman. Never mind that he shrieked bloody murder when Jim would hood him to take him home. On stage he was the quintessential peregrine falcon to thousands of adoring fans. Whether it was an Audubon program or part of Discover Wild New Hampshire Day, Bubba would carry on his own personal brand of entertainment. With his rolling, bowlegged swagger, he would get as close to the audience as his leash allowed. The crowd would settle down to sit cross-legged and stare back. They were mesmerized. This short-circuited, temperamental falcon would settle himself on his tummy in the grass and commune like a guru with his horde of followers.

Eventually Bubba decided Jim was his person, although Jim’s job had become one requiring frequent travel. Consequently much of the bird care fell to me. Despite this, to Bubba’s way of thinking, I was relegated to “invader” status while Jim was adored. When Jim was around, Bubba would race to his mew window to call entreaties to my husband. Jim could enter the mew, and Bubba would quietly allow himself to be jessed and leashed. As soon as Jim stepped with him out of the mew, however, a rodeo would ensue. After the hissy fit, Bubba would become a gentleman once again. He and I came to terms once he decided that whenever I came to his mew, it was to take him along on a school trip. Bubba liked to settle as close to the youngsters as possible and watch them as avidly as they watched him.

Because he was imprinted on humans, he responded to me as though I were another falcon. Peregrines bow when another peregrine flies onto their ledge. Whether it is a greeting, an assertion of the peregrine’s territory, or has some other meaning in peregrine speak, I do not know. As I faced him Bubba would bow to me with dignity. His behavior both educated and delighted the children.

Bubba became an important and very vocal member of our family. Greeting Jim with calls whenever my husband stepped out of the house was only one part of his repertoire. The old tiercel surveyed everyone who entered our driveway. It was as though he felt it his duty to keep watch and notify us of dangers. He seemed to hate the men who came to mow our fields and lawns in particular. As soon as Bubba spied their telltale orange T-shirts, he would begin screaming the peregrine war cry. Because he enjoyed watching humans, we frequently kept him perched and tethered in our front hallway. Both of our grandchildren learned to check if Bubba was perched there before they proceeded on the way upstairs.

We had lived with him for eight years when one autumn Bubba began having a hard time flying up to get his meal on his shelf. It was a sign the falcon was aging. We knew Bubba would not last the winter. Falcons and hawks do not decline into old age, but when they exhibit certain indications, we know their lives are close to ending. Nursing and special care are to no avail. The life force of raptors is a fierce, bright flame extinguishing itself into nothingness like magic. We have learned to accept this as stoically as the birds.

Soon after we noticed Bubba’s decline, Jim had to leave on a weeklong business trip. Before he left, he took a moment to call me at work. Jim liked to look in on each of our birds before leaving for a trip. “I checked the birds,” he said, “and Bubba is on the floor of his mew. His wings twitched when I spoke to him, but he could not rise. I think he will surely be gone by the time you get home.” There was a tinge of sadness in his voice. He knew his old friend was not going to be there to greet him when he returned.

I hate discovering one of our birds has died, even when it is expected. Jim had found his falcon in the death throes. Knowing the old raptor would die within moments, it was kindest to leave him where he felt safest. When I got home after work, I immediately went to check on Bubba. I found his body nestled on the floor.

There is a sentiment among falconers that prevents the public show of emotion over a raptor death. A display of grief would be contrary to the very nature of nature, and I think most falconers share that belief. We are sad when a friend such as Bubba passes on, but raptors live and die like they fly—they are here and then they are gone in a flash. When death comes suddenly and unexpectedly, we hurt, sometimes badly. Our feelings are raw, but falconers most often keep it private. We face the world with the declaration that, whether a falconry bird or a bird here for rehab, each has left us with the gift of increased experience and indelible memories.