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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 25. Contract Attorneys and Partnerships

The falconry partnership gives me the opportunity to prove myself worthy to my bird, and gives the bird what she exists on Earth for in the first place—hunting and catching game. Each partner derives a benefit from the partnership. The benefit spilling over to me is my bird and I continue, day after day, working together. This means doing many other activities with my bird besides hunting. I may fly my bird to condition her or to build up her stamina and speed. I may fly her to demonstrate falconry to educate an audience. My hawks often are scheduled to take part in classes at our falconry school, where they will be flying to and from students. In between, I must get my birds out and into the hunting field.

By renewing the hunting partnership with my birds, I can continue non-hunting activities with my hawks. If they were not regularly hunted, our raptors would become discouraged. My strong partnership with them would begin to erode. They would depend less upon me to fulfill my role as a disturbance to scare up game. They would begin ranging farther and farther from me when I flew them. They would cease flying to students that they saw only for one class. I do not want this to happen with my birds. Each is to me an individual I prize beyond monetary worth. My plan to keep my birds working with me throughout their lives requires a great deal of time and effort expended in their favorite activity—hunting.

When I became a licensed falconer, I didn’t always know where our life with raptors would lead. Our contact with people curious about falconry grew so much that the best way to manage the demand for information became the establishment of a falconry school. Having a place where non-falconers could learn about hawks and falcons has led to some unexpected and treasured lessons—for me as well as for my students. Because of the school, we have come into possession of a number of Harris’ hawks. I have, consequently, been taught a lot I did not know about these hawks beyond the partnership they share with me. To say I was surprised one day at finding my Harris’s had instituted their own system of contracts with my students is an understatement.

I was explaining to my students about how the partnership with a hawk is developed and maintained. “I never blow the whistle without having food ready for the hawk, or without having the lure garnished with food for the falcon. I may thump upon my glove with my ungloved hand, or give a chirp with my lips. I do this to call my hawk to my hand from his perch or to summon him closer during a hunt. He does not expect to find food waiting for him at the thump on the glove. My bird realizes these signals are different than the whistle to return to me. If the whistle had sounded, I would have had food on the glove. Because the falcon on high is beyond earshot of the whistle, the same is true of the lure. It always carries a tidbit when I swing it.”

This is how I read the body language of the hawk, I told them. “I know my hawk is responsive to me when he lands and turns to face me. If I don’t see that behavior, I know I have a bird who is not responsive. One reason for this might be I have misjudged his flying weight and released him when he was actually overweight. Then, I call him down.” I made it plain to the students that the bird doesn’t return to the glove to collect a reward for good behavior, but comes instead because I am the “safe place” he trusts, and I present an easy opportunity for food. The raptor at flying weight will therefore return to me to collect the tidbit he sees as already being his. His instinct prompts him to do so. When we are in the field, a call to the glove holds little draw for a hawk eager to maintain a high position for watching the action, so I switch to calling him in with the lure. Our strong hunting partnership is what makes it all work. I had never given a thought as to what the hawks expected from my students until that day.

After my preliminary instruction, we started flying the hawk. After one of the gentlemen had had the hawk fly to him several times, he extended his gloved hand and said, “I bet he will come for no food at all.” The male Harris’s flying that day was Scout, and he was swift. My exclamation to the student to drop his hand before my bird landed came too late. Scout paused just a split second, looked down at the glove empty of the tidbit he had been expecting, and in a flash took wing again up to the barn roof.

“You should not have done that,” I admonished. “You broke the contract. I doubt this bird will come back to you.”

My Harris’s hawks know that when we are standing about with a group of students, we are not on a hunt. Prior to this moment, I had not given this much thought. I assumed my hawks would fly to my students because I ensured that my hawks hunted often enough to maintain their partnership with me. I was wrong. The Harris’s hawks already had everything scoped out. When I think I know it all, they show me something new.

When the man made his move and Scout reacted to it, it occurred to me that perhaps my hawks had a second contract that only applied to students. My students were not hunting partners; therefore, the “contract” with them meant that they darn well better have a tidbit ready on the glove whenever they extend an arm. Suddenly I knew what Scout’s reaction would be before he completed the flight to the barn roof. He landed and then, sure enough, turned his back to the offending student. He afterwards returned to the three other students on their turns, but shunned the man who had broken the “gentleman’s agreement.”

I should have expected this. In the wild, Harris’s hawks have a complex social order that requires working in multiple relationships. It is very easy for the falconer with his hawk to practice something routine and never intend for the motion to become imbedded in the raptor’s consciousness. How the raptor reads and responds to our unconscious but repeated physical actions is often a surprise to the falconer. Sometimes the unexpected cue can be nothing more than a sound. When I started out with Injun, I had a tidbit case with a Velcro closure. One evening at a conservation presentation, a young girl at the back of the audience was using a notebook known as a trapper-keeper. Each time the girl opened the notebook, the scratchy sound of Velcro opening was heard. Each time Injun became sharp set, expecting a food opportunity.

Having strangers in the flight area has become a new signal to my hawks here at the school. A new situation has been set up, and they have risen to the occasion. They, in effect, whip out that “contract” about students alwayshaving food on an extended glove. The hunting drive of these keen predators must be satisfied on a regular basis (by me), but obviously Harris’s are able to concoct, with more complexity than I had expected, new partnerships. Clearly, not only do my Harris’s hawks understand terms of agreement as well as or better than a successful attorney, they also write additional contracts to fit new situations that arise.