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

Part I. OWNED BY A HAWK

Chapter 1. A Different Way of Life

I enter her chamber like a lover, murmuring a silly song celebrating her beauty. She is a white gyrfalcon, the largest of her kind. In all of falconry’s long history, pure white gyrfalcons have been prized. And she is sweet, which means she has no bad manners and is remarkably and uncharacteristically docile. As she first began to see, she has been cared for by human hands and looked up into human faces. Now, imprinted on humans, she sees me as one like herself. Grown to maturity, she views me as a mate. I must fulfill her expectations, must adopt the formalities of bonding with her to greet her in a manner ordained by her instincts. If I can do this, she will remain trusting and calm with me.

Never mind I am human and she is avian; she is imprinted on humans, after all. Never mind I am also female. She loves human females as much as a falcon can or does because a woman cared for her as her infant eyes became sighted. I am wooing this large, sweet, most beautiful falcon so I may become her mate. We can either be happily married or, if I fail abysmally in pleasing her, we can divorce and she will hate me. Her docility will evaporate the nearer I approach. Dealing with her will take on aspects of a battle. Handling an imprinted gyrfalcon who detests me is not something to which I aspire.

It may seem odd that I am avidly pursuing the mysteries of becoming wedded to a big white bird. After all, I have been happily married to my husband for many years. Although he will deny it, these cold, wintry hours I spend courting a gyrfalcon are his fault. She was his gift to me, just as is the life I lead now.

I fell in love when I was seventeen. He was handsome, a dashing Citadel cadet, like no one I had met before, and he drove my folks nuts. As if those admirable qualities were not enough, he spoke my language: animals. Back then, my life was filled with horses. A giveaway horse no one wanted had been offered to me years before. My mare became one of the best jumpers in the county and was joined in our barn by a second horse, an open jumper. At seventeen, I was a riding instructor earning the money for my horse expenses. Then I met the cadet who had grown up in New England and spent most of his free time in the forest before coming south to school. Jim was as animal-crazy as I was horse-crazy. He had raised raccoons and flying squirrels, and a hurt pigeon he hid from his parents in an antique rolltop desk. When he took me north to meet his family, his mom told me about the day she discovered the pigeon. We still have the desk, with pigeon peck marks inside the drawer where he kept the corn.

Soon after we met, Jim became a falconer. His adventures with training and keeping animals fascinated me. But keeping various species of wildlife was not allowed at a military college, which is why my parents ended up with a hawk in the garage. In short, Jim and I were meant for each other. To this day, over fifty years later, we marvel at our good fortune in finding one another. Had we married other people, we joke, we would have driven them insane.

My marriage to a man with an overwhelming love of nature and animals has led to a life on the wild side. Jim was nearing forty when he announced, “I want to get back into falconry.” At the time, he seemed to me to be perilously close to doddering old age. “You better hurry up,” I told him. “You haven’t got much time.

After my husband’s announcement, he soon discovered that we lived in a state where falconry was not included among the hunting laws. Until placed under regulation by the state, falconry could not be legal here. As a result, Jim initiated the bill leading New Hampshire to become the forty-sixth state in the United States to accept falconry. It was for Jim the resumption of a sport he had practiced years before.

When Jim said he wanted to get back into falconry, I supported him enthusiastically. As one of his Christmas presents, I promised to help him lobby for his falconry bill. By the time it became a law, I was calling my Christmas offer “the gift that keeps on giving.” In other words, it took years to get his bill passed. It soon became clear I would need to learn more about falconry so I could effectively speak to politicians at hearings. Along the way I began to understand the new lifestyle my husband was embracing.

We sought acceptance of falconry by notifying the Audubon Society of New Hampshire (ASNH) about Jim’s proposed legislation. Before long we were invited to a meeting with forty of its members and staff. Each of the forty was dedicated to his or her own vision of wild bird protection. Some at the table had misgivings about anyone they considered less knowledgeable than themselves becoming involved with the raptors in the state. Others were not in favor of hunting in any form. Jim calmly answered their questions. By the time the discussion ended, the air had warmed somewhat. While we had not won over everyone in the room, the ASNH told Jim they would not oppose our bill.

The next big hurdle would be dealing with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Later when I thought back, facing the tension-filled Audubon meeting room was a cakewalk compared to my initial experience with the state agency.

I made an appointment with the acting director of the Fish and Game Department and the head of the game division to meet at their headquarters in Concord. My heart was set on making a good impression. Little did I know what I was in for. The “meeting” quickly devolved to something resembling an interrogation, but I strove to maintain the equilibrium and poise Jim had shown at Audubon. Things did not go well. The director and head of the game division derided falconry as an elitist activity. Finally they let me know the interview was over and dismissed me. Trembling from suppressed emotion, I walked to my car and promptly burst into tears, certain I had lost the cause of falconry in New Hampshire permanently. How could I face Jim with the news?

Jim took the news with perfect equanimity. He had a better understanding of the stonewalling techniques of government departments, so he set to work procuring all the information he could on falconry and how it was licensed in other states. In this, he had an ally in the North American Falconers Association (NAFA), of which he was a member. My role became one of relaying messages to and from Colonel Kent Carnie, NAFA’s liaison for falconry legalization. Falconry-friendly state governments, environmental organizations supporting falconry, and regional falconry clubs were notified of our cause. Very soon manila envelopes full of documentation, laws and regulations from other states, conservationists’ testimonials to the value of falconry, and reams of encyclopedic data began to arrive in our mailbox.

On the home front, our two state representatives were working for us. Betsy McKinney, the first rep to sign on in support of Jim’s proposed legislation, made sure she and I attended every function where she could put our legislation before other legislators. Handshakes, greetings, quick “sound bites” about falconry became my stock in trade through her tutelage. My confidence in dealing with bureaucrats began to recover. Our other representative-sponsor, Bill Boucher, who was older and wiser, was incensed about what had happened to me at the Fish and Game Department meeting. He aggressively worked the halls of the Legislative Office Building on our behalf.

After we were assigned a date for the hearing before the House Fish and Game Committee, we decided the best proposal to bring was a duplication of the Massachusetts falconry regulations. It was a forty-page document spelling out every possible activity involved with falconry. What could go wrong with such a game plan? Our state could simply follow the statutes and rules already adopted by our neighbor state.

As we filed into the hearing room, Jim put his name, as did Betsy and Bill, on the list of those who wished to speak. The state representatives of the committee were seated around conference tables arranged in a U-shape. At the podium, Betsy made a point of saying New Hampshire was so much a sportsmen’s state, she had been shocked to find that an established form of hunting—falconry—was not a legal activity. The falconry bill was meant to remedy this abysmal oversight. Jim made his statement, and then it was time to hear from the opposition. Howie Nowell, the game division chief and one of the men who had confronted me in the meeting at Fish and Game headquarters, came forward to speak. “This is what they are bringing us!” Howie exclaimed, waving our forty-page bill aloft. “You have to have a dictionary to read it! Why, do you know that it allows for imping in this state?!”

The members of the Fish and Game Committee shifted uncomfortably in their chairs as they shared looks with one another. Imping?! Here?? their faces said with revulsion, as if some kind of unspeakable deviance was involved. It didn’t matter that none of them understood that “imping” is the falconry term for repairing broken feathers.

The falconry bill was voted “inexpedient to legislate.” Jim and I were downcast. Betsy and Bill, however, were breezily unaffected. “Bring it back next year,” Bill said.

“Nothing ever gets passed on the first go-round,” Betsy consoled. “There is too much inertia to overcome in state government the first time a bill is heard. Bring it back next year. We will help.”

So we began the process again with more documents arriving in the mail, more meet-and-greets with representatives. After the first run at legislation, falconry began to have a presence throughout the halls of the state capitol building. When I attended legislative social events with Betsy, I found most of the representatives knew about our failed attempt and their curiosity was piqued. To get answers for the questions I was asked sometimes required leaving messages at a general store in the Arizona desert where Colonel Carnie and his friend Tom had gone to hunt with their falcons. Often it was Tom who called back to patiently supply me with the answers. Eventually I learned the falconer named Tom was Tom Cade, the founder of the Peregrine Fund.

The word of Jim’s falconry bill spread throughout falconry circles in other states. We were invited to tour mews (raptor living quarters) in Massachusetts so Jim could plan his own. There he met a master falconer who worked nights at a factory so he could fly falcons during the day. The master invited Jim down to go out with him flying his falcon. This man agreed to serve as Jim’s sponsor when the day came he could be licensed. On one of the trips to visit Jim’s sponsor, who was also a breeder of falcons, I went along. As Jim and the master falconer talked, I watched in fascination as a pair of mated prairie falcons exchanged nest-sitting duties within the breeding quarters situated in the man’s backyard.

The Maine falconers extended invitations for us to join them when they flew their birds. We were quick to take up these friendly overtures, and so one day found ourselves in Maine watching a young woman fly her newly trained goshawk on pheasant. After retrieving her hawk, the falconer, still in her teens, told us how she had spent many hours with her young gos, nearly all day of every day, as she raised it from a downy nestling to be a calm and steady hunting partner.

Following the pheasant hunt, we drove in a convoy to the Saco Marsh, a low-lying area near the coast of Maine. The plan was to fly falcons there. Those of us who came to watch, learn, or just follow along were instructed to fan out and run across the marsh in order to flush birds into the air. The last instruction was a warning: “The falcons are just getting back into the air after being laid up for the summer molt. They might not fly high, and they might be tempted to stoop on whichever of you is standing the tallest.”

What did that mean? Stooping on whoever is tallest? I was one of the shortest people there, but I did not want to be left “standing tall” when the others were bent to avoid a head-on collision with a large, sharp-taloned raptor! Jim and I found ourselves running and leaping over water-filled ditches, all the while bent over at the waist. It was hard work and I was soon out of breath. Bent at the waist, hands on my knees, I raised my head and looked around.

Saco Marsh is shaped like a large, round bowl. Beyond the marsh edge, a highway circled the perimeter. Cars were pulling over onto the shoulder of the road, and people were getting out and watching. Some had binoculars trained on us. I wondered if they had any idea what on earth these bent-over people were doing out in the middle of the marsh. Then a police car pulled over and the officer trained his binoculars on us. Despite my consternation at looking like an idiot, we did not get arrested.

At the end of the day we were dead-tired, but we had made many friends who loyally showed up at our next hearing to support our bill and again at our house to help work out the regulations. Jim and I talked all the way home about how exciting it was to watch the goshawk in pursuit of game and to have falcons flying overhead. Despite whatever we had looked like as we ran hither and yon shouting “Ho! Hawk!” it had been a very good day.

When it came closer to time to file again, we knew our initial bill needed some adjusting. Jim contacted the Fish and Game Department this time, and found things had changed there. The acting director who had persecuted me during my meeting the year before had retired. There was a new director named Alan Crabtree, who spoke to Jim. He genially invited Jim to meet him at headquarters to talk over our move to bring falconry to the state. Jim and I went to see him.

We discovered that New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Department had been stuck in the past for a long time. The department was composed of two divisions: fish and game. And that was it. There was nothing in the department that served the environment or threatened or endangered species. Luckily for us, Alan wanted New Hampshire Fish and Game to provide for all wildlife, not just creatures that could be hunted, trapped, or caught on fishhooks.

Alan asked us a few questions and gave thoughtful answers to what we asked him. He studied us throughout the interview and no doubt saw a fairly average couple who would be persistent about their reasonable request to have New Hampshire adopt falconry as a legal means of hunting. While he made us no promises, he told us he would be back in touch very soon.

In our next conversation with Alan, he propositioned us. “Would you consider,” he asked, “changing your falconry bill to read that the funds from licensing would be held in an account used to provide conservation measures for the state’s raptors? You will have one hundred percent backing from Fish and Game, and your falconry bill will be New Hampshire’s first non-game beneficial legislation.” Jim quickly agreed with Alan’s plan, and when he told the North American Falconers Association about the new and improved falconry proposal, it easily won the endorsement and approval from that quarter as well.

In the meantime, the Fish and Game Department told Jim he could go ahead with his falconry career by obtaining a license in another state and that he could keep a hawk in New Hampshire as long as he did not hunt with it here until his bill had become law. Jim’s sponsor was the Massachusetts falconer, and he took his test in Maine to obtain a falconry license from that state. Maine sent the paperwork off to the federal office for cosigning and sending back to Jim. He waited patiently for his federal falconry permit to come back from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) permits office, and waited, and waited.

Whether it was a bureaucratic snafu or unintentional ineptitude, the office said it “lost” his paperwork three times. This left Jim a licensed, but birdless, falconer. By the time he finally received the license, trapping season for falconry raptors had ended in Maine. Jim contacted Tom Early, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife falconry coordinator, to learn if he could trap a hawk in that state. Instead, Tom arranged for Jim to pick up a young red-tailed hawk that was due to be released back to the wild from Tufts Wildlife Clinic.

When we went to Tufts to pick one out of three juvenile red-tails, Jim had to make a decision. Two of the birds were in rehab at the clinic due to injuries in which each had lost an eye. The third young red-tail had been picked up in a backyard when it landed on a squirrel shot by the homeowner. This young bird had been too debilitated from an internal parasitic infestation to fly away, but now it was strong and healthy again. “I don’t think that bird will make a good falconry bird,” Tom told Jim. “It is a very high-strung bird and will take a lot of work to calm down.” While we were still working to get Jim’s bill passed, we knew it would be unwise to bring a one-eyed red-tailed hawk back to New Hampshire, as Howie Nowell, the game division chief, had made it clear he felt any raptor so damaged should be euthanized. Thus, Jim chose the two-eyed, high-strung red-tail to bring home from the Tufts Wildlife Clinic flight cage.

Jim brought his young red-tail home, promptly naming it Tabasco, and then something incredible happened. I was standing on the deck of our split-level house watching Jim as he entered Tabasco’s mew, emerging with his hawk on his glove. Understanding the intricacies of falconry equipment is something apprentices must master, and Jim hadn’t handled a raptor in a long time. As he left the mew, he had the leash wrapped loosely about his glove. Falconry leashes have two very different ends. One end is just that—the end of the leather strap. The opposite end has a leather button, which is usually the leash folded back and forth and then passed through a slit in itself, so this bulky “button” is a block to passing through the circlet of the swivel joining the leash to the jesses. Grab the wrong end of the leash, and the non-button end smoothly plays out through the swivel. Suddenly, the bird is no longer attached to the falconer.

That is what happened to Jim. With horror, I watched as Tabasco flapped his wings and took off to where my sled dogs were quartered. It landed on a doghouse, where it found itself nearly nose to nose with my smallest husky. None of us moved or breathed, not even the husky. The hawk suddenly realizing it was in a very precarious position, took off and landed on a pine bough directly above Jim’s head. Jim reached up, took up the bird’s jesses, and Tabasco jumped to his glove. My heart resumed beating in my chest. Since the hawk had been with us only a day or two and was not trained or used to Jim, neither of us could quite believe what had just occurred, but you can bet my husband never allowed something like that to happen again. Not ever.

The falconry bill passed the house and senate overwhelmingly. A month or so later, the governor finally signed our falconry bill into falconry law after three very intense years of lobbying and legislating.