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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 28. Cowan’s Falcon “Nursery”

Prior to the relocation of Manchester’s peregrine brood, we had young falcons of our own. Jim was raising Hobie, an imprinted female black gyrfalcon. About the time she outgrew her box, I received a call from a woman from a wildlife center. “Nancy,” she said, “I have a little merlin here, blown from his nest when the tree was demolished in a storm, that needs to be raised. I think you are the most qualified to bring him up. Do you want to do it?” Oh, did Iever!

So, suddenly we were raising two young falcons. Gyrfalcons are the largest of falcons, and merlins are one of the smallest. By the time they got old enough to wear anklets and to sit on perches, we had a big, black four-pounder at one end of the hallway and a teensy mini-peregrine weighing barely five ounces at the other. The size difference illustrates the remarkable variations of the family Falconidae. One baby started out in a big air-conditioner box, while the other arrived in a carton the size of a shoebox.

Until he could be perched, the little merlin, who we named Swifty, lived in a box for sleeping and eating. As often as I could manage, he got regular periods of running around. It became easier to turn him loose in my kitchen because I could shut the doors to keep him corralled. Falcons can never be housebroken. Fortunately the oak floors cleaned up easily from the occasional drop of hawkchalk. I had to open the doors carefully whenever I entered the kitchen with Swifty on the loose. He was so tiny I was afraid I might accidentally step on him or knock him over with the door. Usually I had to look for him in hidden spots under the deacon’s bench or in the corner by the dishwasher. He was the intrepid conqueror of the wilds of the kitchen!

Swifty’s developing feathers were beginning to poke through his white fluff. As the feathers grew, the fluff began to shed. One day I found the youngster sopping wet. He had not yet fledged, so I was at a loss as to how he had made up to the sink. When I rounded the stove, the mystery became clear. The dogs’ water dish was not quite as full as it had been, and the floor around it was covered with splashes. To Swifty, the water dish made a superb bathtub.

Before an eyass arrives at our home, a search goes on throughout the house and attic to find a suitable box. When Jim got his first gyrfalcon, the best box for the purpose (because it was the largest we had) was a vacuum cleaner box. Typical of the personality of gyr imprints, the youngster was sociable and curious. Once his legs got strong enough for him to stand and to run around, he became dissatisfied at being returned to his box at the end of his play periods or when it was nighttime. He hopped and tried to get leverage on the top of the box wall with his beak. The thuds of his landings and the scratching of his talons as he attempted his escape went on for quite a while.

In the meantime, Jim was seeking the perfect name for this bird with whom he had become totally enamored. Just when I had gotten used to calling the gyrkin (the proper term for a male gyr) one name, Jim started calling him another. I was getting tired of the scratching, and the thumping, and the name changing. “If you don’t hurry up and get the bird out of that vacuum cleaner box,” I threatened, “I am going to start calling him ‘Hoover’!” And that’s how Hoover got his name.

Once they’re old enough to jump up and down, we perch young birds in the long center hallway of our house. There are doors to the outside at each end, which we open during the summer months to let in light and air. The view of the outdoors and the activity around our home are of great interest to the youngsters perched just inside the screen doors. Prior to graduating to perches, eyasses live in their boxes. Jim’s habit is to keep the box right by his bedside, where he can reach down and touch the youngster or speak to it as soon as he awakes in the morning. Jim’s female black gyrfalcon, Hobie, started life in a big box by our bed. Jim was in no rush to move his young falcon out of the box because he loved waking with the bird right beside him. Often he would scoop the youngster up for some side-by-side snoozing. More than once I found Hobie cuddled on the pillow next to his face, both of them dozing away.

Unlike Hoover, Jim picked Hobie’s name with relative swiftness. She had been raised by a breeder in South Dakota. Jan, the falcon breeder’s wife, was in charge of hand-raising the imprinted baby falcons from the time they hatched until they were shipped to their new homes. Jan does this process on her dining room table (this reassured me that Jim and I were not the singularly oddest couple in the United States). She also made it her business to know every detail of the trip, including, I think, the names of every person who would be involved in moving the falcon on and off the planes. The fortunate part is airline personnel are acutely conscious of their responsibility, but even so, much can happen on a cross-country flight.

When we were expecting Jim’s new baby gyrfalcon, we got a call from the airline. “Mrs. Cowan, we have your falcon here in Minneapolis. The flight was diverted because of weather and the connection in Cleveland was missed. The bird seems fine and we will get it started on the way tomorrow as soon as possible.” I called Jan to give her the news.

“Minneapolis?! What is she doing in Minneapolis?” Jan erupted.

“I have her name and number, Jan, if you need to contact her,” I tried to assuage her.

“I am calling her right now, Nancy. We will have Jim’s gyr sent back here directly. I am taking no chances with someone arranging a connector who does not understand how this bird must travel.”

A couple of days later, Jan called with the new flight plans. “Jim is already calling this one ‘The Hobo’ because of all her traveling,” I told Jan.

Jan started chuckling. “Several years ago,” she said, “we sent a young falcon out and its flight also got complicated by bad weather. It was an older bird than your eyass, and with those we put a whole dead quail into their carriers instead of the dish of chopped quail we give younger gyrs. Even though the falcons leave here very well fed, the food is an extra bit of insurance. The older youngsters are able to tear the quail up to eat if something delays a flight and they get hungry. We got a call from the airline telling us the bird had been off-loaded from the plane until flights resumed when the weather cleared. I asked the girl who called if the falcon was okay. There was silence, and then the girl said, ‘I have some good news and some bad news.’ ”

I could imagine how such a statement would strike fear into a breeder’s heart.

“I took a deep breath,” Jan resumed, “and said, ‘Yes-s-s-s, what is it?’ The girl replied, ‘Well, the big bird is fine, but I am sorry to tell you the little bird has died!’ ”

The Hobo arrived on schedule the next day and, so far, has stayed in one place. Inevitably Jim changed her name to match his favorite surfboard.

When fall came, Jim moved Hobie upstairs to his home office. Hobie enjoyed sitting on the back of his office chair, peering at the computer screen over his shoulder. When things got slow, she would groom Jim by nibbling tufts of his hair. And when she decided it was dinnertime, she would spread her wings and begin beating them. Big gyrfalcon wings can produce quite a bit of breeze. It’s a bit like being in a wind tunnel. The papers on Jim’s desk would fly about, and it became impossible to ignore her.

Early the next spring our granddaughter, Neave, came to spend a week of school vacation with us. She climbed the stairs one morning to visit her grandfather in his attic office. “Grandpa! What is that bird doing here?” she exclaimed.

Hobie was not used to strangers coming into her quarters. She began to shriek at Neave. Neave, in turn, was not used to one of our birds being so rude to her. The immediate result was she was no fonder of Hobie than Hobie was of her.

“Well, she lives here in my office, Neave,” Jim explained. “She is an imprint falcon and she thinks she is my mate.”

“Grandpa!” The nine-year-old was scandalized. “You already are married! Gramma is your mate.”

“Hobie doesn’t think so,” Jim laughed.

The episode bothered Neave for her entire visit. “Grandpa should tell the bird he is married,” she fretted to me. Just before she went home, she confided to me, “Gramma, you are much better looking than that bird!” This was high praise indeed and something I will always treasure.