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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 29. Tabasco

I should have explained to Neave that once one of our birds fell in love with me. It’s not always birds raised as imprints who focus upon a human as a mate. We had heard it was possible for falconry birds originally from the wild to, over a period of years, fix upon a human as their life partner. We learned this to be true from Tabasco, the old red-tail who was first Jim’s apprentice bird and then mine. I had thought on the day a wild red-tailed hawk chased Injun and me into the backyard that Tabasco’s shriek was because he saw the wild hawk as an intruder into his area. Now I think what happened may have been Tabasco defending me as his mate.

Whenever I shared a friendly chat with my next-door neighbor in the yard, Tabasco would vocalize a warning from his mew. The same thing would happen if a strange car pulled into the driveway and I approached it to inquire if the driver was looking for someone. Somehow this protective aspect of Tabasco seemed focused on me, not on Jim, who had shared a stronger relationship as a hunter and falconer with the red-tail.

Tabasco’s courtship evolved into vocalized entreaties for me to join him in his mew. I politely declined, but when it became evident he was trying both to arrange his floor covering into some sort of structure and to attract me into helping him, I assisted by bringing him tree boughs. Sure enough, he was building a nest! I did not have any notion of how to fend off the advances of a red-tail in love, so I told Jim he was the one to go in and out of Tabasco’s mew. Although Jim was forever his falconry hunting partner and companion, throughout the rest of his full and lengthy life, Tabasco professed his attraction to me. Like my granddaughter’s compliment, it is something I will always treasure.

With his big, bone-crushingly powerful toes equipped with talons that looked like mini-scimitars, Tabasco might have been considered the most potentially dangerous of our birds. And yet, he was one of our sweetest birds to handle. He had the wild bird inhibition of not wanting to touch humans. People jump to the conclusion that because raptors are so good at what they do—being birds of prey—they are vicious. But “vicious” connotes being consciously, purposefully dangerous, and premeditation has little to do with raptor behavior.

Are they reactive? Can they inflict harm? The answer is yes, of course. The most dangerous birds are imprinted raptors who regard humans as part of their own species. Birds of prey are not kind to other birds of prey, and their reactions to one another are myriad and complex, none of which has anything to do with viciousness. While Tabasco was most certainly a capable predator, his metabolism was slower than that of a goshawk or Harris’s hawk, and he was much less apt to strike out from nervousness or yarak.

During our first time exhibiting at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s Discover Wild New Hampshire event, we cordoned off the area for our birds with caution tape and two long tables. But however much care is taken with cordoning off an area with tape and tables, toddlers do not see tables as a barrier. Why should they? They can walk right under them. This is something that didn’t occur to us until later.

It had been a busy day, and partway through Jim was speaking with a young woman who seemed consumed with interest in our birds. As Jim responded to her questions, her eyes suddenly widened as she focused on something behind him. Her eyes and her sharp intake of breath caused us to turn to see what had drawn her attention. Overwhelmed by the birds, she had let go the hand of her young child. The toddler, wanting to get closer to the object of herinterest, simply walked under one of the tables and straight to Tabasco. We saw the chilling sight of a tiny child standing on her tiptoes with her angelic face poised inches from the talons of nature’s ablest predator, about to give Tabasco a big hug. Tabasco was also on tiptoe, stretching as high as he possibly could to avoid the grasp of the child. If a bird could wear an expression of worry, one was written on his face as he looked in our direction. It was a moment that could turn one’s blood to ice water. Jim lost not a portion of a second as he lunged for the toddler and swept her up in his arms.

After the incident, Tabasco visibly heaved a sigh and settled back on his perch, relieved from the threat of being grasped by a being so small he wasn’t sure it was human. What amazed Jim and me then, and in all the years since, was that the mother never made any noise other than a small gasp. The sensory overload of seeing our birds had rendered her powerless to emit a warning. Had it not been for the expression on her face, Jim and I would not have turned simultaneously. We learned how fixated visitors to our exhibits can become.

We are grateful Tabasco demonstrated his wild hawk instinct by preparing to flee from danger. We knew that he did not take harassment or unpleasantness lightly. For a while, my husband had the habit of lifting his gloved hand, raising his hawk near his face to ruffle the feathers on the back of Tabasco’s head with his nose. Obviously Tabasco did not share Jim’s enthusiasm for this playful gesture, and the day came when Jim had ruffled his feathers one time too many. Tabasco’s beak went up into Jim’s nostrils to nip the septum of Jim’s nose. Just as the dogs had benefitted from Tabasco’s instruction, so did Jim.

Tabasco died at the age of sixteen, a full life for a male red-tailed hawk. It is not unusual for females to live and hunt well into their twenties, but male raptors, just as male humans, usually have a shorter lifespan than their female counterparts.

Tabasco’s last day was a normal one, with no evidence of ending any differently. Each day when I fed him, we would play a game. He would call to me as I approached. “Hungry, Tabasco?” I’d say. “Look what I have for you today!” Tabasco’s part was to land from his perch with a thump on the floor, then rap at the canvas sheet that hung across the opening until I threw his food in. On his last day, I heard Tabasco land on the other side of the canvas, but no rap followed. Something was wrong. I swept the canvas sheet aside to find Tabasco had tumbled onto his side on the mew floor. For an instant, he struggled to come to me and then he collapsed. I lifted him in my arms and called for Jim in the same moment.

There is something very final when a raptor closes its feathered eyelids over eyes in which the fire has dimmed. Tabasco turned to face me and closed his eyes. He died before Jim could reach us.