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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 31. Emma’s Great Adventure

At one point, I thought it would be a good thing to acquire another lanner falcon for the school. Lanners are from the Mediterranean region and Africa. When I tell people these birds are depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics and were the models for those striking falcon headdresses worn by the priests, they turn to study my lanners more intently. Once I had lanners, I learned that they often sit perched and at rest with their wings down at their sides, just like the headdresses. In North America, lanners are in constant demand for their characteristically low, compact flights. This makes them desirable for flight exhibitions and for the commercial falconry businesses, known as bird abatement, that use lanners to scare away nuisance birds from airports and farms.

I found a breeder out west who told me he had back orders for the next year or so. “But,” he said, “I do have an older female from my breeding stock, which I will sell to you. She is an imprint that has stopped laying, but she should have a few years left for some flying and for use at your school. She is a very sweet bird.” The cost was cheaper than getting a young bird, and I could get her right away. I took him up on his offer, sent off my payment, and waited for my new-old lanner to arrive by airline.

I expected a repeat of Mrs. Chicken, but unlike our sweet first lanner, the female from the west was more like a tiger. Make that a saber-toothed tiger. There was no denying she was beautiful, and as a bird for falconry education, she was a good fit—as soon as I could make friends with her, that is.

With the new lanner, I wanted more than just an exotic bird to exhibit. I wanted to fly her and to have her handled by students in my classes. From the onset, it was clear I had my work cut out for me. She had been handled only by her breeder, a man, and she had imprinted on him. So, as far as she was concerned, he was her mate and I was an unwanted intruder. I did not even get to choose her name. Jim told me because I had named Mosby, I owed him one. He chose “Emma Peel,” a character from the 1960s television series The Avengers.

When I had her coming from the perch to the lure and then to the glove, I figured I was making progress, despite her suspicious glares throughout the procedure. Emma was larger than Mrs. Chicken, which made it difficult to judge her correct weight for flying. The day came when I decided to test her using a creance line. She came directly on the call twice. With a deep breath, I took the plunge and released her from the creance. I placed her on one of the upright granite posts at the perimeter of the yard, stepped away a few paces, turned, and whistled her in. Then all hell broke loose.

Instead of a sedate Mrs. Chicken, I had something zooming about me in small circles, attempting to break the sound barrier. Emma Peel widened her circle to careen around the house and then back over me. She barely glanced down as I whistled and swung the lure. Then she took herself off into the sky. I ran to the house to load the lure with a whole quail that I had defrosting on the kitchen counter.

I walked the perimeters of the front and back yards, whistling and swinging the quail-laden lure. As I completed my first circle, the knot with which I had hastily tied the quail to the lure let loose and the quail sailed through the air to land in a large patch of thickly growing ferns. Drat! I searched the fern patch but could not find the quail. Well, no matter, I told myself. Just as I stepped out of the fern patch, Mrs. Peel flew down into it to retrieve the quail. She had, unbeknownst to me, been sitting on a tree limb all the while, and her keen eyesight had seen exactly where the quail had landed. In a flash she grabbed it and was off again, carrying her prize. Double drat!

This was the last I saw of Emma Peel until two mornings later when she took off out of the oak tree by the back door as I exited the house to get the morning paper. Jim and I wondered how long she would last in the great outdoors. Emma had lived her entire twelve years in a small chamber looking out at a patch of blue sky. She had grabbed her opportunity for high adventure, and we were worried an out-of-condition, “un-wild” falcon could not last long without falling victim to an owl, hawk, or some other predator. I continued to search, whistle, and swing lures, but there was no response from the empty sky.

On the fourth day that Emma went missing, we were scheduled to give a class for the Fish and Game Department’s “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” program at Squam Lakes. I guessed that Emma might come back to our house or some other human habitation after the quail was out of her system. I left word with the police dispatcher that our tame falcon was on the loose and might seek out humans for food. I requested the police call my home number to leave a message if someone saw the falcon.

While we packed the car and loaded our birds, I kept listening for the phone to ring. Once on the road, I used my cell phone to call home to check for messages. Nothing. Just before we left the cabin to go eat supper in the dining hall, I checked again. Nothing. After supper, with the sun sinking over Squam Lake, we returned to our cabin and I checked once more.

“Mrs. Cowan,” the voice on my machine said, “please call the Hillsboro PD. I believe we have your bird here.”

My heart lurched. Was she alive? Was she dead? Was she injured? I couldn’t dial the number fast enough. The dispatcher relayed my call to the officer who had left the message.

“I think we have your bird here. We got a call from the mobile home park down by the river when it flew into a lady’s yard yesterday. When it was still there today, the lady called us again. She knew the bird belonged to someone because it was so tame, and it had straps on its legs. After she called, the lady went outside and scooped the bird into a cat carrier. We went over and picked it up. We have it here in the carrier and it seems fine. Is this your bird?”

I explained we could not get to Hillsboro before two in the afternoon of the next day. The policewoman was concerned about leaving the bird in the carrier, but I said it was the safest place for the falcon until we could redeem her at the station.

Her next concern was whether the falcon needed food or water. “No, don’t give her anything,” I told her. “Be sure everyone knows not to feed her anything. You can kill her if you feed her something she should not have. Just keep her in a quiet spot until we can get there tomorrow.”

I was elated Emma Peel was in captivity again, but I couldn’t put my anxiety for her well-being to rest. As soon as we finished teaching our class the next morning, we were on the road again, and just before two o’clock we entered the Hillsboro PD parking lot. Two police officers escorted us to where they were keeping the falcon. I suspected the second officer was along out of curiosity. It was obvious that having Emma Peel in “lockup” had caused quite a stir in the department.

“We are keeping the bird in the bay,” one of the officers said. They led us to the garage where the fire engines and rescue vehicles were normally kept. When one of the officers pushed a button to open the door, we saw nothing but a small animal carrier in the cavernous emergency vehicle bay. The tiny box looked impossibly incongruous sitting all alone on the floor of the garage.

I had pulled my falconry glove from our car as I got out. In it I held a whole dead quail I had taken from the cooler in the car. If I was correct, Mrs. Peel had not eaten in quite a while, and I figured she would be ravenous. “Well, are you hungry, Mrs. Peel?” I said as we stepped into the huge bay. As soon as I said this, the cat carrier began to rock wildly back and forth and make little hops off the ground.

The police officers were wide-eyed at the phenomenon. “I think the bird is glad to see you,” one of them said.

I knelt by the carrier, opened the door a crack, and stuck the quail into the opening. Immediately, two sets of talons clamped down on it. I withdrew my glove with Emma riding upon it and attached my leash to her jesses with my free hand. As Emma tore into the quail carcass, I raised her up so the officers could get a clear view of “the perpetrator” they had been keeping in custody. I was thrilled she seemed no worse for wear from her sojourn. But what was that smell? The stench that hit our nostrils caused Jim and me to gag.

“Good Lord,” I finally managed to say. “What is that awful smell?” It was like the worst cat odor imaginable combined with an undetermined pungency. The officers looked chagrined.

“We told him you said not to,” one of them said sheepishly.

“Yeah, we told him he shouldn’t do it,” the other volunteered. I looked at the pair in puzzlement. I was beginning to see the reasoning behind putting the carrier in an empty garage. Likely, the rescue vehicles had been removed to protect them from absorbing the odor.

“Not do what?” Jim inquired, averting his nose.

“It was the chief,” one of the policemen explained. “He was afraid the bird was hungry, so he tried to feed it his tuna fish sandwich.”

“Oh, my God, no!” Jim said. “If she had eaten it, it could have killed her!” The confession caused us both to examine Mrs. Peel more closely. The evidence was there. She was smeared with a mix of greasy dried mayonnaise and flecks of tuna fish. The officers were now red-faced with embarrassment.

“Well, I don’t think she ate any of it, which is a good thing, so we probably don’t have to worry,” I reassured them. “But, for future reference, tell the chief that feeding a falcon something it should not have, like cooked or greasy food, is a good way to kill it”

We thanked the pair profusely and started for home, but not before opening the car windows first. I hooded Mrs. Peel, who by now had a crop full of quail and was resting happily on my glove. The other birds, still in the car from the trip to Squam Lake, and Emma herself were not bothered by the vile odor because they have practically no sense of smell. When we got home, the first order of business was a bath for Emma Peel before she was put away in her mew.

The lasting result of Emma’s adventure was that she transferred all her imprinting love to Jim and me. She settled in and became a wonderful bird for us and for our students to handle. Later, when I chanced to speak to the breeder, I told him all about Emma’s great adventure. He was pleased she had taken a sabbatical to fly about for a bit after having produced twenty-five chicks for him. And I was glad Emma Peel and I had reached a level where we took pleasure in one another’s company.