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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 32. Jazz

One year, after the club had closed for the winter, Jim and I brought a fellow falconer to Timberdoodle on an abnormally warm December afternoon to hunt game birds. There had been pheasants everywhere, making the day a perfect conclusion to what was nearing the end of the upland bird season. Clouds were gathering and I suspected a winter storm was brewing, so I was anxious to get Jazz, my big female Harris’s hawk, into the air.

After I launched her off my glove, she kept pace with us, moving from tree to tree, as our friend, Jim, and I walked towards a pond where I knew pheasants often gathered. Just as we came to a bend in the lane, two pheasants flushed from high in a tree at the road’s edge where they were roosted. At the same time, on the opposite side of the road, Jazz launched from a tree limb on a level with the pheasants. One pheasant was on a collision course with my hawk. The two birds met nearly head to head. My pulse was hammering with anticipation of what would surely end as a quick take of the game bird or an exciting chase.

Instead, Jazz turned off, refusing to meet her prey. I was dumbfounded, Jim was disappointed, and our friend was philosophical. “Sometimes it happens like that. There was a reason she turned away. We just don’t know what it is,” he said in answer to Jim’s snort of disgust. I called Jazz down as we prepared to leave. My puzzlement was total. Jazz was usually righteous about catching prey. Why had she pulled out of what would surely have been a take?

I acquired Jazz because I wanted a larger hawk to fly on pheasants. Injun was not sizable enough to hold his own with those big game birds, although he loved catching them and had developed some clever ways to do so. About ten days after Jazz had arrived, Injun lay dead in his mew at eleven years of age. I was devastated over losing him. It was not until the next year’s hunting season that I would hunt with Jazz.

The first time I flushed prey for her at Timberdoodle, a game bird rose straight into the air about fifty feet. Jazz took flight to hit it at the apex of its rise, at which time the two birds veered apart. Jazz went one direction while the hen pheasant went the other direction, fleeing from my hawk. I had three hunters in the field standing alongside me watching. They were amazed, despite the escape of the pheasant, at the display of flying prowess from my young bird. I turned to them with a slight smile, knowing that bitter disappointment was felt by Jazz. “She won’t let that happen again,” I told them. “I will bet you she is very unhappy the game bird got away.” What I said proved to be true. Jazz became a wonderful hunting hawk. She anticipated the escape strategies of her prey and matched them with her powerful flights. She was one of the most successful hunters it has been my privilege to work alongside.

Taking game is undeniably a high point to share with your bird. Some falconers keep a head count of the number of game birds taken by their birds. I am not a head count person. The moments when my bird is in pursuit provide pure, heart-thumping excitement. If my bird is successful, it indicates I have done my part in helping to find game, in conditioning, and in maintaining my raptor properly. My best days are when the bird and I have had a great day hunting and go home together safe and sound no matter the head count, although, I have to admit, when Jazz took three head of game in three separate flights one day, it was a very proud day for me.

I was full of anticipation when we began Jazz’s fifth hunting season. My bird had been improving every year, but something had changed. She was her old self when I put her on quail or medium-size quarry, but she would pull out of long, hard-driving pursuits on pheasants. This had been one of her strong suits in previous years. Finally came the day she met that cock pheasant face to face in the air and turned away without even trying to take him. She was different, too, in her manner—more passive and quieter. At the same time, she was feather-perfect, in good flesh, and eating well. Perhaps, I theorized, my bird, now in her fifth year, was changing hormonally. She was my first female Harris’s. I had no experience with brooding hens. I wondered if she would attempt nesting and egg laying in the spring.

One day in early March, I stepped into her mew to find her on the floor and in distress. I picked her up, cradling her in my arms as I ran to the house shouting for Jim. She was dead by the time I got in the door. Examining her more closely, I saw that she had not expelled her feces with enough force to clear her tail and her feathers were smeared with the fresh mutes. Had I done something wrong? I could not get the question out of my brain.

We decided to have her autopsied. I needed to protect the other raptors on our property, if necessary, from whatever killed my bird in her prime. The first thing I did was call Tufts Wildlife Clinic in Massachusetts to find if there were any maladies that could strike down a seemingly healthy bird in such a way. I spoke with a doctor there who went over various diseases and symptoms, none of which fit the situation. He concurred that a necropsy should be done by a local veterinarian. “Be sure to send tissue samples to Northwest ZooPath, though,” he said. “They are the best at analyzing and reporting on raptor tissue.”

I made an appointment with Mike Dutton, the vet who worked with me in raptor rehabilitation. Upon arrival, Mike made short work of preparing for the procedure. My heart lurched at the ripping sound as he plucked breast feathers from Jazz’s body prior to making the incision. I had steeled myself for what was to come, but the sound had been unexpected and it hit me like a blow. I reminded myself the fierce, bright flame that had been Jazz was now gone. The carcass remaining was like a cold candlewick after the glow and the heat have gone out of it.

Once the body was opened, Dr. Dutton probed her organs, explaining which was which. “But this is very odd,” he said. “Look here. The liver seems to be growing all over the place.” What he had found was oddly checkered tissue. It was a growth from the liver with thousands of tendrils going in and out, around organs, filling every possible space within the body cavity. Dutton took photos and sample tissue. It all was sent off to the zoo-pathology laboratory. Within three weeks, we had a report back.

I was stunned at the diagnosis. I was used to learning things that made raptors different from humans. Now as I read the pathology report, I was learning that a disease that had taken a favorite cousin who was like a sister . . . had taken Jazz as well.

Jazz had developed a cancerous tumor on her liver that had filled every nook and every cranny of her body and halted her metabolism. It was like a clock stops when something is jammed in its works. I had done nothing wrong, but this did not make me feel better. Instead, I was depressed. Even by doing everything right, my bird had died. The weight of failure was resting on my shoulders. I mulled over how Jazz had changed, little by little, through the months of the previous fall and winter. Now I understood why Jazz had become quiet and why, as the season ended, she had pulled away from the pursuit of big pheasants she had neither the power nor the breath to catch and kill. There never was a quelling of her hunting drive, but, simply, the physical mechanisms of her body were not able to serve her magnificent instincts.

I called the doctor at Tufts to tell him the results of the lab report. “I did not know raptors could get cancer,” I blurted out.

“Nancy, every living thing can get cancer,” he said. This was the lesson I wished I had never had the opportunity to learn.

Losing Injun and then Jazz left me feeling empty and remorseful. But life here with our birds does not allow us to dwell on the bad. Things go on, and the fact was I had just begun the falconry school. I either had to move forward or give up on the idea of running the school, something in which I had already invested a great many hours and much effort.

I allowed myself the summer to get reorganized and get the school equipped with a new hawk. Working with the falcons was very good therapy. The steady, disciplined regimen of training has a sweetness that heals unhappiness. And when a new, young Harris’s hawk arrived, I threw myself into training with the new bird. The depression faded and life began to hum at a normal pace.