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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 33. Lightning in a Bottle

Besides utilizing the summer to work with falcons, summer is the period when we most often end up rehabbing young raptors from the wild, such as the merlin, Swifty. Although we mainly rehab falcons, on one occasion we were called upon to rehabilitate an eyass goshawk. Here was new territory for me. Jim had raised and trained goshawks, but I had not. When it was proposed to us, I jumped at the opportunity.

His name was 3-D, named, like N-Z had been, from the identification markings on his leg band. His nest had been monitored by Department of the Interior personnel involved in a research project mapping habitats, which included the banding of young goshawks. Mariko Yamasaki, the wildlife biologist in charge of the survey, was concerned this tiercel eyass was so small that his three sisters would likely outcompete him for food. As she had suspected, a few days after 3-D was banded, he was pushed from the nest to the ground below either by his parents or by his squabbling siblings. An intern from the project retrieved him, and he was brought to us.

Some years prior, a Maine falconer named Eric Wilcox had corrected my stance when I called Injun to my glove. “Like this,” he said, turning me around so my back was to my bird. “Then raise your glove.” Eric explained that if I faced the raptor I was calling, I was leaving my face largely unprotected. And if I went on to take up flying goshawks, he warned, a stance in which I faced an oncoming bird left me with no defense should the bird suddenly veer towards my eyes. With goshawks, this is a very real possibility.

Eric did not have to explain the propensity of goshawks to “go for the eyes.” I already knew all about it. Jim had explained years before that if anything seemed different or out-of-sync to a goshawk, it would prompt the bird to grab for the head. Hawks kill by having their talons penetrate the heart or the brain of their prey, and Eric had warned me that many falconers who flew goshawks were marked by the scars on their faces. Eyes, to goshawks, are nature’s bull’s-eye targets.

Goshawks are superlative flyers, surpassed only by the two smaller types of the three accipiters, the Cooper’s hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk. These three accipiters are known as bird-catchers and are the woodland aero-acrobats. Skill and agility combine with hair-trigger reactions to produce the equivalent of flying “live wires.” With their wonderful abilities to catch prey and their mercurial attention spans, these accipiters require more expertise from falconers.

In the world of the goshawk, the equation is simple (it has to be, to match their short-circuited, tiny lump of gray matter): “If something, anything, differs during the flight on game, you must be losing food. If you are losing food, go for the eyes.” Goshawks are never very particular as to which set of eyes they go for. If the human calling them has the nearest set of eyes when they realize food may be missing, the human’s face can become the target.

My first lesson on this topic came with Jim’s female goshawk, Thistle. Jim had been telling me how calm she was and how easy to handle in the mew. One night we were going out to supper to celebrate our anniversary. “Would you feed Thistle for me?” Jim asked me. “I want to take a shower and change before we go out.” Jim always hand-fed Thistle himself.

“You have to tell me exactly what to do,” I said warily. I had a healthy respect for what Jim, Eric, and other falconers had told me about goshawks.

“It’s easy. You hold out the first chick on the glove. She jumps for it, eats, and jumps back to the perch. Do that with each of the three chicks. That’s all there is to it.”

So, my husband went in for his shower and I went off to the goshawk’s mew, like a lamb to slaughter. Thistle barely seemed surprised it was me entering her mew. I fed her one chick, a second chick, and then a third just as Jim had told me. After the third feed on the glove, Thistle jumped back to her perch. She turned to look at me as I pivoted and took a step towards the door. The next thing I felt was a talon curving into the corner of my eye, just about to encircle my eyeball. In a split second, I remember hoping she would not grasp, as she would surely remove my eye. Instead, she struck at my face with her foot and darted back to a corner of the mew.

I flew out the door, slammed it shut behind me, and leaned back against it to gather my wits and catch my breath. I had blood running down my face from the puncture and slash below my eye. My face began to throb as the swelling set in. The fact that I still possessed two eyes and could see out of each made me extremely grateful. However, I was ready to throttle one particular individual. The object of my rage, now freshly showered and attired, burst out of the house and ran to me.

“Oh, no! I will never ask you to feed one of my goshawks again! I am so sorry. Are you all right?” asked the Jim.

What didn’t you tell me?” My words hung in the air with icicles dripping from each.

“Huh?”

“What did you not tell me? What did you not tell me to do that I should have done, because something was different and she did not like it?!!”

“Well, did you do what I told you?”

I explained exactly what I had done, thrice, which was exactly what he had told me to do.

“Oh,” he said. “I forgot.” He paused a moment and then continued, “After I feed her the third chick and before I leave the mew, I reach out and go fluffle-fluffle to Thistle’s breast feathers so she will never be hand-shy.” Concern and chagrin were written on my husband’s face.

I stood in silence for a moment after his disclosure. His afterthought soothed the anger boiling inside me. In fact, I had to smile at the thought of my macho-Marine husband doing anything like a fluffle-fluffle. The humor of the situation saved the day. At dinner Jim explained to the waitress and restaurant owner he had not caused my Technicolor shiner. At least, not directly. From that point forward, I knew to beware for the sake of my eyes whenever handling a goshawk.

3-D was nowhere near the size of Thistle, but once he was past the fluff-ball stage, his ability to inflict damage was at full capacity. His long, curved talons were needle sharp, and the power in his feet made them as dangerous as daggers. When he was fully feathered and ready to begin training so I could get him hunting on his own, Jim and I put anklets on him. During the process, I released a hold on one of his feet to better my grip. This was a costly error. In a flash, my wrist was encircled by talons sunk in to the hilt. I felt the bones inside my wrist bumping against one another as 3-D’s talons pierced from either side and slid between them. Jim had to pry each talon out, as 3-D had no intention of letting go. When I was finally free, my knees went weak, and I sat down. This episode permanently impaired the use of my thumb on my right hand.

Once he was equipped with anklets, my training with 3-D commenced. He was very responsive to the whistle and took to the flying lure very naturally—hardly a surprise given the excellent predators goshawks are. With the first time on game, I made the mistake of trying to fly him as if he thought like a Harris’s hawk. He took a perfect perch in a tree, and I did the perfect flush of a quail, which flew right under his perch. 3-D was by then looking in the other direction, and the quail flew off into the woods. I had heard about the short attention span of a goshawk, something I have since decided is no wider than a hair on a nanosecond. Goshawks are frequently flown directly from the glove, and 3-D was the perfect example of why that is so.

One day, I was flying 3-D when he took a perch in the cedar tree behind our house. A small finch landed in the tree as well, and 3-D spotted it. Then the chase was on. Around and around the trunk, under the cover of the needles and limbs the pair flew. Their circular flight began to spiral higher and higher within the expanse of the tree. I could just catch a glimpse now and then of the frantic finch trying to outdistance the hawk. Finally the pair reached the top of the pointed cedar and exploded out of it. The finch came out the treetop straight up, as though shot from a cannon. 3-D was within mere fractions of catching the small bird. I blew my whistle and swung my lure at that moment, and 3-D’s attention was instantly diverted. He looked down over his wing, saw the lure, and turned to dive for it. The finch escaped to the deep woods, where I’m sure it spent the rest of the day telling the other finches of its narrow escape from the “talons of death.” I had never seen such a fast chase by a hawk, or one so constricted in space.

Naturally, I heeded Eric’s advice every time I called 3-D to my glove. There was just one problem, though: The closer 3-D got to me, the more his trajectory changed from landing on my glove to—guess where—my eyes! If one were to draw an imaginary line along the trajectory of his approach, his landing spot ended up somewhere around my forehead. I started wondering why Eric hadn’t also recommended wearing a hockey goalie’s mask. Now I was no longer heeding his advice or, for that matter, any other falconry technique I had learned. It had become, flat out, run for the hills and every woman for herself—backwards! Facing the incoming tiercel, I developed an interesting style of running in reverse as the bird approached and raising my glove higher and higher to keep it on a course of interception with 3-D’s flight path. Once 3-D was on my glove and my eyes and other body parts were safe, I was panting and out of breath. The experience was an invigorating adrenaline rush.

As odd as my handling of the young goshawk might have appeared to bystanders, the experience was teaching me reams about accipiters. There was no question in my mind of the superiority of an accipiter over a Harris’s where speed and agility were concerned. The hunting drive was even more powerful in 3-D’s small body than it had been in Jazz’s, whose weight was more than double. Flying 3-D was, absolutely, like uncorking and then flying “lightning in a bottle.”