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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 34. Sidekick

When Jazz died from cancer, I was left without a Harris’s hawk. I contacted a breeder named Luis and arranged to get a male from his spring hatch. I brought home the fine young bird I named Scout. I asked Luis to put me down for another Harris’s hawk as soon as one was available. Later in the summer, Luis called with news he had another male if I wanted it. The bird was one he had removed early from the breeding chamber so as to have the parent birds hormonally recycle to produce a third clutch that season. Removing a Harris’s before its parents cast it out of the nest is not a good plan, I knew, but Luis assured me this was a very friendly bird which would be a cinch to train as it was so accustomed to people.

“It is a full brother to the male you bought earlier, but eight weeks younger,” Luis said. “I took it out of the chamber when it was just a brancher.” A brancher is a bird in the pre-fledging stage that hops and jumps from place to place with a small assist from its wings. “It lived in a tree by my house and would jump back and forth between the tree and the roof. When I went out, I would throw food down for it. You will like this bird. He will train easy.”

In looks and size, the new juvenile Harris’s was identical to Scout, so I named him “Sidekick.” But there were some very distinct differences between the brothers. For one thing, as soon as he was trained, Sidekick began cowring at me. “Cowring” is an old falconry term and is the action of a young bird showing obedience to an adult. The youngster lowers his body and half-spreads his wings before what he perceives to be the parent. He flutters his wings as he does this. We might call this “cowering,” but it is more a submissive gesture than one based on fear. Sometimes, once my juvenile Harris’s hawks are trained, there is transference of parenthood status to me and occasionally a manifestation of this cowring behavior. Sidekick started to display cowring to me all the time. The behavior was an omen of what was to come.

From the start the youngster vocalized almost constantly when he was on the glove. Food-begging vocalization in raptors is a real attention getter, as it is meant to be. It’s especially ear piercing when the bird is right at your side. Falconer friends with whom I hunted called him “The Smoke-Detector” because of the volume and intensity of his screams. I called him “Tyrannosaurus Rex,” and you will understand why as I describe what it was like to handle this bird.

While Scout behaved like a properly raised falconry hawk, his brother Sidekick was a hooligan. Scout loathed landing anywhere but on the glove. Touch a human? Eeuuwwww. He wanted no part of that! As I began Sidekick’s training, I never knew where he would land. Sometimes it was my shoulder. Sometimes it was my arm above the glove. He even landed on my head once or twice. As a famous comedian put it some years back, I got no respect. Because he had no fear of humankind, there was more bad behavior with which I had to contend. Whenever I reached up to take hold of his jesses, or for any other reason, his foot would snatch out at me, and I would be sliced or punctured. My right hand began to resemble hamburger. In short, it was like handling a twenty-one ounce tyrannosaur.

After a week of this, I decided to call Luis. “Luis, did you sell me an imprint?”

“No, Nancy. That bird was never imprinted.”

I explained some of the difficulties I was experiencing, but Luis just chuckled. “Keep working with him, Nancy. You will work it out. He will be a fine bird for you.”

I hung up muttering imprecations at bird breeders in general and Luis in particular. Later I described the bird to my friend, falconer and wildlife biologist Bruce Haak. I told him what Luis had told me. “Not an imprint? Well then, it is a mis-print!” was Bruce’s reply.

I went back to training Sidekick, took him hunting, and even introduced him to working with the dog. All in all, he was a poster child for arrested development. But I had worked with birds like him before. Jazz, for example, had had the same inclination as Sidekick to foot me, making a grab and connecting with her talons every time my hand came near her. This undoubtedly had much to do with the fact that the breeder had taken her away from her parents and left her to raise herself in a process called “sibling imprinting,” a term that probably meant more to the breeder than it did to me as the falconer having to deal with the footing problem. Sibling imprinting is supposedly when young birds are taken early from their parents to grow up in an environment with their own kind or their siblings.

Raptors are a great example of how the maturation process works. Over the years we’ve observed them grow up according to the experiences they have had. Parent-raised birds are prepared by their experiences to adopt behaviors that allow them to leave the nest and function on their own. A raptor that is taken away from its parents too young has a slower rate of maturation. And, as is often the case with full imprints, sometimes these birds never quite get over seeing a human as a parent, which is why the falconer must take care not to raise the bird in a manner that will lead it to interact in dangerous ways with humans, most notably hand-feeding when the appealing little fluff-ball shows no resemblance to the terrifying Tyrannosaurus rex a badly imprinted raptor will resemble when grown. These mishandling mistakes are responsible for the instances in which humans are most likely to be attacked or injured. Raptors often strike out at their own kind, whether siblings or intruder birds. The imprint bird sees the human as another just like him.

With Jazz, who may have been another “misprint,” I found the maturation process was painfully (pun intended) slow compared to what parent birds could accomplish in a matter of days. So I decided to do some reading on the subject. In the case of Harris’s hawks, the general advice was never to take one that had been prematurely removed from the care of its parents. With Jazz, I worked out my own solution. Could I overcome the problem with Sidekick?I wondered.

The first thing I tried with Sidekick was what I had done with Jazz. Female Harris’s hawks are known for their companionable nature with humans. To put it unscientifically, female Harris’s seem more apt to care if you are mad at them. Whenever Jazz would foot me, I’d shout the words “No! Hand!” at her. The short a in “hand” makes it sound much like a Harris’s warning scream, especially when you shout it angrily. This explosive noise adequately expressed to Jazz I was dissatisfied with her, and it did, in fact, discourage her from striking out at me. Throughout the first season, I did this negative shout many times until she stopped footing me. The problem disappeared entirely during the second season except for when Jazz was very excited, and by then she never broke the skin or hurt me. As we began our third season, I had a fine hunting hawk that was, as much as any other good hawk, a pleasure to fly.

Naturally, this was the first technique I tried on Sidekick. By the time I was done, I had screamed everything in the book at him, but to no avail. Sidekick did not care whether I was angry at him. I guess male Harris’s are not as companionable as females.

I had to find something else that would dissuade him from continually striking at me, but it had to be not so negative that he would associate it with me. Jim had once taught me a falconry remedy for a falcon that has the bad habit of biting. The best part of it is the falcon never associates the action with the falconer, but instead associates it with the behavior. From long ago, falconers would fill their cheeks with water. When the falcon’s head snaked out to bite, the falconer would spritz a fine spray of water from his lips straight into the falcon’s face. The trick is to use only a bit of the water each time so the action can be repeated immediately when the falcon attempts to bite again. The hardest part for me has always been to keep enough water in my mouth to spray repeatedly. But I had used the method successfully.

There was a major problem with using this method with Sidekick. While working with him, I would be moving constantly over rough ground and using my whistle. Whereas when I tried this method with a falcon, I could sit still with a glass of water at my side for constant replenishment. Was there anything else Sidekick would dislike enough to stop spearing my hand with his talons but not associate with me, his falconer?

Finally, I found my solution. The times Sidekick would foot me were when he was sitting on the glove and I happened to reach up. Whenever he would strike, my new solution was to free my hand as I shouted and grab his beak, giving it a vigorous shaking. He disliked that intensely. He would wiggle to get his beak free of my fingers. All the while, the nictitating membranes, which are third eyelids that protect the raptor’s eyes, would be flashing up and down like crazy window shades. Afterwards, he’d give his head a shake as if to clear it from the distasteful sensation, but I got no menacing postures or screams. He was not associating the beak shake with me.

After two years of enduring his attacks, it only took two days of beak shakes whenever the occasion arose. Now I have a dependable hawk who’s much more connected to me than his more independent brother Scout. Another side benefit was that he also stopped screaming for food, a change greeted with relief by everyone within hearing range. In Luis’s words, he has made a fine hawk for me! (So much so that I would go on to purchase two more Harris’s hawks—two sisters I named Smoke and Fire—from him.)

Having solved the problem of Sidekick’s immature behavior, I now had two male Harris’s hawks no longer exhibiting marked differences in behavior. Fellow falconers and students were impressed at my ability to discern one from the other. Finally someone asked me by what seemingly invisible means could I know which hawk was which? “Oh, it is easy,” I answered. “Scout is a ‘righty’ and Side is a ‘lefty.’”

“That’s amazing!” was the speaker’s response. “Do you mean to say hawks are ‘right-handed’ or ‘left-handed’?”

At that point, I had to make a full confession. “No,” I said, laughing. “Scout’s leg band is on his right leg, while Sidekick’s is on his left.”