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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 36. Making In

“Watch out!!” My startled clients leap aside, clearing a path for a game bird closely pursued by my big hawk as the pair comes flying through the knot of people.

Smoke is at her best, doing what she is born to do. The flight of a hawk on game is often so fast and far away that few people are privileged to see it up close, but this chase has come to them right at hip level. As Smoke’s chase takes her into a patch of woods, I am running after her, leaving the group I am guiding. They must follow me as I try to keep abreast of the sequence of events. Knowing my hawk, this is a race she will win. She will overcome the chukar as it dives into deep cover. She will make her kill.

Now I must find her in the shoulder-high brush. She will not welcome me. Her wings will convulsively flex to arch over the kill, hiding it from sight. But despite her possessiveness, she will trust me as I kneel to retrieve her jesses, slide my glove beneath the dead game bird, and lift it with Smokey firmly attached, her talons driven deeply into her prey, her wings mantled over her kill and my glove. This process is referred to as “making in” by falconers. If this was a hunt for food for my table, I would entice her to leave her kill with a bit of food on my glove, and she would do it. My hawk trusts my actions will follow precisely according to all she and I have practiced together. She will accept my retrieval of her kill, done deftly and discreetly, and will never feel I have robbed her. Our partnership will remain intact.

How is it that this flying hunter does not resent my appropriation of her take? Raptor memory was explained to me in very simple, archaic terms when I was just beginning in falconry, but I wonder now if this explanation is broad enough to include other instances for which nothing but a remarkable memory can be responsible. Harris’s hawks regularly provide jaw-dropping, incredible accomplishments on the wing. Sometimes it is a maneuver of agility like flitting through a rectangular opening six inches high and no more than four or five inches wide, at full speed, and not missing a wing beatBut these flyers surprise me also with memory much more grounded than I usually expect.

Every year I am invited to do a program for fifth-graders at a school near our home. I take Banshee, the New Hampshire School of Falconry peregrine, and a Harris’s hawk to do the flight demonstrations. My Harris’s hawks react favorably to repeating a performance in familiar surroundings. They have learned where they like to take perches in particular schoolyards they visit repeatedly, and they look for the same spots when they return. Their ability to remember those places was something I learned with surprise. Let one of their favorite landing spots be removed, and their reaction is almost comical. The bird heads for the phantom perch, now gone due to relandscaping, and circles tightly above the old location as if to say, “Hey, who took my perch??!” Since a flight demonstration at a school is an activity happening, at most, once a year, the interval between visits is at least a year in duration. Because I do not always bring the same hawks, two or more years can pass before they return to one of the schools. I do not expect them to have such excellent recall.

Knowing Harris’s are capable of this type of perch recall makes me wonder why my falconry education taught me that a raptor’s ability to create a concept is not within the realm of possibility. Let me explain. Imagine an ice-cream cone. Did you see it in your mind’s eye? Was it chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla? Our brain can readily supply an image for familiar objects. Many falconers, including myself, have learned that raptors do not possess the capability to imagine something not there. This makes it possible to discreetly remove their kill without having them wonder where the lovely duck, chukar, or pheasant went. I know there is a great deal of truth in this. The effectiveness of making in when done right and the use of hoods are proof positive, but to me this is incongruous with a raptor’s ability to recall a perching spot visited once and long ago.

I have been taught never to try to take something the raptor still has in his talons. The raptor’s nervous system triggers an involuntary reflex of grasping when something they are holding moves. This ensures they will not lose what they have expended energy in catching. For the unfortunate falconer who has been grasped, there is no way out of the powerful clutch but to wait for the raptor’s talons to relax and release. The harder one pulls, the tighter the raptor grips, so if it is your flesh with the talons in it, you learn not to pull back. If it is food or the lure you are pulling away, you are creating a negative image in the raptor’s memory which is likely to ruin your chances of working with the bird because the bird remembers it. It makes me wonder if we just don’t get the raptor brain at all.

We were at a falconry meet in Maine long ago when the subject of raptor intelligence came up and was being hotly discussed. “They’re just flying lizards!” a skilled master falconer exclaimed. “They are not smart at all. They are just flying lizards!” I would accept his assessment with more finality if I had not heard him speaking later in the day. By then, this falconer was extolling how clever his falcon was!

The infallibility of the practice of “making in” has been proven to me many times, but never more so than on the day a videographer and a TV nature-show host were filming a segment on hunting with hawks. I was anxious to have my hawk and dog hunting together caught on film, as this is something many people do not realize can happen. We began as I released my pointer, Stormy, from her crate and she eagerly started quartering across the field, but having a microphone clipped to my vest, trying to coordinate a dog and hawk, hiking over uneven terrain, and answering questions from the interviewer all at the same moment was not a recipe for success.

We got three solid points on pheasant. Stormy was working methodically, but the videographer was having trouble keeping the camera on her while he was also filming the nature show host and me. With the cameraman between the dog and me, Jazz was distracted and was having trouble positioning herself for pursuing the pheasants we flushed. The three points, the flushes, and the chases came to nothing, but the videographer managed to get a good percentage of it all.

After five hours of filming, the day had grown hot. The dog was tired, and so was I. I knew the bird was tired, too. Jazz had worked just as hard, or harder, than the rest of us. She was now sitting high up in the top of a tree, enjoying what little breeze there was, and, I suspect, happy to be farther away from the strangers who had been following her all day. I finished watering Storm then kenneled her in the dog crate before I turned to speak to the host and the cameraman. “I hope you got enough for your segment. I am sorry we did not take game.” They assured me they had plenty of film. All that was needed was footage of the host holding Jazz as she gave her wrap-up for the segment to air on TV.

“Well, that’s fine,” I answered, “but the bird has worked really hard today. Before you film her, I want to leave Jazz with a feeling of success.” I explained I had a live quail in my pocket for the hawk to pursue. The long, unsuccessful day had been a disappointment for Jazz. I was not sure if the missed opportunities would be detrimental to our hunting relationship. I felt it was important to end her day on a high note. The videographer asked if he could film the sequence about to happen. “Of course,” I told him.

Pulling the quail from the game pocket of my vest, I tossed it into the air. It took off as if jet-propelled and flew much higher than I had expected, right up to the level where Jazz was sitting in the tree. By the time it reached her altitude, Jazz was airborne as well. Her yarak was high, and she hit the quail hard. Feathers flew into the air, but it was a glancing blow as the quail turned in the air and headed for cover. Jazz whirled about in pursuit. I shouted to the cameraman to follow as I raced after the pair. Jazz had landed with the quail she had caught and killed. “She got it!” I called out kneeling beside my hawk while I attached each of her jesses to the clip of my hunting leash. The cameraman had been running along behind me, so he began filming.

I envisioned letting my bird enjoy what she had been working hard for all day. The TV host ran up to join us, saying, “Now take it away from her!” I could not blame her; I knew she had no way of understanding what I was up against in taking possession of a kill at that moment. I made no reply but instead began garnishing my glove with pieces of chick legs, chick heads, and chick bodies sticking out in a grisly smorgasbord. I lowered my glove in front of Jazz, just above the quail, and gave a whistle. Jazz dropped her quail and immediately came to the glove. Retrieving the quail, I handed it off to the host. The host and cameraman may not have understood how well my hawk had reacted in this situation, but I knew, and the knowledge thrilled me. This was a moment for me to savor my hawk as she ate the chick pieces on my glove.