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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 37. Crash

Normally when I am training a falcon, I do not welcome sightseers, but I was a guest using a field one day at the Timberdoodle Club when two members asked permission to watch. I bid them welcome, waving them to a small knoll nearby. “Have a seat over there if you would like to see her fly,” I directed. The man and woman sat on grassy slope as I continued unhooding the peregrine on my fist.

The young bird was newly trained but had proven to be loyal to the lure and still was too new at the process of flying free to follow the definition of “peregrinate,” which means “to wander.” I held out my arm, she roused and then cast off into the air, gaining height by flying in tight circles. Around and around, using the knoll as her center point, she rose higher in the sky. I flew her until I was satisfied she had had enough and pulled out the lure to call her down.

Just before I swung the signal for her return, I glanced over at my spectators. The falcon had been flying in perfect circles above them as they sat, their heads turning in unison as they watched her. They had no idea that their faces, with their mouths open in amazement, mirrored one another. Watching a raptor fly is like learning to read; the more you watch, the better you are at catching every detail.

Two years following the summer I spent with Witch and N-Z, we were called to rehab a juvenile peregrine from the Tufts Wildlife Clinic. With this second wild peregrine, I had a chance to watch step-by-step the evolution of a juvenile trying its wings, learning what it could do with its instincts as it became an accomplished flyer and huntress. When she came here the young female was about fourteen weeks old, a very late age to be learning Flight 101. However, she mastered the basics and more at fast-forward speed.

This peregrine had become a casualty on her maiden flight. She had glided off the Brady Sullivan Tower in downtown Manchester to perch in a sapling across the street. Then she pivoted and launched herself into the air to return—directly into the windshield of an oncoming car. Fortunately the Brady Sullivan peregrines are closely watched by a group of dedicated volunteers. On this day, a volunteer was already on her feet running and managed to retrieve the stunned juvenile bird from the pavement. Chris Martin, Audubon’s biologist, was duly summoned to take the bird to a rehabilitator for observation. In the meantime the fledgling watchers, Chris, and other Audubon staffers began calling the young falcon “Crash.”

The rehab inspection turned up no wing damage, so Chris returned the bird to the tower. The next day the falcon-watching volunteers noted the juvenile was not attempting to fly. Something was wrong. Chris hurried to the rooftop, where the young bird had remained without taking part in the flights of her siblings. Chris told me later the injury had not affected her speed or her endurance, which resulted in a footrace around the roof before he finally managed to net the youngster. Once captured, she was taken directly to Tufts Wildlife Clinic, where an X-ray revealed a broken bone in her chest, a bone necessary for anchoring her flight muscles. The prognosis was excellent for healing without any lasting damage. The young bird’s wing was bound, and she was kept at Tufts until the broken bone knitted. Afterwards, she was brought to us for training, conditioning, and evaluation.

Maturity-wise, the young bird was still at fledgling age, meaning she had little knowledge of her own flight capabilities. She was clueless in the hunting department, too. By now her siblings and parent birds were all over the city of Manchester, flying and hunting. Returning the young bird to the nest box tower would not initiate training on the part of her parents. Crash had missed the boat due to her injury. She came to us to rectify the problem, but she brought with her some bad manners. She bit whenever she felt like it, so my hands and forearms soon were covered in welts and small gashes. She had little fear of humans. In her favor, however, was that she was as typically independent and driven as others of her species. Soon after her arrival, she was negotiating flights from perch to perch within her mew. Free-lofting was very good for toning her flight muscles. After a while she had healed as though the interval of convalescence had never taken place. She was raring to go to the next phase. We started training immediately.

Working with the young wild falcon was not like working with Witch. For one thing, watching Crash as her level of maturity rose every day was a revelation in how quickly a raptor could move forward. With each flight and with each experience, she progressed as if the accident had not interfered with her development. Perhaps because she had been raised on a towering building, she had no problem being at a good height from the very first flight. There were no hair-raising adventures such as crossing Route 149 at a low level. She was adept at keeping altitude, even when the ground rose steeply below her.

One day Crash widened her circle to include a small field behind our house. I watched from the Overlook, where I had launched her. When a falcon wants to settle its feathers more neatly, it does something falconers call a “rouse.” It fluffs itself up so that it resembles a large feather duster. Next, the bird gives a hearty shake, which smooths the fluffed feathers down into flight-readiness. Usually falcons do this while they’re perched prior to takeoff. But I watched Crash rouse herself in full flight without missing a beat or losing altitude. Once she was shipshape, she resumed her sleek form and flew on. I was impressed!

In the hunting department, however, she had a lot to learn. On the first excursion to the Overlook, she spied a flock of sparrows feasting on something in the grassy field. As soon as Crash saw them, she got excited. She tried to bate off my glove before I had a chance to release her. She remembered sparrows! Obviously, Mom and Dad had brought them home for dinner at the tower. I unclipped the hunting leash and launched her from the glove, but instead of taking a hunting position by circling and gaining height, the greedy youngster flew directly to the middle of where the sparrows had been. “Had been” were the operative words. She looked about in puzzlement. There was not a sparrow to be seen. I could almost see the wheels turning inside Crash’s head. Hmmm. Bad approach. Don’t do that again!

Unlike my experience with Witch, the Overlook became a very satisfactory place to fly Crash. She utilized the broad valley below and kept her altitude as she flew over me on the hillside. She became swifter and more agile at catching the lure even when I tried to make it hard for her to catch.

Once we had her flying, Chris Martin came over one day to watch. Handing him my whistle, I invited him to enter the mew with me as I caught her up and slipped her jesses through the grommets of her anklets. I asked Chris to swing the whistle hanging from its lanyard near Crash to focus her attention on it instead of on biting me.

After rigging her with jesses, we walked up to the Overlook field. Chris had brought his photography equipment in a black nylon bag. He set it to one side in the field and readied his camera. I launched Crash. At this point, she normally would begin a circle. But today was different. We had a guest who had brought along something that made her curious. She landed and walked over to lay claim to Chris’s bag as a trophy. I began swinging the lure to call her off of it. Once she had footed the bag several times, tried to upend it, and finally reached the conclusion it was not going to yield anything she liked to eat, she accepted my invitation. “Do you think she is too used to people?” Chris asked with concern. “Will we be able to release her?” Chris was envisioning Crash attacking people carrying nylon bags.

“She is still a baby in her head,” I answered him, “but she is changing rapidly. She can be a really ornery bird at times, and I think that bodes well for her going back to the wild without problems.”

What I had predicted was exactly what happened. When the time came for actual hunting, she pursued game, caught it with gusto, and allowed me to make in and reattach my leash to her jesses as she fed. As Crash’s skills improved, she progressed quickly towards maturity.

After two months with us, Crash was up to speed in both hunting and flying. One of her flights at the Overlook proved her ambition. She quit her wide circling of the field to concentrate on an area below where the land dipped steeply and met the forest growing at the foot of the hill. She went around and around over this area and then began to make half-stoops. She would circle and dive, only to pull out, and then repeat the process. I figured there had to be something of great interest she was watching.

She had been at this for a time when I decided to call her in. I blew the whistle and began swinging the lure. Crash reacted by zipping out of her small circle to widely circle the field, coming back to neatly catch the lure I had thrown into the air at her approach. She landed nearby and began to plume the quail body I had tied onto her lure. I knelt beside her. The absence of our silhouettes on the horizon was immediately noted by the mysterious “something” that had so attracted Crash. Within moments a pair of turkeys took wing from the spot to settle in the pines at the end of the Overlook. I could hear them gobbling back and forth and from their indignant-sounding turkey conversation, I imagined it translated thusly: Thank heavens! I thought that falcon would never leave!

Just then, four more turkeys broke cover to join the first pair. The gobbling by now was almost raucous. I had to laugh. Crash had managed to pin down six adult wild turkeys at the base of the hill. “Well,” I told her in admiration, “you certainly are starting out for the biggest and the most. You are a typical teenager, after all!”

Very soon after, we released her at the Overlook field. I wanted to set her free close by, reasoning if she had difficulty she would soon turn up at my yard only a few feet away. We have never heard a thing about her since, so I harbor the hope that my ornery, greedy friend is having a wonderful life and raising lots of young peregrines.