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

Part I. OWNED BY A HAWK

Chapter 2. I Begin

I have to do this right, I say to myself as my brain reviews the procedures and I slip a heavy leather glove onto my left hand. I am quaking inside, knowing in falconry one seldom gets a second chance if a mistake is made. With the other hand I turn the lock, open the hasp, and swing the creaking door outwards. Slipping past the canvas sheet over the interior of the doorway, I quietly enter the shed.

The inhabitant is waiting for me. He turns his cold, implacable countenance to face me. Standing in shadow, I bait my glove with the sleight-of-hand dexterity of a magician, then step forward to present a dead day-old chick. Immediately there is a ka-thump of two pounds of muscle and bone wrapped in a formidable mass of feathers which is now sitting upon my leather-covered wrist, inches from my jawline. The chick disappears in fast and greedy fashion as the hawk devours it, ripping it to pieces during the process. Day-old chickens live off the yoke of the egg from which they hatched, making this chick a veritable “yoke bomb.”

Finished, the raptor gives his head a shake. Yellow droplets of yolk fly past my face. Some of the dribble lands on my chin. I am a mixture of emotions, my shirt as well as my chin bearing evidence of the raptor’s savage feast. I am compelled to feed this feathered monster with talons sharp and strong enough to remove my fingers because I am determined to be a falconer. My mission now is to get a second chick onto the glove exactly where this raptor is sitting. The longer I consider this, the larger the bird grows in my vision until he is a giant. The hawk knows he holds the advantage. My associate-of-the-glove sends a look my way that plainly says, “N-n-n-n-e-e-x-x-t!”

How could anyone relate to a creature as cold and emotionless as a bird of prey? But I had watched with interest the developing partnership between my husband and his red-tailed hawk. Despite this, I was in no way prepared to make a commitment to a raptor. To become licensed is a lot of work and involves passing a written test. I would need a sponsor, an experienced falconer willing to help me with no remuneration other than a sense of sportsmanship. The closest falconer to me had volunteered to serve as my sponsor once he became a general-level falconer. But being sponsored by, taking orders from, my husband?! I was not ready to go there, yet.

Another requirement for the falconry license was to have a hunting license. I had never hunted a day in my life. To obtain a hunting license meant taking a six-week-long course with a volunteer group of hunter education instructors in another town. Becoming a licensed falconer seemed much more difficult a task than I wanted to undertake, but the relationship between Jim and his hawk was exerting a pull I could no longer deny. I had to learn more about this intriguing association with a bird which had taken over my husband.

One of the things Jim does when training a hawk is to walk out with it on his glove. Sitting close to his body, hearing his voice, seeing his movements, and learning to balance to the cadence of his steps all serve to accustom a raptor to its falconer. Jim walked a lot with Tabasco, and because hiking the trails had often been a source of shared fun and exercise, I went along. Our Siberian husky / German shepherd cross, Inga, would come as well.

Jim’s hawk became accustomed to both of us humans and the dog as we hiked for miles, from the wooded logging road behind our subdivision to the trail along the power lines and into, around, and through the conservation area of Londonderry known as the Musquash. Despite living in a part of the state that was beginning to explode with growth, we knew we would cross paths with some form of wildlife as we hiked through this important north–south wildlife corridor. We soon learned if Jim’s hawk turned his head to stare in a particular direction, we should look there, too, to see what he had spotted. Traveling with a raptor was a revelation to what we might not have seen otherwise.

On one hike a coyote as large as Inga kept pace with us as we walked the power lines, trotting only a few yards within the cover of the forest. Another day we spooked up a mother moose and her calf. Wild hawk sightings became frequent occurrences. The hawks, instead of flying away, were coming nearer to see Jim’s hawk. They were obviously curious about what another hawk was doing in their area. One day as we crossed a field, a female red-tailed hawk flew directly towards us and circled at a low altitude before lazily flying back to the woods. Minutes later, her mate did a flyover. I wondered if the two had been sitting observing us, or if the hen hawk told her mate about the strange sight of one of their kind being accompanied by two humans and a dog.

Another raptor encounter was more spectacular. We had entered the Musquash conservation area by means of a narrow path, arriving at an old road which divided a pond with a beaver dam on one end and a heron rookery on the other. Young ATV riders were roaring back and forth as we neared the road. Beyond the heron rookery was the Londonderry Fish and Game Club, from which emanated the sound of rifle shots. Jim and I elected to avoid the noisy ATV traffic, so we crossed carefully over the top of the beaver dam to a path winding around a hill beside the pond. To top this, a passenger jet overhead began its descent to Manchester Airport. Suddenly an osprey dove into the pond with a splash, and emerged with a wriggling fish in its talons. With all the noise from the ATVs, the gunfire, and the large jet, not to mention a fish dinner in its talons, I expected the osprey would have more on its agenda than to spy on two humans, a dog, and a hawk, but I was wrong. As soon as the osprey saw our entourage, he hovered above us to get a good look at what this other raptor was doing in his territory.

The more time I spent with Jim as he worked with his bird, the more I felt an urge to join in this strange and new adventure of being a falconer. When the hunter education course was offered again, I signed up to take it. In January 1990 I passed the falconry exam, applied for my state and federal falconry licenses, and began my apprenticeship with Jim.

Jim was now working with his first falcon. I began my apprenticeship with Tabasco instead of trapping a young bird, as at the time, our state allowed this. However, I was timid about insinuating myself into the solid partnership between Jim and this hawk. Tabasco sensed my hesitancy and took advantage of it. For the first few months, the hawk had me over a barrel. Whenever he stomped on my glove and glared at me, I provided food. He had the upper hand due to my lack of experience until the day I recognized as a sham the threatening performance he gave. My timidity vanished, though my relationship with Tabasco never matched the intensity of the one he shared with Jim. Working with him taught me the rudiments, but I did not strive to go further as I would have with a hawk I had trained myself.

After apprenticing, a falconer typically moves to the “general” level and may possess two birds and move beyond to other species of raptors. As I ended my apprenticeship with Jim, I was excited about getting a second hawk, one to train by myself. Jim and I read about Harris’s hawks and how companionable, dependable, and loyal they are. Females were reputed to be calmer and are larger than males, as is true of all raptors. I became convinced training a female Harris’s hawk would enable me to progress in falconry. I did not know then that my connection with this creature would be more intense than any I’d experienced with an animal. My life was about to be radically altered.