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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 38. Well-Groomed

The white bird has been here for almost six months and has refused all my slavish efforts to supply her with opportunities to bathe. I have brought her bath pans and lugged heavy buckets of water, but she has ignored my preparations. I am in a quandary. Do white gyrfalcons abstain from baths?

With the first snowfall, I take her out to bask in the sun. These outings will soon be curtailed by nasty weather and by the fact there is no place in the yard to drive in the stake of her perch. The ground everywhere is frozen as hard as a brick. Finally I resort to where I suspect the ground is still soft. The colonial-style goosefoot garden by my doorstep is warmed every day from the sun, which shines on the bricks of the house. The stake for her perch goes easily into the garden soil resting beneath a mantle of eight inches of snow.

K.C. flutters from my glove to her block as I tie off her leash. I step away so she can enjoy her weathering-out excursion. She eyes the snow as I leave to complete my chores. I am engrossed in feeding my other falcons when Jim gives a shout, drawing my attention back to the big white gyr. K.C. has jumped down into the snow and is happily rocking back and forth as though in a bath pan. She dives her head down into the fluffy drift and enthusiastically rears up to fling snowflakes onto her back. After a bit, she returns to her block and begins to groom. K.C. has finally taken a bath in New Hampshire.

One thing you learn when you are observing falcons, especially peregrines, is how much joy there is in the simple chore of bathing. I have never seen a bird enjoy it more than peregrines do, although most of our hawks and other falcons relish a bath now and then. Peregrines know how to make a bath into a festive celebration.

Picture sparrows gathered about a puddle. They will hop into the water, raise their feathers in a rouse, spread their wings, and duck their heads beneath the surface so the water runs down along their backs. Peregrines do exactly the same things. They will settle in a bath pan and go about this regimen until they are completely soaked, splashing water everywhere. When they are finally done, they flutter back to their perches, where they will give their feathers a shake and begin grooming. Once they have groomed for a while, they will eye the water in the pan and dip in three or four times before they are done. The bathing always ends with an extended period of carefully cleaning and separating each feather, rubbing their beaks across the base of their tail feathers where oil glands are in abundance, and then spreading the oil the length of each tail and primary wing feather. Peregrines utilize bath-time as a lovely exercise in keeping themselves immaculate and healthy, and it is always a pleasure to watch them at it.

Tabasco, the red-tailed hawk, was an inveterate sun-worshiper. He enjoyed the occasional bath, but he often chose wet, cold days to do it. Lots of raptors do. They seem perfectly comfortable taking baths in weather we would consider best for snuggling in a sweater. On hot, sunny days Tabasco wanted to be a solar battery. Flattened out on the grass, with his tail and wings spread out, Tabasco made full use of the sun’s rays.

Of all our birds, the one I loved most to watch grooming was Mrs. Chicken, the lanner. She would twist herself so that she was facing backwards while she vigorously rubbed the oil glands at the base of her tail with her beak and then very methodically transferred the oil to each long feather by running it through her beak. Before she was done, she would accomplish a stretching program worthy of any yoga instructor. To finish, she would bend forward while half extending her wings up and above her body, holding them behind like the figurehead of a Rolls Royce. One at a time, Mrs. Chicken would lift a leg in a long, luxurious stretch lasting a few moments before switching to do her other leg. This was so graceful that I always thought of her as a prima ballerina.

Hawks are a mixed lot regarding baths and sunning. The girls, Smokey and Fire, enjoy baths, but they never get as into it as the peregrines do. Smoke and Fire wade in the bath pan, bowse (or drink) for a bit, do some rousing and rocking forward and back to dunk their tails, and then come out to groom. For some reason, the males, Scout and Sidekick, don’t care for baths at all. Except for very rare instances, bowsing outside the rim of the bath pan is all they can be convinced to do. The Harris’s go about grooming in a basic sort of way. Sometimes they will sun as Tabasco did. Other times they will sing, which sounds like rusty door hinges creaking.

On these days when my husband and I are “weathering out” our raptors, there is plenty to watch and hear as the birds engage in sunning, bathing, grooming, and songfests. It is a slow-paced, lazy kind of day, sometimes punctuated by a passing car slamming on the brakes in disbelief at the scene taking place on our lawn. We’ve had people pull into our driveway to ask questions about the school and then jump in surprise when the heads on what they had assumed to be lawn ornaments turn to watch them. The best thing about the activities I have just described is that they only happen if a raptor is comfortable in his surroundings. Knowing that our birds are calm and at ease is validation we are doing things right.