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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 39. Scout

Someone in a crowd of spectators invariably asks me, “Which is your favorite bird?” My answer is always that I do not have a favorite bird any more than I have a favorite child or a favorite grandchild. I wish sometimes for the same closeness with another Harris’s hawk as I had with Injun, but I also recognize this closeness was because Injun was my only Harris’s at the time.

If the person means favorite in terms of handling and hunting, my experiences with hawks and falcons have been very different. It is hard to find spaces large enough in New England to fly peregrines and gyrfalcons to fully realize their potential. Inland New Hampshire, with its woods and meadows, is perfect for flying hawks. If I had to choose a good spot to fly peregrines or gyrs, I would pick the wide-open spaces out west or the grouse moors of Scotland. But I do the best I can with the terrain available.

As much as I love working with peregrines, it is so much easier to grab a glove, slip the whistle lanyard over my head, claim my hawk from his mew, and head off into the fields or woods near my house, so I tend to fly hawks much more than I do the falcons. Working with more than one bird has its upside. It exposes me to so many different personalities and behaviors. Each one of the raptors I have handled has proven to be a unique individual.

If forced to choose with which of the birds I now have the closest relationship, it would be Scout. He is, in some ways, very like Injun. He has a similar independent streak, coupled with more caution than Injun exhibited. His hunting drive is strong, and he is a willing, able hawk. My experience in training him was so classic, rather like a textbook example of falconry technique, I often repeat the story when I am teaching a class about falconry.

I start by explaining that Scout trained very well from the beginning to the free-flying stage, which usually takes about three weeks. As soon as a free-flying hawk is returning on call and turning on its perch overhead to watch me, I begin to change my location. This prompts the bird to follow me, to keep me in view. A raptor has the instinct to watch whatever is moving about on the ground. At this point in training, the only thing moving on the ground ahead of him is me.

When I know the bird is following well, the next step is to get a “baggie.” A baggie is usually a live quail in my pocket which, without warning, I will toss out ahead of me. The baggie will fly, giving the hawk a chance to pursue, and to catch if he is able. When the hawk sees me produce game, I become an entry into what I refer to as “the hunting-success file folder” in his brain. Flying after game I have scared up, or thrown out ahead, signifies the beginning of our partnership.

A hawk or falcon is not a pet but a hunting predator. In all we do with raptors, we are joining them in what is normal activity for them, not contriving something they are joining us in. It may appear that the falconer is strolling along with an attentive, flighted friend keeping her company, but this is not what is happening. The human is actually fulfilling part of the hunt for the raptor by being the disturbance on the ground instigating a chase. Should this activity of “following on” never result in game being flushed, the raptor would begin to seek prey farther afield, away from his human hunting partner.

On one day during his training, Scout was following on very well. I was happy with his progress, which prompted the thought, Time to get a baggie. But this was just a thought. After a few flights, Scout played a trick on me, one typical of a Harris’s hawk. Instead of flying back to a tree branch overhead, he landed instead on the ground behind me. For him to be on the ground is bad for a couple of reasons. One, he is vulnerable to attack by other predators (or the neighbor’s roving dog), and, two, he cannot see what is going on from down there. The solution is for the falconer to leave the spot, a maneuver requiring the hawk to change his location to keep the falconer in view. So I walked down towards our barn and made a ninety-degree turn. As soon as I was out of his sight, Scout sailed around the corner, passed me, and flew about thirty feet into the woods, where he landed in a small maple sapling. This was exactly the reaction I was looking for. I turned on my heel and reversed direction. Scout’s bells tinkled, and then I heard him land in the large maple behind the big barn not far behind my shoulder.

Suddenly, I heard the bells again as they hit the ground. I turned to see a mouse tail flipping back and forth between Scout’s talons! In my walking about, I had scared up a field mouse, and Scout had taken quick advantage of this. What a champ! No need to buy a baggie now. (But we did work to increase Scout’s slips on game in order to cement that partnership between us.)

Scout, being a male, is more volatile than female Harris’s hawks, and his sense of caution can send him to a high limb when something unexpected happens. One of these instances occurred during his initial training. My daughter, Marna, and granddaughter, Neave, had arrived to spend the weekend with us. Neave was six years old at the time. Their arrival came as I was finishing a session with Scout. Neave clambered out of the car and came running for me just as I called Scout down from a perch on a tree limb. My granddaughter and the young hawk were coming at me at exactly the same moment. I yelled to my grandchild, “Neave, go back to your mother!” Startled by both my tone and by nearly meeting Scout head-on, Neave turned and ran back towards Marna, and Scout wheeled about in the air and headed to the woods’ edge.

It took a moment before Scout calmed down enough to come down to my glove. When I went in search of my grandchild, I found her sobbing into her mother’s shoulder. I had never shouted at her before, and she was embarrassed, feeling she had erred in causing the bird to fly off. I felt badly about bringing my granddaughter to tears, so I hastened to explain she had done nothing wrong. It was just that Scout was a young bird full of his own fears. The sobbing turned into a wail.

“Oh, Neave, come along with me,” I cajoled. “I have something to show you.” Neave shook her head adamantly and reburied her face in Marna’s shoulder. I worried Neave would never want to be around me when I was flying birds, and flying birds is what I do quite a lot. “Come on, honey, let’s go do something fun.” The wail subsided to a few shuddery breaths as I took her hand and led her down to the old stone wall near Scout’s mew. I cast Scout off my glove to fly up to the mew roof, from where he watched us.

Taking a seat on the wall, I pulled Neave into my lap and slid my glove onto her hand. It went way up her small arm to nearly her shoulder. “Let me show you something, Neave,” I repeated. I fixed a chick leg between the fingers of Neave’s glove and blew the whistle. Scout responded instantly by flying down, but when he arrived and saw I had another creature on my lap wearing the glove, he did the fly-by maneuver and returned to his perch on the roof. Neave squirmed, taking this as failure on her part. “Hold still, Neave,” I told her. “He was just surprised at you being here. He doesn’t know yet if you are a safe place to land.” Neave ceased wriggling and held her arm out.

I gave another whistle, and Scout sailed down. This time the presence of Neave was not a surprise, and he landed upon her glove and ate his chick leg. I heard a small, breathless voice from under my chin. “Let’s do it again!” So we did.

Since then, while doing lots of classes, hunting, and event demonstrations, Scout’s confidence has increased. He is becoming bolder, and I find he and I work together in a more finely tuned relationship. His reliance on our partnership became especially clear to me when we presented at a particular local event.

I had set up for a flight demonstration a short distance from where we had the birds on exhibit. Jim remained with the display while I walked Scout out to where I planned to fly. Before a flight happens, I go over every part of what I plan to do. I usually check that I have every piece of equipment I need and place a bag of tidbits in my pocket. This day was no exception, but it was a brutally hot summer day. Keeping our birds out of the bright sun as the available shade moved required constant revisions in perch locations. Prior to the flight demonstration, there were lots of interruptions, and my mental checklist did not keep pace with the detours in my train of thought.

As I walked to the flight location, I was playing a movie in my mind of how I wanted the demonstration to go. Once at the spot, I informed the crowd of where to stand, then I cast Scout off and reached into my pocket for a tidbit to find . . . nothing! This was potential for disaster if ever there could be. I had forgotten to pull the tidbits from the cooler to place them in my vest pocket. Scout flew to the woods’ edge, where he took a perch on a shaded limb and turned to watch for my cue. Instructing my audience to hold their places, I turned quickly and hurried back to our exhibit area. I stepped over the tape marking our display and headed to our cooler.

Scout swooped down to land in the midst of his compatriots. He turned to me inquisitively. I am sure he must have been wondering why I had deserted him. Time stood still for an instant as we faced one another. I held out my empty glove and tapped on it with my right hand, which is one of our signals that draws attention to the glove, but that the glove does not necessarily hold food. Scout immediately flew up to my glove. It was clear he felt more secure being with me perched on his safe place, even with no tidbit.

With the packet of chick pieces in my pocket, I stepped out of our exhibit. My husband sent me a smile. “That was impressive,” he said approvingly. Scout and I hurried back to proceed with the flight display. All the while I felt I was reliving a moment of my past. Something in my life had, unexpectedly, come full circle. The experience was so like having Injun back again after a ten-year space of time that it unsettled me, but it also warmed my heart.