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

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 40. Peregrine Spring

We know when we’ve trained a raptor properly, it will react to us in a certain way, but, often lurking nearby, there is an element of disbelief, a distrust of our own abilities. Consider the apprentice falconer when the moment has come to loosen the creance knot, remove the swivel, and fly the bird free. Despite all he has been taught that a correctly trained bird at flying weight will return, the new apprentice has trouble believing it will happen.

Those of us who have passed the point when belief was abandoned know it suddenly becomes a terrifying leap of faith to remove the thin tether while testing the newly trained raptor on recall. It is the moment of truth, and the fear of failure gripping the new falconer the first time he releases a bird is something I think all apprentices must feel. Sometimes the apprentice’s sponsor must step forward to speak reassuringly, and sometimes insistently, that the recall will be successful and it won’t be the last time the apprentice ever sees his beloved raptor. This is something veteran falconers know, but each of us never forgets our own free-flight experiences when the mouth went dry, when the fingers fumbled in a moment of panic.

There was one Christmas some years ago when I faced disaster and my confidence flew away with the falcon. Jim was on crutches, the result of a fall that left him with a badly sprained knee. My son, daughter-in-law, and three-year-old grandson Kieron had already arrived for the holidays. I was in a rush to get the feeding of the birds over in order to concentrate on the family celebration. Jim was under orders to stay put with his knee up and iced. Out we went, me with Kieron in tow, laden with a bag of quail—full ones instead of halves because, as I told Kieron, falcons and hawks get Christmas presents, too.

The first mew we reached belonged to Jim’s saker falcon, Sabretache. Sakers are exotic falcons native to the Asian deserts. Sabre, however, was hatched out of a propagation program in Utah. When he arrived, he was a handful. After Jim had manned him, however, Sabre became a sweet falcon to handle, although he was still high-strung and became startled quite easily. Jim’s work schedule began to take him away quite a bit, so he asked if I would like to train Sabre. I enjoyed working with him, but once he was trained, I left off flying him, as I was very busy flying my own birds. As of that Christmas, Sabre had not been out to fly in a long while—many months, in fact.

Sabre is a raptor who always seems ready for food, and while this greed is an asset in training, it also makes him difficult to feed as we parcel out quail. His habit is to run around to get between the outside door and the canvas curtain that covers the opening, so when you open the door, there he sits. The first time this happened to me, my heart nearly stopped. I got the door shut quickly enough to prevent his flying out, but it was a close call. After that, I developed a way to bring him up to the mew window and away from the door. We save those crinkly grocery bags to recycle as hawk food carriers. I learned if I first unlocked his mew door, then stood at the barred window and chanted, “Hey, Buddy Boy! Whoo-hoo!” while shaking a grocery bag, Sabre would fly to the window and leap up and down. At this point I would drop the bag as he tried to snatch it through the bars, run like mad for the door, and whip the food behind the canvas curtain into his mew.

On this Christmas Day, however, I had the assistance of a three-year-old. Once we had Sabre’s attention at the window, I left Kieron holding the food bag, telling him to shake it up and down while I ran to fling the quail into the mew. Kieron shook the bag once and then became absorbed in his grandmother’s histrionics. When I snatched the door open, I was face to face with a saker falcon whose gaze was riveted intently upon the quail I held in my bare hand. Reflexively, I slammed the door closed. The falcon turned, his wing dropping down between the door and the sill. Even faster than my slam-reflex was my grab-reflex, which caught the door before it closed on his slender wing. In the slow-motion in which disasters sometimes play out, my grab of the door edge tipped the quail from my fingers to land first on the door sill, then bounce to the step outside the mew. In a flash, Sabre grasped his Christmas-gift quail and flew off into the woods. “Gramma, the bird flew away,” my wide-eyed grandson informed me.

I grabbed Kieron’s hand as we raced to the house, where I gave him over to his mother with the admonishment of “Don’t tell Grampa!” Outfitting myself with whistle and glove and stopping only to garnish a lure with quail, I headed outside to fetch my dog Stormy. I figured if I was lucky, Sabre would be feeding on his quail at the edge of our woods. I hoped Stormy could locate him before he had fed up, as it would be very difficult to retrieve an already plump raptor which had not flown much in nearly a year.

Within a few minutes my son, Chat, a non-falconer who had grown up with many of our birds, joined me to help hunt for the bird. Stormy’s nose made a thorough investigation with no results. The wood-line was empty of any life. My son and I walked back to the house. “Mom, I can go farther in and keep looking,” Chat volunteered.

“No, I think I will have better luck alone. Sabre is more at home with Dad and me than strangers. I want to try to sight him with no one else around.” Chat returned inside while I kenneled Stormy.

I had little expectation of seeing Sabre again until the effects of a full repast had worn off, but as I rounded the garage, I gave a toot on the whistle and idly swung the lure. My scanning line of vision caught something above the field, up in the neighbor’s yard on the far side of the stone wall, trees, and undergrowth dividing the properties. A falcon shape was rising, straight up into the air. I followed its progress heavenward. My jaw dropped. Was it possible Sabre was responding to my call? The next second I was facing a falcon stooping down at the lure and realized I was standing on pavement. Hurriedly I tucked the lure under my arm and ran for the field.

Sabre pulled out of his dive when the lure suddenly disappeared. Would he return? The odds were stacked so heavily against me, I thought the likelihood was very slim. I did not factor in all the time invested in carefully following the principles of falconry. Those techniques and the dedication to following them are what saved my day.

Once on softer ground, I swung the lure again. Sabre reappeared, barreling around the top of one of the tall spruces separating the field from the driveway. He was coming so fast, my heart jumped into my throat. At the apex of the lure swing, he hit it hard and grabbed. Instead of releasing the lure handle, I held on, and the lure came to land—quail, falcon, and all—only a few feet away. Without a moment’s hesitation, I leapt for the jesses. In less time than it takes to say “God bless us, every one!” I had the falcon and his second Christmas quail deposited inside his mew with the door securely closed and locked. Then I went in and told my husband how I lost his falcon and got it back, all on Christmas morning.

Our raptors open up a world otherwise not visible to us. Jim likens this to carrying a flashlight into a darkened room. It is a given if one of our birds looks up, so do we. If I step out of the house on a day we have our birds perched out on the lawn and see one of them looking intently towards the sky, I know when I look at Jim, he also will be staring upward. Falconry has changed us, has marked us, in ways people who are not falconers have a hard time understanding. How does one explain to someone who has never flown raptors our feelings when a hawk or falcon has chosen us to trust or to follow?

N-Z was a peregrine any falconer would have loved handling. The remarkable steadfastness he showed when on his lure meant he trained easily and well, but in a wild falcon this behavior puts the bird at serious risk. Once N-Z had claimed his prize, he was not going to startle and fly off. This trait is beloved by falconers in the tame falcons they train, but likely was the cause of his being car-struck and killed. How wonderful if federal rehabilitation laws had a clause allowing a rehabilitator, upon recognizing such an inborn trait, to explain that this particular falcon would do better to stay in a falconer’s care. Rather than being deemed “non-releasable” and left to sit in an exhibit for the rest of his life, this bird could hunt and fly as a falconry bird, and his chances of being killed on the road would be drastically reduced. In 2001, when I was working with N-Z, the suggestion that he go under a falconer’s care, even temporarily, would have been met with immediate disapproval. Even today, now that the peregrine has been downlisted, there is no panel of wildlife judges to weigh opinion against regulation in such a case. I finally reached the conclusion that N-Z was doomed to another similar injury or to death very soon after being back in the wild. He was incapable of changing.

From Witch I learned so much. Like my young bird, I had been flying wantonly. It had seemed enough for Witch and me to throw ourselves into flight without a care in the world. I will never be so reckless again. It was a hard lesson. Now, many years later, my heart skips a beat when I pass that spot on the Souhegan River. My eyes still scan the sky above the mill complex of Wilton, looking for a falcon shape. I cannot stop myself from doing it.

Despite that year of sad endings, despite the entreaty of my friend not to “get more falcons,” I went on to have more experiences with peregrines and other raptors. Not often after that did I have a peregrine spring, a season crowded to bursting with exciting happenings involving raptors. Every year, I would watch for the return of the peregrines nesting on the building in Manchester and on the cliffs of New Hampshire and wonder if circumstance would bring us the unexpected surprise of dealing with a rehab raptor, or if fate would bring us a new adventure with falcons. More often than not, the months of March, April, and May have passed by uneventfully.

But out of the blue, the phone rang one March evening—peregrine springs always start with a phone call—and I had to make a quick decision. I told the caller, “Don’t call anyone else. Just give me two seconds and I will call you back.” The man offering his falcon must have thought I had gone mad.

“Would I be crazy to take on an eight-year-old trained peregrine?” I asked Jim, while thinking, I will be seventy-four by the time this bird gets old and dies!

“No,” he said simply. No wonder I love this man.

I went back to the phone and called the falconer with my response. “You weren’t kidding!” the man laughed. “It really did take you two seconds!”

Weeks later, I realized the new peregrine was the age Witch would have been. The task before me was much harder than training Witch. Pearl, the beautiful gift-peregrine, was not an imprint, but a bird handled by another person from the time she was young and for eight years. This presented a huge challenge. Any of the methods I used that were unlike those of her former falconer unsettled this veteran falconry bird. She and I continue to become used to one another. I am learning her ways, and she is learning mine.

This peregrine has progressed to such an assuredness that she now greets us with vocalizations when we approach her mew. Although the eggs were not fertile, she produced two the spring after her first year with me. Last April she produced a clutch of five brown-speckled eggs. Her satisfaction with her new life is apparent.

My most profound experiences often come from the reactions of people we meet during educational programs. Their comments give me a sensory rush as I see the magnificence of our birds through new eyes. It takes my breath away. My husband is not so outgoing. He is more private, more introspective. His study of falconry throughout history is something he puts into context in his handling and training of our raptors. Extrovert married to scholar, we work and share with one another the best, and sometimes the worst, that can happen during the gamble of setting one’s heart free to fly.

Over time I have come to realize the part of our lives given over to the birds and to flying them is an adventure. Would something else have supplanted this adventure had we not been falconers? Perhaps. But would I be the same person, would Jim, if it were not for the molding of our preferences, our personalities, and our lives by Injun, Witch, N-Z, Tater, Tabasco, Bubba, and the others? The answer, of course, is no. No matter the changes the birds have wrought in us, there is always more to learn, to do, and to experience. An old and very true saying in falconry has become our mantra: “It is not the man who trains the bird, but the bird which trains the man.”

Life here with our raptors goes on with the sweet and the bittersweet. Each year is different. There are new goals and challenges, new fears and delights. A peregrine spring is no longer a time or a season, but a state of mind, a condition of living life immersed in the activities of working with our birds. I find our raptors have bestowed another truth upon me. As long as I have a hawk or a falcon to care for, to learn from, to fly, I do not have to wait for another peregrine spring to come. Peregrine spring has arrived.

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Jim’s hawk became accustomed to my sled team leader, Inga, when she and I accompanied the pair on long hikes during the training process.

NANCY COWAN

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Tabasco served as my apprentice bird, as he had for Jim.

MARGARET YOUNG

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There was never any doubt Injun was the senior member of our partnership, but when he flew, my heart flew with him.

KEN WILLIAMS

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The peregrine named Lass was not averse to enjoying a bath on a sunny day in late February.

KEN WILLIAMS

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At the beginning, N-Z’s wing injury caused a noticeable droop of the wing.

NANCY COWAN

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My big female Harris’s hawk, Jazz, was one of the best hunters I have flown.

DON HIMSEL

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Teaching the falcon to accept the hood with grace and calmness is a necessary part of training peregrines.

DON HIMSEL

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With the dog working ahead in search of the scent of a game bird, the falconer tries to place her hawk in a good position to chase when quarry is flushed.

DON HIMSEL

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Following flights, Crash would end by finishing her meal on my glove.

JOANN O’SHAUGHNESSY

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Ready to be released, Crash had just finished a large meal and was surprised I was asking her to fly again.

JOANN O’SHAUGHNESSY

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Flying 3-D, the young goshawk, was an education in how fast and how high-strung accipiters are.

MARIKO YAMASAKI

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I felt like the luckiest falconer alive to have a hawk as good a hunter as Jazz to work over a pointer as talented as Stormy.

NANCY BERGENDAHL

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Jim often handles Banshee, our school’s peregrine, when we exhibit her at events and demonstrations.

LAURA MURPHY, ADA CAMP CAREFREE