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

Part I. OWNED BY A HAWK

Chapter 3. Meeting Injun

Acquiring the new bird was the result of a chance meeting at a gun show, when Jim was stopped by a man who noted the North American Falconers Association patch on his jacket. Both men were falconers, had grown up a few miles apart in Worcester, Massachusetts, and shared an interest in antique weaponry. When Jim returned to the car, he told me about the encounter. “His name is Tom Ricardi. When I mentioned you were a falconer, too, and were looking for a Harris’s hawk, he said he had a young one he was looking to give to a good home. Too bad it is a male. I told him you wanted a female.”

“What?!” I exclaimed. “I don’t care if it is a male. I want it anyway!”

That same week, we found our way down to Tom’s home in western Massachusetts.

“The bird is four months old,” Tom said to us. “I got him because the first Harris’s I got, his older sister, did not seem to be catching on to hunting, but now she has begun to do really well. I have, consequently, not done anything with this young bird at all, and if he does not start training soon, he may get sour and be harder for someone to take over.” The young male was so wild, Tom had to throw a towel over him as he flew by. The intent was to slow the bird down just enough so Tom could grab one of its legs, but the bird crashed into the wall and fell into a heap on the floor. When Tom scooped him up, he was one mad bird!

Together, the three of us worked at outfitting the young Harris’s with anklets and jesses. Tom slipped my swivel through the slits of the jesses, ran my leash through the other circlet on the swivel, and handed the bird to me. As he did so, one long, slender leg snatched out at me. There was not a doubt of the meaning there. I got the youngster upright on my glove, where he glared at me and let out a harsh scream. “He hasn’t seen women before, Nancy,” Tom said. “He will get used to you, don’t worry.”

By the time we reached home it was late in the day, but the next morning, bright and early, the first order of business was to start training my new hawk. The initial step was to convince him I was not a monster who ate young hawks. Maddeningly, the hawk was much calmer around my husband. Raptors are very observant. They take note of each tiny difference from details with which they are familiar. If men are all they have seen up close in their short lives, rather than recognizing a woman as the female variety of “human,” women are perceived as frightening “other creatures.”

I had a perch set up on a tarp in our living room, and I sat for hours in front of the young bird with a dead chick on my glove. The first day passed with no luck. This hawk was having no part of me. He made this very clear by flying or bating off the perch in an effort to get away from me as I sat before him. Since he was tethered to the perch, he did not get far, and because raptors have an instinct to head for the higher perch, he would return to sit while glaring suspiciously at me and the food I offered.

Day one passed in this fashion. Day two was much the same. By the beginning of day three, however, we were making progress. Now the hawk was tired (he was not the only one) and would lean towards the fresh chick on my glove and smack his lips. Actually, hawks don’t have lips, but when they open and close their beaks while gazing longingly at the food, the action is exactly like a person smacking his lips. As the hawk leaned towards the chick, he very nearly stepped from the perch to my glove just a few inches away. I kept the chick close enough to tempt him, but far enough away so he couldn’t quite reach it no matter how far he leaned. This game went on for the next two hours.

About halfway through day three, it was clear the stalemate would end very soon. The hawk was leaning so close to the food on my glove, he was almost to the point of falling off his perch. All this time, I was staying as still as a statue. Any move, any turn of my head, and he would immediately back off. I was just too much of an unfamiliar “alien-being” for him to relax in my proximity. Jim watched our battle of wills with interest. His movements around me and the hawk did not startle the bird as much as did any slight motion from me. Every muscle was rebelling against the position I had assumed. And now Nature was calling. I finally put the chick leg down and made a hasty exit for the bathroom.

When I returned a few moments later, the leg was missing. My husband was standing near the hawk with a big smile. “He came to the glove for the chick leg,” Jim said. “I am sure it will not be long before he comes to you, too.”

Hell hath no greater fury than a woman who endured two and a half days with a stubborn hawk, only to have her husband entice the bird to the glove the moment she leaves the room. I was so angry, I could have beaten Jim senseless. In the interest of self-preservation, he fled the room. An hour or so later, my hawk finally made a step to my gloved hand. Jim was sincere and hearty with his congratulations and his praise (as well he should have been!), and my wounded feelings were overwhelmed by my excitement at moving ahead with training.

By the end of the day, the hawk had consumed numerous chick pieces while on my glove and had settled down enough to stay there. Every day we tried some variation, which included longer jumps to the glove and going out-of-doors to start the jump-to-the-glove process again in wide, open spaces. Next was what Jim had done with his red-tail, taking long walks while the bird rode my glove. The more time spent with me, the more things he saw while on the glove, the more dinners consumed in peace after his jump to my hand, the more the hawk began to trust me. By the end of three weeks, I reached the breathless moment of setting my bird free. His speedy return on my whistle made my head spin with relief and happiness.

Once trained, the hawk and I began to get to know each other. I was delighted with every flight. When I called him to the glove, he swooped in to hit it solidly and powerfully. I marveled over the red of his shoulders, the leg feathers colored like cinnamon and sugar, the deep chocolate shade of his back. Harris’s hawks are native to the American Southwest and parts of Mexico. I imagined if an Aztec of long ago had painted a mural of a hawk, it would have looked like this bird. I picked a name for him, and later, when people suggested to me it was politically incorrect, I was surprised. I felt only respect for my raptor, and would never have given him a name I felt was disrespectful to anyone. This hawk was proud, beautiful, the combination of an independent spirit and wildness. I thought the name“Injun” suited him perfectly.