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

Part I. OWNED BY A HAWK

Chapter 4. The Attack and the Mission

Expectancy mingled with the cold air of the January woods behind our house. A shout rose from my husband, unseen in the denseness of the woodlot, as a flying quail suddenly appeared in the clearing ahead. My young hawk bolted from my glove like a missile, almost too fast for my eyes to follow. But I saw the quail. Poof! The bird exploded in a cloud of buff, russet, and dark brown feathers and disappeared. I ran to the location of this make-the-quail-disappear act to find Injun, his dark wings mantled over the fallen leaves, the deceased quail clutched in his talons. Injun raised his head from his kill, his beak red and dripping with blood, and glared at me with eyes as hard and cold as diamonds.

So far the winter had been fairly mild. It was important to cement our new partnership in falconry by starting Injun at hunting as soon as possible. His first chance on quail ended with a superb flight and a swift kill that belied his inexperience. Those solid, powerful hits to the glove had foretold he would perform well at hunting. According to the language of falconry, Injun was now “entered,” which means that his hunting career had begun.

Further hunting excursions were cut short by bad weather, at the end of which I returned to flying Injun to the glove from various perches, omitting any hunting opportunities. Then something bewildering happened one day a week or so later. After flying, I returned Injun to his mew, to have him perch quietly while I removed his jesses. It was a companionable time I enjoyed now that Injun and I were supposedly becoming friends. But Injun did something entirely unexpected after I removed one of the jesses. He reached over with his free foot and wrapped his talons around my bare wrist. He was not hurting me, but I was firmly imprisoned in his grasp. (I was to learn later, from another falconer, that the term for this is “braceletting.”) I was wearing a handcuff of talons and toes. Time stood still as he held my wrist and gazed at me strangely. Then in a flash, he stared at me as though I was a total stranger or his most hated enemy and let out a raucous scream. The episode passed as swiftly as it had come, and Injun released my hand. I left the mew wondering what on earth I had just witnessed.

A few days later, I got that look again and another scream. This time Injun’s open, taloned foot rapped my face and left a small puncture wound on my cheek. Within moments, Injun was back to his old self. I could not imagine what was causing this strange behavior.

Some days afterward, as I was changing Injun’s flight jesses, I found him once again fixing me with an odd, hostile stare. He screamed and, as he did, his free foot came up to hit me a hard blow in the face. It felt as if someone had punched me in the mouth. Almost immediately his gaze returned to normal and the moment passed, but I knew I had sustained some damage. Injun had punched me between my nose and mouth with his razor-sharp talons. By the time I had finished with his jesses and had Injun tethered to a perch, my hands were covered with blood streaming down from my face.

I went to the bathroom to clean up. A wave of dizziness came over me when I saw myself in the mirror. From one nostril and down to the top of my upper lip, the skin was laid open in a deep, slicing gash. Blood covered my chin entirely in scarlet and poured down my neck to drip across the front of my shirt. I ran warm water from the tap and with a washcloth gingerly cleaned the sticky mess from my face and throat. The stream of crimson had coagulated so the wound was no longer bleeding, but even with the blood cleaned away, the wound was ugly, with swollen edges of the gash making it appear even deeper than it was. It was mean-looking evidence of an attack. I had no clue what had provoked Injun to attack me, but I had to find out. I would not be able to safely handle and fly this bird of which I had grown so fond unless I did.

The first person I consulted was, of course, my husband. Jim had no more experience with Harris’s hawks than did I, but he knew a good hawk when he saw one and did not want anything to deter me from continuing to work with Injun. “Just keep on like it did not happen, and it will probably work itself out” was his advice. Like me, he had read all the literature touting Harris’s as companionable, cooperative, friendly partners.

I was not willing to take this advice and told him so. What I had experienced was certainly not companionable or friendly. If an attack came again, would it cost me an eye?

The next person I spoke with was a supplier of falconry equipment out on the West Coast. I knew he had recently gotten a Harris’s, a female, so when I called him with an order, I told him of my experience. He was surprised, as he had not had any similar occurrence with his bird. “I will think of you now, Nancy,” he said, “as the person with the face-killing Harris’s hawk!”

I was not amused by his comment.

“Why don’t you call Ken Felix?” Jim suggested. This was an excellent idea. Ken had flown a Harris’s for years. He was president of the North American Falconers Association as well, and a practicing veterinarian who served as the consulting vet for both the Philadelphia Zoo and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Ken listened carefully to my story of the braceletting and the attacks. “Gee, Nancy, I just don’t know why this happened. And I bet your bird doesn’t know either. But I also bet he is as sorry about it as you are.”

I told Ken, with all due respect, that I agreed Injun did not understand why he had attacked me. The attacks had come out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly. But I could not agree Injun was sorry about it. I was not even sure he remembered it. Ken, like my husband, urged me to keep on with the bird as though nothing had happened. I hung up thinking perhaps I had accepted a male too quickly. Like our equipment supplier, Ken flew a female Harris’s. Maybe female Harris’s hawks were the kinder, gentler, more cooperative sex after all.

Another falconer kindly offered to take Injun off my hands. Despite the conviviality, I prickled at his words. I was not about to give up my bird! And I was not frightened of Injun—just wary and not wanting to lose an eye . . . or two.

I did not let the attacks keep me from flying Injun, but I was on guard every second. This hampered the enjoyment I normally got from working with him. I decided to try putting Injun in a spot where he was uneasy whenever I had to change his equipment. We happened to have an antique merry-go-round horse in our den. Injun didn’t trust the wooden horse at all and kept himself busy glaring at it. This gained me some small measure of safety, but I couldn’t take a merry-go-round horse with me to every place I went with the hawk. I needed to get to the bottom of matters as soon as possible. Jim and I talked it over. I stressed to him that unless I was protected in some way, I had no confidence in flying this bird.

“Frank Beebe has developed a new kind of glove with a pin or something you can hook into the jesses. Maybe a special glove like that would help you,” Jim suggested one day. “You should call him.”

Asking Frank Beebe for advice about hawks was like asking Moses for advice about the Ten Commandments. I had never met Frank, who lived in Vancouver, British Columbia. Beebe and Hal Webster collaborated on writing North American Falconry and Hunting Hawks, a work affectionately referred to by the majority of American falconers as “the Bible.” He was more than a master of masters in the realm of falconry—he was Moses. But I was a desperate woman, so I called him.

I have never met or spoken with another falconer who would not, at the drop of a hat, stop whatever he’s doing to help out a fellow falconer. It is inherent to the sport and to the passion of being a falconer. Frank was no different. He patiently listened to my tale of the events leading up to and including the attack. There was a pause after I finished, and then Frank began speaking. His words came slowly, and I knew he was giving serious consideration to my situation and to what he was telling me. “You know, there is a lot that has been written about Harris’s hawks lately, and most of what is in print is crap.” Frank explained that the words “cooperative” and “friendly” were poor attempts to describe attributes of a bird driven by instinct to do exactly what the person wanted it to do (hunting).

“Those little males, especially—there is a lot more going on with those birds than people realize,” he said. “And if the falconers flying them don’t pay attention, they’ll end up with some problems.” He told me male Harris’s hawks were high-strung birds exhibiting a lot more hunting drive and aggression than new owners of Harris’s were prepared to handle. He predicted more occurrences of what I had experienced would happen with others. Frank’s next words were the most valuable gift he could have given me. “You will work out in time what caused the bird to strike out at you, but what you really want to know right now is how to fly the son-of-a-gun without getting hurt.”

I murmured my assent. Frank had read my situation perfectly. He understood where I was at this point in time, and his final words to me were emphatically practical. “Well, just hold the little bastard’s feet down so he can’t get you!”

I developed for my own use what I refer to as the “Harris’s Hawk Death Grip.” I had begun falconry by emulating photos of accomplished falconers holding lovely, quiet birds regally on their hands with their jesses and leash draped artfully over and around the fingers of the glove. My grip gets right to the point of things. Both jesses are tucked snugly between the thumb and forefinger of my glove with little play for foot movement on the glove. The grip Frank had advised me to use enabled me to go onward with Injun, as Jim and Ken had suggested, as though nothing had happened. This was fine with Injun, who seemed to have no recollection of any of the events.

Frank’s words had done more than give me a new grip and more confidence. As a result of what he told me, I was on a mission. I was flying now, but flying was no longer enough. I had to know what was going on inside Injun. I needed to understand what I had done or not done to instigate this behavior. My husband, with his voracious appetite for reading and collecting books on falconry, and his near photographic memory, were huge assets in the undertaking of enlightenment.

The first thing I had to do was to assess what had changed in Injun’s world that may have affected his behavior. It did not take long for something to occur to me, and it was what should have been obvious all along, which was the fact he had been flown on prey. I found that it also helped to compare Injun to another hawk known for its strong hunting drive: the goshawk. Jim introduced me to the term “yarak” from one of his books. Despite differences in opinion, yarak is thought to mean a buildup of hunting aggression that causes the raptor to strike out without warning.

When we entered Injun on game, we had awakened his hunting instinct. Later, I came to realize raptors mature not by time but by events. Catching the quail had matured Injun and changed him from a young Harris’s into a grown-up, hunting Harris’s. Injun’s hunting drive went into gear, and, just as suddenly, all this hunting energy became something the hawk could not control. It was not viciousness or meanness; rather it was like steam escaping from a pressure valve into the atmosphere.

Was there another way to release this pent-up energy? I wondered. I found my answer in the lure. Catching it (the more chasing that had to be done, the better) was a fair substitute for hunting, I discovered. While hunting with the bird was the optimum release for his drive, catching a lure could alleviate the buildup of the tension inside Injun. I could not run fast enough to make a challenge of catching the bunny lure, which is dragged on the ground, so my answer was to work my hawk on the bird or flying lure (which is swung through the air). I sought ways in which to swing it to make it harder to catch. Varying the speed and changing the orbit were two ways to increase the difficulty.

I learned as many tricks as I could to play “keep-away” so Injun found it challenging. And the more we “played,” the better Injun got at catching it until he reached a point of such agility and speed that I could not get in more than one or two passes before he caught the lure out of the sky. Usually if hawks miss the lure, they will take a perch to swoop down once again on prey. Injun soon became so physically fit that if he missed a pass, he could turn in the air and re-pass again without stopping to perch in between. I got to be a much better lure swinger as a result of our workouts. We were now more in tune with one another and had found a way to keep Injun’s yarak satisfactorily, if temporarily, squelched.

Besides alleviating my problem with Injun’s levels of yarak, learning what made this fascinating bundle of nerves and instincts “tick” was as exciting as flying with him. I was ready to begin creating a partnership with my hawk.