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

Part I. OWNED BY A HAWK

Chapter 5. Compatibility on Injun’s Terms

Compatibility on Injun’s Terms

Injun and I flew every chance and every place we could. Our partnership had become a tangible thing, and I reveled in the intensity of it. Then summer came and I put my bird up, as we do when our raptors begin molting. “Putting up” falconry birds means they are not flown, but left in the mew or the weathering yard (an outdoor fenced-in area where birds can be left safely tethered to a perch) to enjoy a life of leisure. Feathers are lost over a period of time during which falconers feed their birds well to ensure the incoming feathers will be strong. Because the molting birds are overweight, they must be brought back to flying weight when the molt is done and flying season approaches. We then put our birds on a regimen of less food to bring their weight back down, and that’s what I did with Injun.

As sometimes happens, he did not complete his full molt and had kept some of his juvenile tail feathers, but the beautiful cinnamon-and-sugar leg feathers I had so admired had been replaced with adult leggings matching the red patches on his shoulders. I was looking forward to the day he would begin to show avidity for food and we could again begin flights.

One afternoon I went out to feed him in the weathering yard. The fencing also covers overhead to protect the bird from the aerial attack of another bird or animal. On this day, Injun was sporting an enormously distended crop. He was so full of whatever he had eaten, the skin over his crop peeked grotesquely through his feathers. I could not imagine what he had consumed until I found the tail of a young chipmunk on the ground beside his perch. In whatever way the chippie had found his way into the weathering area, it was definitely a one-way trip. Plans for flying Injun had to wait a bit until he had digested his “chipmunk alfresco.”

As time went on, things between Injun and me kept getting better and better. During each flight we took together, it seemed as though our hearts and minds belonged to a single entity. That fall we were asked to do a falconry presentation for a children’s science museum. Jim and I had done talks for various groups before, and this was something I wanted to expand upon. It was fun to explain what I loved about our hawks and falcons, and people always seemed to appreciate learning more about the birds.

Tom Ricardi, who had given Injun to me, had become a close friend. Tom owned a large rehabilitation center for birds of prey. To help support it, he did innumerable talks for conservation groups and schools. I asked Tom about his presentations, knowing he sometimes included flight demonstrations. While he told me about his experiences flying Injun’s sister, a plan began to form in my brain. When the day drew near, I told Jim I wanted to include a flight with Injun as part of my presentation. Jim was not enthused; he would rather have tested this before doing it “live” in front of an audience. I thought about an old adage I had learned when I was jumping horses: At the point of doing it, you must throw your heart over the jump first and hope for the rest to follow. I was counting on all the hours Injun and I had spent hunting and lure flying to enable my plan.

All things considered, I had butterflies in my stomach when the time came for the flight demonstration. Jim, Injun, and I went out to the yard behind the small museum building, followed by about fifty people. A big oak tree dominated one corner of the yard. When I cast Injun off my glove, he sailed up into the tree. As soon as I could wrap my shaking fingers around the chick leg in my pocket, I transferred it to my glove and blew the whistle. In a flash, Injun glided down from his high perch and the crowd exclaimed “Ahhh!” His first flight steadied my nerves, so we went on with several flights. Everything went as smoothly as if we were flying at home. Afterwards, members of the audience told us that seeing flight up close was an unforgettable end to a program they had enjoyed very much. This was the beginning of many years of flight demonstrations in front of thousands of people.

Injun may have been my partner, but he was no pussycat. His long-term memory and hair-trigger temper required that Jim do the coping, or beak shaping, while I held Injun on my glove. We cope the beaks of our birds because they are not at liberty, as are wild raptors, to find a carcass on which to tyre or nibble bits of flesh from large bones. This nibbling or tyring wears the beak to keep it properly shaped. I would hold Injun firmly on my glove during the process as Jim was treated to Injun giving a harsh scream and attempting to lunge at him. Injun would harbor his ill will against my husband for two weeks afterwards.

We had evidence this hawk could hold a grudge for even longer. The day Tom Ricardi caught Injun in the mew had resulted in an abrasion to his cere (which is the nostril area above the beak) when he collided with the wall. Injun seemed to blame Tom for this for the rest of his life. About two years after Tom had given the hawk to me, he came to our home to attend a gun show with Jim. I was anxious to show Injun off, so I asked Tom to come out to the mew. We had gotten only halfway across the yard before Injun sighted Tom and let out a horrid scream. “Same to you, you old son-of-a-B!” Tom hollered right back. I had wondered why Injun would become sharp set, which means his posture showed him ready to launch himself towards and scream at mustached gentlemen wearing bill caps who attended our programs. After remembering that Tom had a mustache and often wore a bill cap, I now knew the reason. Even eight long years later, when we asked Tom to look over an injury Injun had sustained from a pheasant kick, Injun’s reaction to him was exactly the same.

Fortunately Injun didn’t carry a grudge towards me. In fact, he eventually became so trusting of me that I could do the beak coping myself. He would tolerate me while I held his beak with one hand and trimmed off the tip with my other hand. He seemed to be resigned to the necessity of the procedure. At the same time, Injun was never hesitant about letting me know if I had transgressed, no matter how innocent or unintentional the transgression had been.

One early spring day, when the weather was tempting us out-of-doors, Jim proposed a hike out at Camp Morgan, now a town park, in Washington, New Hampshire, where he had spent his youth as a counselor. For the first time in months, the sun was strong, and the snow covering the trails was finally melting. As was our custom, we each brought a raptor to carry along on the hike. We parked at Camp Morgan, where Jim unloaded his prairie falcon, Tater, while I lifted Injun out from his giant hood, tying his leash to my glove.

We started out along the old trail around Millen Pond as Jim pointed to where various camp buildings had once stood. The trail led into the woods and along the steep slope dropping down to the pond. Ahead of us we could hear the roaring of a boisterous cascade. To continue we had to cross a puncheon log bridge, which was built out of logs split lengthwise with their flat centers facing up in order to keep hikers from getting wet. On this day, however, the stream had grown from a trickle to a roaring torrent due to the snowmelt, and water occasionally splashed the walking surface of the logs.

As sure-footed as an antelope, Jim made a quick crossing carrying Tater and then turned to encourage me to follow. “Come ahead,” he called out. “It’s okay.”

I stepped out to find that the bridge was indeed sturdy. But what I also learned was that the soles of my fashionable hiking footgear were disinclined to adhere to water-soaked logs. I slipped and flew into the air, tossing Injun from my glove to the bank near where Jim was waiting. My landing left me in a dilemma. My lower body had landed on the bridge and was still relatively dry. My upper half, however, was hanging upside down below the bridge. Moreover, I was stuck! My right elbow was wedged between two of the boulders in the stream. The full force of the water in my face was not at all pleasant. At least I was able to twist my torso and neck to see Jim, Tater, and Injun on the bank on the other side of the bridge. Sitting high and dry on the bank, Injun glared at me then let out a scream that seemed to say, How dare you toss me aside so carelessly!

My husband had Tater on his glove and was busy trying to keep Injun from tangling his leash, which was still attached to me. He had no spare hand to extricate me from my predicament. The only way out of the situation was for my bottom half to become as wet and as cold as my top half. Resignedly, I rolled my legs off the bridge. Once right side up, I was able to extricate my elbow. With the rushing water nearly knocking me off my feet, I clambered up the bank and onto the path. I was thoroughly soaked and very cold. Jim was anxious to return to the car to get me warmed up, so I once again had to cross the damn bridge while wearing the damn boots! I retrieved Injun to my glove, where he treated me to another scream as if I had misunderstood him the first time. Once across, it was a long, cold ride back to Londonderry. After a couple of days, and several good meals, Injun forgave me.