First Person: Falcon Walk

Last modified: Thursday, November 21, 2013
I recently met 45. He belongs to wildlife biologist and falconer Chris Davis, who breeds and trains the species Harris’s Hawk, named by James Audubon in honor of a friend. Forty-five is named unsentimentally for the last two digits on his leg band.

One presumes Audubon’s friend was handsome; 45’s head is cupped in soft, deep-brown feathers and his expression is a combination of fierceness and docility. The roundness of his head and wide spacing between the eyes lend a sweet cluelessness to 45’s looks, belying his ultra-serious purpose — to hunt and dine. Eventually he will learn to kill rabbits and squirrels with other Harris’s Hawks.

When I moved to the Pioneer Valley a few months ago and passed the small green sign on Route 47 in Hadley for New England Falconry, it was a no-brainer for me. For years I was a weekly zoo volunteer in Seattle, and an avid fan of the bird of prey shows where the peregrines, ferruginous hawks, great horned owls and bald eagles demonstrated impressive flying and hunting skills. There is something ancient and impenetrable in the countenance of these wild things. They are entirely “other” and evoke in me an elemental and an all-too-often elusive state of wonder.

I have always been drawn to specialties that call upon enormous mental concentration, discipline, and perseverance, maybe because I possess so little of the stuff myself. Perhaps taming animals is not so unlike starting a new life, laying down each new moment with great intentionality, to become a different person.

New England Falconry offers a variety of opportunities to interact with a trained bird. I chose a one-and-a half-hour session to free-fly a hawk.

The day of the appointment, in a meadow that Chris leases, I needed a light jacket though the sun was generous. The mosaic of leaves — burnt reds, rusts and yellows — flashed against the blue October sky, yet the landscape was tinged with antique white, hinting at the fleeting fact of autumn. Light foretells a season’s comings and goings.

Beneath a stand of full, hospitable trees, four Harris’s Hawks stood on bowed metal perches staked a few inches above ground. Forty-five was the immature member of the team, his plumage streaked with a wheat coloration. His older companions, likewise numbered, were more uniformly chocolate brown with chestnut-red thighs and shoulders. Their bird “bottoms” were white and a white band splayed across their tails. Staring from their thrones, they appeared smooth and hard as bronze sculptures.

Chris, a trim fellow of medium height with brilliant blue eyes and a well-upholstered head of frost-white hair, is an even-mannered, just-the-scientific-facts-Ma’am kind of guy. Introducing me to the birds by their numbers made it starkly clear that the birds are not pets. Chris cares for these intelligent and beautiful non-pets from egg to hatchling to adult, teaching them to fly and hunt over great distances on cue for the rest of their lives, which can be 30-some years in captivity. This hawk species will learn to hunt collaboratively, like wolf packs, with Chris as their escort.

Chris gave me a thick leather glove to wear on my left hand, instructing me how to lever my arm to offer a morsel of meat. Forty-five rode on Chris’ glove past a stand of cattail where Chris released the falcon to a tall perch further out into the field. Chris dabbed some ground quail on my raised glove and 45 sailed over. His talons encircled my forearm and I felt the weight of him settle. He gazed at me as if I were any other adequate tree branch, grabbed the snack with his notched beak, and flew back to the perch.

As we repeated the exercise several times, 45 lingered a tiny bit longer and I was able to touch parts of him, the cloud-like feathers soft as milkweed floss in the vent below his flanks and the acrylic hardness of his wings with their pale-yellow calligraphy. But as Chris and I strode further across the hummocky meadow, 45 lost quite a lot of his regal luster hopping alongside us, his wings held open like a flasher’s trench coat.

Eventually 45 flew ahead respectably into the immense trees and the training routine continued. From different vantage points in the field and forest’s edge 45 watched for me to raise the glove, and then flew to it for a bit more meat.

I wanted to make the experience personal, as if 45 and I were in a relationship, or at least on a first date. But Chris reminded me that for these creatures, “Their world becomes when they eat, and what the signals are that precede eating.” I am a part of their routine for just this brief moment, but the feeding, which Chris controls, is the center of their existence, and so they follow him.

I won’t spoil the finale for readers who might go out with Chris and his small falcon fleet trailing through the tall grass and on the wing. It involves a meal. For the birds I mean.

I have been here just over six months now. The rich, velvety blacks and burgundies of November are gathering on the edges of the land and sky, and the last leaves are falling in this place that is becoming my own.

Jo Ellen Warner is a writer living in Leeds.

For more information about New England Falconry, visit www.newenglandfalconry.com.

First Person welcomes submissions from readers. Email essays of no more than 800 words to Suzanne Wilson at swilson@gazettenet.com.