The first year of falconry

My first year of falconry was swimming in a vast ocean of my own ignorance. In many ways, I am still doggie paddling there. Preparing for the state falconry exam, certainly, gave me a large swath of the book learning that I needed to talk about falconry, to gain some of the vocabulary, the code of the falconer. For fun, sometime, try getting spellchecker to recognize any of the specific terms for falconry equipment. Most of it, the software just draws little red squiggles under. Sampo, I type; Shampoo, the software suggests. None of that reading, however, did anything to prepare me for the lessons that working with a wild red-tail can teach.

On the good days we learn things like jumping to the glove, or flying on the creance. Later in the season we learn to flush chipmunks from under logs, gray squirrels from nests by shaking vines, and bunnies from dense thickets of thorns (these ground chases are the hawks favorites, as should she miss the cottontail, there is frequently a nearby vole to sate her hunger or a call to the glove and a tidbit for her hard work). On these days, the learning experience is excellent for myself and the hawk. On bad days, where I crawl bleeding under rusty barbed wire to retriever her from a tangle of brush where she is down on a squirrel, and bitten, I am less certain either of us enjoys learning at all.

Before I was a falconer, I was squeamish about hunting. Several people have expressed surprise at this. But if you felt bad killing a rabbit or a duck with a gun, why not with a hawk? Hunting is how a bird of prey survives. She is not doing this for fun, or for sport, and I am hardly firing her at 1000 feet per second at a squirrel 80 yards up. She is doing what she does because it is how she lives – anything I hunt for myself, with a gun or a trap, I could much more easily have purchased at a meat market. I’m not making an environmental argument here. I am an unashamed carnivore and a terrible recycler – on an emotional level, falconry is clean. I do not hunt with the bird because it amuses me, I hunt with the bird because it is necessary for her to live. Everything about her demeanor, her condition, blood flow to her toes, her posture, the amount of preening she does, improves after a hunt. Take a couple days off in a row and watch the bird deflate, become keep for the chase, I was quickly convinced of the necessity of frequent and fierce flights. So, squeamish? Not after the first couple hunts. Disgusted when I miss a day of flying her? Absolutely.

Being a falconer of course is more than passing an exam. It’s accepting that in the course of flying your bird, you and she will get hurt. This is not an if, as in playing basketball might cause a sprain; this is a when, like when in water you will be wet. It behooved me to read up on animal medicine, and find a country veterinarian willing to take an injured bird and trust me with prescription medication and their application. So much of the likely injuries to me or the hawk happen in the field. The first time I was footed, I was 100 yards from my car. The travel packet of styptic powder I usually reserved for the hawk’s feet did just as well pressed into the holes in my own palm. Learn to triage wounds now. Don’t want to hurt yourself to do it? Read up. Make friends with a doctor or nurse or veterinarian. Teach your bird to let you handle her feet – they’re going to get bitten and cut chasing food, best she gets used to you poking and touching them now, so she’ll foot you less when you’re cleaning them up later. I paid for my laxness here while treating those first few squirrel bites. I also learned that my bird was quick to accept any black glove more readily than my bare hand, so I stocked a supply of right-hand only gloves. Well, I didn’t buy only the right hand glove, but ask me where any of the left hand gloves from any given pair is and I couldn’t tell you.

More than the medical elements and potential physical injuries, falconry has taught me to maintain a particular state of mind. It’s not just about approaching each day’s activities with the hawk’s needs first, is the weather going to be good? I should be hawking if so. Will that trip cut into flight time? I should take the hawk or cancel. It is also about the changes made, mentally, in order to fly a bird every day. It is a priority, looking for the gaps in the snowfall, the moments of sun when game is out and moving. After a couple of months observing birds in flight I began to see the landscape differently. I look at woodlots and think not enough vines to shake or I see a hedgerow and give not a second thought to crawling through multiflora rose face-first but instead good spot for bunnies to hide. As a hawk’s hunting partner, I started to view the world from the hawk’s perspective. It was a strange shift, and one I hadn’t realized was occurring until, on a particularly sunny day in a mid-January thaw, I realized that tracking back we had been out for over 5 hours, taken multiple head of game, and had been perfectly attuned to each others movements; where she leaned, I went where she was looking and investigated; when I pounded on a dead tree, she flew to check the top of the trunk; when I shook a squirrel from a nest of vines, she was already cutting it off on its way to the next tree. This kind of zen mental state, of being part of the wild bird’s process is a pleasure and a privilege.

It’s also about accepting that this is my life now. The hawk is not going to forgive you forgetting to feed her when she’s burning 5-15% of her body weight each day, depending on the weather. Hawk has an injury that requires multiple treatments each day? Change your work schedule, your weekend schedule, your sleep schedule. Didn’t feel like flying today? Too bad, the hawk’s health and metabolism demand frequent flights, to say nothing of the ethical demands of taking a wild animal and then not permitting it to act in accordance with its instincts – in this case hunting. I thought I was prepared for what this commitment meant, but the process of making the decision, every day, to get up early, to get the bird up and hunting, to treat wounds, to cancel work and social obligations for injuries, to rearrange other outings because the weather is amazing, the hawk must hunt, to wake up at 6 am after vomiting all night with a stomach bug to sunshine and say I feel terrible, but the bird deserves to fly; all of this was a huge part of the mental transformation from I want to be a falconer to a space where I can’t imaging not flying a hawk. Each day my considerations are can I fly her safely? If so, when? Embracing all of that, good and bad, as a lifestyle is absolutely necessary.

Falconry is not about the numbers; it’s not the kind of sport where you compete against other’s scores. Even so, I do compete against myself a little bit, and I like to look back and see progress, and set a goal. As I set up for summer and next season, I am grateful that I kept a solid logbook. At this stage, at the end of my first season, Gale has taken 58 head of game. She has had a bit over 38 days of down time to hunting injuries (stitches and antibiotics kinds of injuries, twice), roughly 10 days because my job interfered, and lost 13 days to weather. We have hunted 66% of the days possible, or roughly 4-5 days per week. She flies best at 1075 grams, but can go a bit heavier if I don’t mind occasional energetic flights to great distance. I tend to avoid these, since most heavy days also carry notes like bird flew 300 yards away and was bitten by squirrel or had to use telemetry to find her a quarter mile away over a neighbor’s bird feeder.

I find these stats useful. They keep me grounded, and they give me a starting point against which to measure future seasons, as well as keeping me honest with myself. They let me know that my hawk has improved – substantially, so I am confident releasing her. Gale has gone from having a twelve-day stretch mid-season where she took no game, to taking game sixteen out of our last seventeen hunts. I do not know enough of other falconers’ activities for these numbers to tell me anything about hunting averages, however, they give me confidence that I am flying Gale at game every day I can reasonably do so. There’s no lying to myself this way. Sometimes hunts are short, because I have to work, or bad weather is coming in on the radar. Some days, beautiful,gorgeous late-season days, we hunt for 5 or 6 hours, right through lunch, working for doubles and enjoying the weather. I hunt her every day it is physically possible for both of us to do so without extreme risk, because to do anything else would deny her the chance to exist, fully, as she was born to; winging her way over a field on a downward slope, her focus laser tight, before she teardrops down into a thicket.