How I became a falconer

Around 3:30 pm on a Wednesday afternoon I get a call from my neighbor, Lizzy, who was walking her two Blue Heelers on our farm. My dogs were on a red-tail down near the swamp, they didn’t touch it, but it looks hurt. I wasn’t sure what to do, and I wanted you to know. Lizzy is a good person, loaded with the kind of compassion for wildlife that is rarely tempered with practicality, I am glad to have her as a neighbor. I have been in contact with Jason, my region’s director, about offering our land to falconers for hunting. I fire a quick email off to Jason asking how to handle the bird. His reply comes fast, as though he is always on alert for these sorts of problems; “If you want to help, I would do it soon. The bird won’t survive long in it’s condition.” His reply email gives basic handling instructions. I go out to see if the bird was still there. He is.

A young male, he is down in the foot deep snow at the base of a massive dead locust tree. It is on the edge of the swamp that runs through the center of our farm, isolated and barren for years, it rises slightly above the other trees here. Feathers on his head are askew and he mantles and gapes at me as I approach. He does not fly away. I circle him to get a better look and note that he appears to lose sight of me on his left side. His right talon is clenched shut, but he is leaning on it. As I come close to cover him with a towel, he foots at me, and lets out a warning scream. He is in rough shape, and night is coming on, but there is fight in him yet; if he dies here, he will try to take me with him.

I hesitate for a moment, towel in hand, thinking. If I had not gotten that phone call, this bird would be dead shortly. Now I am faced with a choice – interfere with a wounded and hostile bird, perhaps being injured in the process, or allow nature to take it’s course. I know we have coyotes denning on the property, and if the cold does not take this hawk within an hour, they will. His body will not be wasted. On the one hand, I think, that’s life. Nature takes no prisoners. On the other hand, am I only hesitating because this 700 gram, starving and wounded bird is still terrifying? Am I only pausing for my own fear? The hawk weighs less than two pounds, but as he locks eyes with me, I feel a chill that has nothing to do with the twenty degree weather. I am alone on the farm, and night is creeping over the swamp like a shroud.

* * *

The red-tail looks up at me from the snowpack, there are dog prints all around him from Lizzy’s dogs. I make my choice. It is not in me to leave him. Walking slowly, in a circle as I have read one should do, I slowly close the distance toward him. He gapes wider, but makes no further sound. From his perspective, this is his last stand. Exhausted, wings drooping, he snatches at me with his good foot. He is ready to take me with him, if he can.

I come in from the side he appears blind on, trying to watch him only from the corners of my eyes. Nonthreatening, I hope. When I am close enough, I lay the towel over him. He is immediately calm, and beneath the towel he appears to crumple inward, becoming half the size in moments. I am not sure how to get hold of his legs, but I have seen pictures of hawks and understand basically how to cast him. I wrap the towel gently around him. He does not struggle. I pick him up, retaining control of his talons, heart pounding in my ears. I put him in a cardboard box, leaving another rolled towel inside to perch on. He is nearly still, moving only a little to gain his feet as I close the lid. I will drive him to the vet now, and maybe he will recover, but inside the box he is quiet, his fate unknown.

Maybe, the hawk on my passenger seat will survive. I am not a vet. I have learned all I needed to know about myself to be a falconer. As I drive off our property, the sun has set, the cold has come on, and the last birds are settling into their nests for the night. A long squirrel is hunched on a low oak limb, stuffing a last meal in before huddling into his nest. Another red-tail wings its way over the swamp, toward the darkening trees on the hill. I see it silhouetted against dark purple clouds for a moment, before it dips into the calmly waving branches over the pasture.