Toward late afternoon, when Matt Jones takes Luke out of the station wagon for the last hunt of the day, we are all expecting very little. It has not been a good day for hawking. The weather is way too warm, and anyway the only rabbits that have survived the winter are the quick and canny ones.
Still, we all want to see one more good flight, and there's always the hope that the next hunt will be the best.
We are parked next to a low, weedy field on the edge of Bloomington, Illinois. It's a remnant wild patch split by a small creek and wedged between a complex of light-industry buildings and a new subdivision. Bulldozers and pickup trucks grind among the unfinished frame houses, but red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks sing in the stunted trees along the creek, claiming this sultry afternoon as their own.
Matt has been complaining about the weather all day long, but only desultorily. No one in Illinois can be upset by 70-degree weather the first week of March, not even a falconer who wants one last good day to end the hunting season and isn't likely to get it in this heat. As Matt opens the rear hatch of his four-wheel-drive Subaru station wagon, he knows this will probably be Luke's last chance to hunt rabbits until next fall.
Matt pulls a heavy brown glove made of three layers of goatskin onto his left fist. A large home-built plywood box with two latched doors fills most of the station wagon's cargo bay. As he pulls the right latch and opens the door we hear a high peeping that sounds as though it comes from a songbird. But perched on a thick dowel in the box is a large brown-and-white hawk wearing a leather hood.
Matt reaches his gauntleted hand into the box and brushes it against Luke's feet. The hawk steps from the perch onto the glove, and Matt pulls him out into the open air. The peeping is quick now and almost painfully loud.
The dark brown leather hood covers all of Luke's head save the beak. It bulges out where his eyes are. On top is a festive little tassel made of thin strips of leather. Thicker leather straps fastened to either side of the back of the hood hold it tight on his head. Matt holds the right strap with his teeth and pulls the left with his right hand to loosen the hood. He gives the tassel a quick tug, and the hood comes off.
Technically Luke is a passage red-tail tiercel, twice intermewed. "Passage" means he was trapped during migration. The red-tailed hawk is the most common hawk throughout most of the midwest. "Tiercel," which is the proper term for a male hawk or falcon, comes from the Latin word for "three" and refers to the biological fact that male hawks tend to be one-third smaller than females. "Twice intermewed" means Jones has kept him in his mews--a large cage--during two summer molting seasons. Proper terminology is a big deal in falconry, which these days is often called hawking, because many falconry birds, including the red-tailed hawk, are not falcons. Historically the term "falcon" referred only to the female of what we now refer to as a peregrine falcon, one member of the falcon family. To complicate matters further, many ornithologists believe falcons are not hawks but a quite unrelated family of birds. All of them though are raptors, or birds of prey. It's usual to use "falconry" as the general term for the sport and "hawking" for the actual practice of hunting in the field, but it's best to just acknowledge the shortcomings of terminology and get on with it.
Whatever you call him, Luke is a beautiful bird, even now with his head feathers matted a little from the hood. Most of his body and wing feathers are dark brown, while his breast is white streaked with a rich orange brown. The head is mantled with gold. The tail feathers are a rich rufous, and a thin black streak runs through them near the end. When he spreads his wings for balance on the glove, we can see the underwings are as pale as a moth's.
Luke's eyes are brown, large, and glaring; he always looks alert. Biologists say that a hawk's eyes can see four times as acutely as a human's or better. They are almost as large as a human's eyes, in a body that weighs only two to three pounds. A hawk is so much a visual creature that putting a hood over its head cuts off a great deal of its sensory input--and calms it even while it's bumping along in a car or on horseback.
The eyes bulge outward, but a bony shield above them protects them from damage when the hawk plummets into brush after prey. The bony ridge gives birds of prey the fierce, proud look that made them part of so many national seals and corporate logos. But appearance alone doesn't satisfactorily explain why it's hard to look at the eyes but impossible to look away. A hawk can hold your glance and look right through you, and that predatory stare brings back some faint memory of what it's like to be nothing more than an item on the menu.
Luke's bill is large. The base is yellow, and the tip is a sharp blue hook for tearing flesh. Matt is always telling people that the bill is not dangerous--a hawk doesn't grab prey with its beak, but only uses it to tear meat. The talons are the business end, the curved dark claws on the lemon yellow feet. The skin on the legs and feet is traversed with countless small dark wrinkles. The claws hook inward, the longest about three-quarters of an inch long. Matt's gauntlet is scarred by those talons.
From each leg dangles a small brass bell about half an inch in diameter that's tied on with a strap of kangaroo leather, as well as another short leather band fastened with a metal grommet. A plain strap of brown cowhide about six inches long loops through each grommet; Matt now loops these hunting jesses, as they're called, through his gloved fingers.
Matt closes the back hatch of the station wagon. He is in his mid-20s, of medium build with tousled brown hair. He wears a T-shirt under a faded army green jacket. His beige canvas "hawking bag" hangs over the jacket; in it are, among other things, two pigeons from his loft. He will use them to lure Luke back if all else fails.
The five of us walk toward the creek--Matt, his old friend Tim Dorgan, Dave Giese and his son Tony, and me. We leap over the small muddy stream and walk up a short slope into the field proper.
We are crossing the short grass that grows between the creek and a large patch of brush when the first rabbit bolts. It bursts from the weeds, runs onto the grass, and heads north away from us. Someone yells "Ho, ho!"
Matt releases the jesses. Luke flaps powerfully and takes off from the gauntlet. Once he is in the air he pumps fast and flies low to the ground. He chases the rabbit and closes the gap. The chase takes a few seconds that seem much longer than the clock says. The rabbit swerves to the right into a brushy patch, and Luke follows it. All we see is the bird dropping swiftly to the ground. Then nothing.
The adrenaline flows. We run across the field, thinking that this flight looked close. This time Luke may have caught the rabbit. Maybe right now hunter and hunted are doing their final wrestling. But when we get there we see only Luke perched on a low mound of earth, surrounded by brush, glaring. There's no rabbit in sight.
Matt would prefer to be hunting this field in cooler weather. But the trip had been planned well in advance; Matt wanted to spend some time in the field with Dave, who is one of his apprentices. Matt will spend two years acting as mentor for each of his two apprentices. Part of that training involves long conversations about falconry techniques. Part of it involves Matt's willingness to be on call in case one of the apprentice's hawks gets sick. But mostly it involves going out into the field, where the apprentices can observe Matt's technique and he can observe theirs. "Falconry is mainly learned by watching others, by seeing what works and what doesn't," he says.
It was Matt's idea to drive to Bloomington. He saw this field for the first time last December during the annual meet of the Great Lakes Falconers' Association. Matt is on the association's board of directors, and he was the meet organizer. During those four days he tried out most of the fields in and around Bloomington. This one, he says, was especially thick with rabbits. And pheasants. The pheasant is not the red-tail's usual prey, but sometimes a skilled hawk can catch one of the big ground birds.
It was in Bloomington that Matt discovered falconry. Almost every falconer I have talked to can recall a particular experience that ignited a passion for birds of prey. Ultimately these stories seem to describe not the discovery of something new but the getting back to something basic--the pastime grips its disciples and becomes a defining part of their lives.
While Matt was studying for a social-science degree at Illinois State University in the mid-1980s, his girlfriend, Jane Armstrong, was studying ornithology, especially bird behavior, at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Matt wanted to better understand what she was doing, so he began doing volunteer work in the afternoon at the local zoo.
Miller Park Zoo is small; it was founded a century ago when a traveling circus left town without one of its lions. It was our first stop that afternoon during our tour of Matt's Bloomington. The sun was bright, and Matt and Dave were hoping the afternoon would become overcast and cooler. Matt showed us the zoo's red-tailed hawks and great horned owls; these birds were found crippled in the wild and will live out their lives in the zoo. Matt recalled feeding them and showing them off during educational programs. He remembered what it had felt like to heft these birds on his arm for the first time. He had longed to see them fly.
His favorite bird, one of the red-tails, had been shot and had its wing amputated. "This was a bird that had been captive for eight years," Matt says. "And it was still wild. It had that proud look. If you had to pick an adjective for a hawk, it would be wild."
After graduation Matt got a job teaching social studies at Deerfield High School, and Jane took a position as a biologist for the North Shore Sanitary District sewage treatment plant in Gurnee. The two moved to Waukegan and wrote to the state Department of Conservation asking for information on falconry. They learned that federal and state regulations require prospective falconers to pass a written test, then spend two years as an apprentice under a licensed falconer. Only after those two years is a falconer eligible for a general license.
The two were lucky enough to find Roger Tucker, a falconer who also lived in Waukegan. Tucker, the director of the Heller Nature Center in Highland Park, had just earned his license and did not yet have any apprentices (falconers with general licenses are allowed to have only two apprentices).
Matt and Jane spent much of the spring of 1989 studying for their falconer's exams. They read books and talked to falconers. They made flash cards of falconry terms. Matt drew up a reference chart that displayed the size and shape of various raptors and showed how many eggs each species typically lays. In May the two drove to the regional Department of Conservation office at Chain O' Lakes State Park and took their exams. The test is multiple-choice and consists of 100 questions on raptor identification and biology, conservation, health care, and falconry techniques and regulations. They both passed.
That summer they built a "weathering yard" behind their house. It was an open enclosure that came from a kit, an octagonal eight-foot-by-eight-foot bird cage. They also built a "jump box," a thick perch made of a wooden rod with rope wrapped tightly around it and sheltered from the weather by a wooden roof. Into the weathering yard they put another low "ring" perch made of rope wrapped around a roughly circular structure of metal pipe. Once they were done they got in touch with the DOC, which sent a conservation officer to inspect the facilities. The successful inspection was the final requirement Matt and Jane needed to get their combined state and federal permits, which cost $100 apiece and arrived in September. Soon after, for another $30 each, they received their trapping permits from the state. An Illinois apprentice falconer's permit allows the falconer to trap either a kestrel--the smallest falcon--or an immature red-tailed hawk, and to maintain that bird and fly it for two years. After earning a general permit the falconer may keep most other sorts of raptors--except species on the federal threatened or endangered lists, which may be flown only by master falconers. General falconers must practice for five years before they are eligible for a state master's permit.
Take this Observation by the way, that it is the duty of a Falconer to be endowed with a great deal of Patience; and in the next place he ought to have a natural love and inclination to Hawks. --Nicolas Cox, The Gentleman's Recreation (1674)
That fall Matt went out with Roger Tucker to trap a hawk. They used what is called a bal-chatri trap, which is a box of wire mesh with nylon nooses tied to the top. The technique is this: put a few mice or pigeons in the box and drive down a country road. When you see a hawk you'd like to trap, drop the box out the window and keep driving so you don't spook the hawk. The hawk will fly to the box and in attempting to get at the bait will entangle its talons in the nooses.
Matt and Roger knew a good place near Crawford Road in rural Lake County. They drove around the area until they saw an immature red-tail. They dropped the trap out the window and kept going. "Even before we turn the car around," Matt recalls, "this bird is on the top of the trap, dancing around. We're sure it's caught. But as we're coming back, it flies up into a tree."
The same thing happened five days in a row--no matter how sure the two were that the bird was ensnared, it always managed to fly off before they reached the trap. "I was getting kind of discouraged," says Matt.
On the sixth day, September 30, they again saw the same bird swoop down and dance on the trap as if its feet were caught. "It really looks like it's caught," Matt says. "And as we drive up, he takes off into a tree." The two drove near the tree and figured the hawk would fly away. Unexpectedly, it swooped right down onto the trap again. This time Matt and Roger figured they would wait as long as it took. It was after six in the evening, getting dark already. Three deer walked across the road. "The next thing I know is I see him dragging the trap across the road," says Matt. "So we rushed over, and I unhooked him and wrapped him in a towel."
Matt held the hawk on the drive to Roger's house, where the two dusted the bird for mites. Then Matt took him home, introduced him to the new ring perch, and fastened straps and an identification band onto his legs. He named him after Luke Skywalker of Star Wars. Then Matt was ready to begin training.
The falconer does not teach the hawk to hunt--the bird already knows how to do that. The object is merely for the hawk to tolerate a human presence as it is hunting. This is done by training the bird to come to the falconer's glove upon command. And that is accomplished by teaching the hawk to associate the glove with food.
Matt began by periodically holding a dead quail in his glove--making sure to expose a little red meat--and showing it to the hawk. Finally, on the third day, Matt held the glove to Luke's beak, and the bird began eating.
Matt soon had Luke stepping onto the glove for meat, then hopping a short distance. Soon he was ready to fly Luke outside on a creance, a long leash. Matt used a 100-foot nylon cord tied to a two-foot length of two-by-four; if Luke reached the end of the cord, he would not be jerked to a sudden halt but would be slowed down as he dragged the board through the grass. Matt flew Luke at a local soccer field. He released Luke and let him perch on the goal. Then Matt walked downfield. He practiced calling Luke to his glove from greater and greater distances. Often Luke didn't even wait until he was called. He was performing well.
Matt also trained Luke to fly to a lure, a leather bag tied to a nylon cord that the falconer can swing in the air to attract the hawk's attention. Some falconers tie wings of particular birds to the lure in order to train their bird to attack certain prey species. Because Luke's main prey would be rabbits, Matt used a plain leather bag. He tied bits of food to it to make the effort of catching it appealing to Luke.
It was October 26--almost four weeks after trapping him--before Matt felt ready to try a free flight. "The thing about training that's most difficult is untying the creance," he says. It is the moment when all the training is on the line. He took Luke to the athletic field again. He let Luke fly to a goalpost, then called him to his glove. The hawk came back without hesitation.
A few weeks later Matt took Luke flying near Libertyville. It was a windy day. Matt let Luke fly up into a tree, walked upwind, and called him back. Training is a matter of progressively challenging the hawk to learn new things--this time Matt was trying to teach Luke to follow him, to stay close. But Luke drifted downwind instead. The next time Matt looked the bird was 400 yards away, on the other side of a fence. Matt was worried because he hadn't been working with the bird very long. He took out the lure and swung it around his head. Luke took off instantly and flew toward him, into the wind. It took him 30 to 45 seconds to get back, but Matt knew then that he had trained the hawk well.
The prospect of having a hawk fly away is always worrisome to falconers. No matter how much training you've done, there's always the possibility that your bird will just fly out of sight and hearing. It may not be hungry enough to respond to the sight of your glove; it may be blown away by strong winds; it may just see something interesting elsewhere. Fly a wild-trapped hawk too late in the spring, and the migratory urge may send it flying north. But the prospect of escape is also one of the real draws of falconry. It is a constant reaffirmation of what falconers say about their birds, that they are still wild.
While tethered to a perch, a hawk will sometimes "bate," or attempt to fly, and end up flapping uselessly on the ground. A bating hawk is a pitiful sight--or perhaps not really pitiful, since pity implies a need for help, and the only help the hawk appears to want is to be let loose so it can fly away and avoid people and jesses in the future. A hawk flying to the gauntlet is the opposite: to all appearances, it's returning from free flight to a captivity it chooses to tolerate. Critics will claim that the training process is one of inducing the hawk to return to the falconer. Perhaps it makes no sense to use the term "free will" in speaking of animals, but if a hawk is exercising its own will--trying to escape captivity--while bating, then it must also be doing so while returning to the glove.
Falconers point out that captive raptors spend their time in much the same way as wild ones: short periods of flight and hunting interspersed with long periods of inactivity, of watching and waiting or digesting. And any falconer who claims special insight into the raptor's mind while it is perching and looking around is just fantasizing.
"If you have a bird but aren't flying it, you're not a falconer," says Matt. "To be a falconer, you've got to take the bird hunting. You've got to take it out to do what it's meant to do. People ask how you teach a bird to hunt. You don't. All I've done is to teach the bird to allow me to be with it while it's hunting."
In realizing that the bird can fly away, the falconer acknowledges that things are always not quite within human control--which is a large part of the sport's appeal. In releasing the bird, the falconer must put a degree of trust in his or her own ability to train the bird and to read the wind and weather. It's a matter of tiny insights, of trying to figure out beforehand what the bird can and will do--and even a lifetime of experience will not enable you to predict every time what will happen. Even experienced falconers lose a bird sometimes. One of the truisms of falconry is that you cannot train a hawk or falcon to do anything it wouldn't do in the wild. Since you don't become a falconer by taming a wild bird, the only way to do it is to become just a little bit wild yourself. And so the falconer exults every time the bird takes off from the fist.
After she got her license Jane Jones began flying a kestrel, a small falcon that hunts mainly mice, sparrows, and large insects. He hated his perch, and Jane hated killing mice for his meals. Eventually he escaped from his cage and she has not returned to falconry since. A few months ago Matt was present at the first free flight of a red-tail belonging to another falconer's apprentice. The hawk just flew and flew and did not come back. It was the end of weeks of training but also a confirmation of the wildness and even mystery that explains--as much as anything can explain obsession--why falconers do what they do.
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty;
And, till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
--Petruchio, in The Taming of the Shrew
After the visit to the zoo we drove to a brushy field next to the highway, where Dave flew his red-tail, a male named Nahana. The sky did become overcast as clouds grew out of the heat haze, but the outing was not very successful. Twice we flushed rabbits, but Dave wasn't able to get Nahana off his fist quickly enough. The hawk flapped his wings but the jesses were still between Dave's fingers, so Nahana ended up upside down, hanging from the glove and flapping his wings futilely. Once he was airborne, he flew first into a large roadside tree, then into a short tree in the middle of the field. Dave had to bend the branches down and stick his glove right under Nahana's feet before the hawk jumped on.
It is useful to think of birds of prey as metabolic furnaces that burn fuel--meat--more quickly as the temperature drops. During warm weather they digest their food rather slowly. This helps to explain their behavior, sometimes.
The aggressiveness of a hawk's flight and attack is directly related to the hunger the bird feels. A falconer wants to fly a bird that's hungry--not to the point of weakness, but enough so that it's really aggressive. Feeding the bird is a matter for careful calculation: how much should it be allowed to eat, and when, so that it's in prime condition come flight time? The falconer who's not acutely aware of the temperature, the wind, and the hawk's condition is not likely to have a successful day.
But knowing all those things is still no guarantee of success. During Nahana's outing we humans grew a little frustrated at the bird's lack of enthusiasm. Once Dave and Tim flushed a rabbit and drove it straight toward Nahana, who was perched 20 feet up in a tree. The hawk looked and looked but did not take off. The men were yelling, juices flowing, and still the bird just perched. When he finally launched, he was too late; he followed the rabbit but could not prevent it from disappearing into a hole. So when Matt later flew Luke he knew the chances for a kill were slim.
Luke flies best during meets, when Matt has time to fly him consistently day after day. This winter Matt has also been caring for another hawk, a southwestern Harris's hawk. The demands of caring for and flying two large hawks are great, and the warm weather has cut into the flying time. Luke is out of practice. Matt is 90 percent sure that he will not "put the bird up" after today--that is, he won't fly Luke again until the fall. Luke will spend the spring and summer in his weathering yard, putting on weight and slowly molting--losing his wing and tail feathers two by two and growing new ones. (Many falconers, especially those who really enjoy the process of training a new bird, let their birds go in the spring so they won't have to care for them all summer.)
One of the reasons Matt liked the Bloomington field when he saw it in December was the large pile of bulldozed dirt in the middle of the field, a relic of some earth-moving operation that will last only until this place too is covered by a subdivision. The mound is 15 feet high and thickly covered with weeds. If Matt stands on the rim of the mound, Luke will have the advantage of height--red-tails often hunt by perching on a tree or post above an open area and waiting for a rabbit or mouse to show itself.
Matt plans strategy as if this were a military campaign. He will climb the mound with Luke; Tim will stand nearby with the video camera. Dave, Tony, and I will walk through the brush on the side of the mound and--it is hoped--flush a rabbit into the open.
We push through the dried wildflowers and cockleburs, which cling to our shoelaces. It's almost like being a kid again and having the freedom to get muddy or climb dangerous trees. We don't find a rabbit until we're off the side of the mound and into the field to the north. The rabbit runs from the brush onto the short grass near the creek. Luke takes off and follows, gaining rapidly. The rabbit veers left to avoid hitting a leafless shrub, but Luke veers right. The rabbit runs past the shrub, but Luke continues flying straight instead of turning left after it. The rabbit dashes into a hole. It was close. Luke flies on, seemingly headed toward a utility pole by the road, then swoops down onto a mound of dirt.
Matt is relieved. The last time Luke landed on a power pole, in midwinter, he got shocked. Matt saw his bird tumble to the ground and thought he might be dead. Matt had heard any number of power-line horror stories from falconers. The worst are about birds that drop dead without ever touching a line or pole; the falconers say it's from electromagnetic radiation. A falcon stoops near a power line, and bam--it's dead, just like that. "I'm pretty confident I will have a bird fly away some day," Matt says. "And I'll probably have a bird get killed too. Some birds seem to have a disposition to sit on poles."
When Matt reached Luke, he found the bird lying on the ground, his right wing out at the wrong angle. Matt thought the wing was broken. He picked Luke up, got to his car, and drove to the nearest pay phone. It was late afternoon. He called the animal hospital and asked whether they could stay open later than usual. He would be there as soon as he could.
The veterinarian found that the wing was not broken, just sprained. It took several weeks before Luke was ready to fly again. The injury really cut into the season--in Illinois the rabbit-hunting season runs from the beginning of October to the end of March.
Even now, more than a month later, Matt lures Luke back to his glove with the lure and sees that the right wing is drooping ever so slightly, though it's barely noticeable when the bird perches on the glove. He believes the wing droops when Luke is getting tired.
Falconry emerges in recorded history as a civilized outgrowth of the ancient respect hunting and gathering peoples must have had for the hunters of the air who could so easily reach inaccessible prey and kill it with such alacrity. The Amahuaca Indians of Peru, writes one falconer, still boil the talons of hawks and smear the juice on their bodies before going out to hunt alligators or peccaries.
The ancient Egyptians' sun god Horus was a falcon; they left behind hundreds of thousands of mummified desert falcons, which turned up in a tomb at North Saqqara in 1964. A trained falcon appears on a man's fist in a bas-relief made in Khorsabad on the Tigris River around 1700 BC. In the seventh century BC King Wen Wang hunted with trained hawks in what is now the Chinese province of Hunan. A mosaic made in Argos, Greece, about 1,500 years ago depicts a falconer with a gauntlet very like those still used today. The founding of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is ascribed to a favorite falcon of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, that brought a pheasant to ground in a particularly lovely woodland glen. King Harold rides off into immortality on the Bayeux Tapestry holding a fierce but unidentifiable hawk on his bare fist. Marco Polo, traveling east through central Asia, saw the shaheen, the Middle Eastern race of the peregrine falcon, and wrote, "Their flight is so swift that no bird can escape them." He reported that Kublai Khan employed 10,000 falconers to capture and exercise his raptors. Even in the Americas there must have been falconry hunts, for when Cortez met Montezuma he found the Aztec with a cast of trained hawks.
By Marco Polo's time falconry was a major pastime for the European nobility; what may have begun as a practical method of catching fast-moving prey had become an aristocratic diversion. Henry II and Thomas Becket participated together in hawking parties until their fatal falling-out; no doubt they flew birds of different species. The Europe of the Middle Ages, so concerned with rank, designed an elaborate falconry hierarchy that assigned to every rank a particular raptor species. Only an emperor might fly an eagle; a king, the large gyrfalcon of the Arctic. Different types of peregrine were assigned to several ranks of the upper nobility: princes, dukes, earls, and barons. (The higher ranks flew the falcon, or female, which is larger and stronger than the tiercel. To this day falconers refer to birds of unknown gender as "she," since female birds have usually been considered most desirable for falconry.) A squire flew the African lanner falcon; a lady flew a petite merlin. A yeoman hunted for food with a goshawk, which is possibly the most efficient hunter on the entire list. (The nobility, who didn't have to worry about how to put food on the table, were more interested in the dramatic flights of the large falcons.) A priest might fly a female sparrow hawk; a holy-water clerk flew the tiercel. A knave could entertain himself by catching grasshoppers and sparrows with a kestrel.
It was a good time to be a falconer. Game was plentiful because there weren't many efficient ways to catch it until accurate guns became available. Those who owned the falcons owned the game and the land; as Frank Beebe writes in North American Falconry and Hunting Hawks, "They could, and did, ride straight across croplands or gardens if the line of the chase demanded it, and with no fear of any interference or protest on the part of villein or serf who worked the land."
Still, there were scofflaws. In 1364 King Edward III decreed that stealing a falcon was an offense that merited hanging. One thief took the bishop's falcon from the cloisters at Bermondsey; he was merely excommunicated. In the 15th century The Book of Saint Albans recommended cutting off a hand as suitable punishment for anyone bold enough to fly a hawk incommensurate with his or her rank. Allegedly written by a prioress, Dame Juliana Barnes, whose existence has been disputed, this book is a lengthy discourse on hunting etiquette that also includes the largest known list of medieval venereal terms, or animal-group names. The proper use of such terms--a herd of harts, a cast of hawks, a gang of elk, a siege of herons--was an aspect of medieval outdoor manners almost as important as the question of what weapon, or bird, to use.
The treatise on falconry though is De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (On the Art of Hunting With Birds), which was written by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen in the 13th century. Frederick was quite a character. He ascended the throne of the Holy Roman Empire in 1220 at age 25 and ruled for 30 years. He was a Christian who maintained a seraglio and negotiated the first peace treaty with Muslims in the holy land. He was excommunicated twice. Ostensibly he was king of the Germans, but he preferred to spend his time in southern Italy and Sicily, where his main passions were building castles and hunting with falcons. The castles he built were equipped with elaborate towers and mews for his falcons.
Frederick was a talented ornithologist. He debunked the myth that barnacle geese hatch from barnacles and carried out experiments on artificially incubating birds' eggs. He claimed he wrote De Arte because no one else had compiled all that was known about falconry. His manuscript, never completed, runs into hundreds of pages, all hand-copied. He also drew, with considerable skill, many of the bird portraits in the book.
From the book we learn about the forms of falconry considered stylish in the 13th century. Frederick hunted ducks with peregrine falcons, herons and cranes with gyrfalcons. Catching food was a fringe benefit; the main object was to witness beautiful, dramatic flights, for which the falcons were well equipped. The peregrine falcon was taught to circle hundreds of feet above the falconer, then dive in a "stoop" onto a duck that was flying for its life. The larger gyrfalcon dove from a lesser height onto cranes or herons; the beauty of its flight lay in its endurance, for a gyrfalcon is probably the only raptor that can pursue a fast-flying bird for miles and catch it in the end.
Frederick described how to obtain a bird, how to feed it, and how to train it to fly after a particular prey species by using a lure made of the feathers of that bird. The quarry has changed--it is no longer legal to chase cranes or herons--but De Arte can still be used as a training manual; little about falconry equipment or technique has changed much in the last 750 years. Nor perhaps has the falconer, who should, Frederick wrote, "aspire to have only fine falcons, better trained than those of others, that have gained honor and preeminence in the chase. . . . A falconer in this class secures the best hunting birds available; he does not abuse them, but preserves them in good health and in proper training. He does not overwork his falcons, and yet keeps them up to the mark in all respects. He is the one who realizes the essentials of a noble art."
Matt has walked south into the brush again with Luke. The hawk is tired, but there are so many rabbits that Matt can't help but fly him again. And those of us beating the brush can't help the rush of adrenaline that comes when a rabbit flushes, when we yell and the hawk takes flight in pursuit. With Matt standing near, I scare up a rabbit in some low weeds. Luke takes off immediately in pursuit, flying low over the dead stalks and nearing the rabbit, which is heading toward the cover of thicker brush. Luke seems almost ready to stretch out his talons and grab the rabbit when it makes a mighty leap, at least two feet up into the air and several times that distance horizontally, and gains the brush. Luke pulls up to avoid flying into the shrubbery, and the rabbit swiftly disappears down a hole.
It doesn't matter. I had felt the exuberance of watching a good flight, the thrill of a chase, the irrational thought that surely the rabbit was showing off by leaping so extravagantly. At that moment nothing important was happening in the world except that huge leap and the wind of wings on the rabbit's back.
Fifteen minutes later we are back at the cars and Matt is feeding Luke his daily ration. Today it's a rabbit leg--a remnant from an earlier, successful expedition. The hawk holds the meat down with his talons and rips pieces off with his sharp hooked beak. He's eager. He eats, looks around briefly, then returns to the meal. Somehow a piece of gore ends up on top of his head. We laugh, and Matt brushes it off.
The sunset is all gray clouds and orange light beyond the warehouses. We sit on the curb, replace heavy boots with sneakers. We all have long drives back north and we too are hungry, but right now no one is in a hurry. It's time to recall the day, to reflect on the rabbit's great leap, on the "wing-over" Luke did when he attempted to fall on that first rabbit. Among falconers there's no end to these stories, to the minutiae of behavior and chance.
"It's a beautiful sunset, we had some nice flights, and the birds are in the cars," says Matt. I think he means, "Isn't that perfect?" He smiles. When we look back over the field a pheasant cock is parading right out in the open. He stayed well hidden before, but now he knows he's safe. The sight of him makes us laugh. Right now it's easy to think a kill would have made no difference to us. Right now nothing feels better than a good laugh.
When Frederick II had special falcon towers built at his Italian castles, he was undoubtedly not the first falconer to go to great lengths for his sport. Nor was he the last. Falconry still inspires extraordinary devotion. Or at least it inspires stories of extraordinary devotion, like that of the young man who hiked into the Arctic barrens to nab a gyrfalcon from its nest but got lost on the return trip. When he was rescued he was half starved, but the falcon was fine because the man had fed it strips of his own flesh. Or the story told by an American dermatologist, who was flown to Arabia in a private jet to heal a sheik of the skin rash he had contracted by sleeping next to his 29 falcons every night.
"It's a consuming sport," says Matt Jones. "It's not a hobby--it's a way of life. If you ask me who I am, I'm a falconer, probably even before I'm a teacher. Every decision you make deals with how it will affect falconry." Indeed, he has asked to have his teaching schedule altered next year so that he can leave school earlier and take Luke out more often.
The law says that falconry cannot be learned alone. An apprentice can practice only under a sponsor. As there are only about 100 falconers in Illinois, most in the Chicago suburbs, would-be falconers--especially those from rural areas--may have a hard time finding a sponsor. Most falconers seem to accept apprentices reluctantly, not because they don't want to teach others about their sport, but because they don't want to encourage anyone who lacks real devotion.
"When you take up falconry, everything in your life will change," says Bernadotte Richter. She is secretary of the Great Lakes Falconers' Association, which in spite of its name, is made up only of falconers from Illinois. She is also editor of the group's newsletter and one of the instructors for the seven-part seminar the organization offers prospective falconers every year. The other instructor is her husband, George, a past president of GLFA. Berni says even the seminars are "a way of proving your mettle." Some of this year's attendees drive 100 miles or more to get to the Richters' Naperville home. They figure anyone who does that seven times is on the right track.
During this year's first session, in March, Berni describes the hours that nine prospective falconers must commit. The bird must be fed every day; she must be checked for signs of illness; the weathering yard must be kept meticulously clean; the equipment must be maintained. You will be giving up all other hobbies when you take up falconry, she says. At times it will seem you have given up your social life too.
Figure a dollar a day in chicken and quail to feed the bird, says George. Figure $80 to $100 for leather and other equipment. Building a weathering yard and jump box--maybe $450 if you do it yourself. If you want a falcon, you will need a loft of pigeons for training. And you should have a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the muddy roads of late winter. Then there are licenses: the three-year falconry permit for $100, the trapping permit for $30, the annual hunting license, for varying sums, depending on what you want to hunt. And then there may be veterinary bills.
The difficulty of becoming falconers is only one of the reasons they have often been thought of, in modern times anyway, as an elitist and rather shadowy group. Until the 1970s, for example, the only way to obtain a peregrine falcon was to snatch a chick (an eyas) from an aerie or trap a migrating bird (a "passage bird") in the fall. A few falconers saw nothing wrong with taking not one but all the eyases from a peregrine aerie. Bird-watchers and environmental groups in particular were ambivalent about falconers, regarding them as people whose rather perverse love for the birds could be expressed only by raiding nests and robbing the wild of the very creatures they loved (an attitude that still persists to some extent).
The romance attached to falconry for so long has made the occasional bad publicity very interesting. In 1984 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the dramatic news that a number of falconers had been arrested for illegally accepting raptors snatched from the wild. It was a sting operation dubbed Operation Falcon, and the fact that it was government agents who took the birds from their aeries didn't change the general perception that many falconers must be involved in such dubious activities.
The operation's most romantic disclosure involved a West German man who was indicted in 1984 for buying gyrfalcons, allegedly for resale to Saudi Arabian sheiks. Large amounts of money were said to be involved. Falconry has always been wildly popular on the Arabian peninsula, where the sport seems to retain some of the elitist cachet that even the most snobbish American falconers have come to regard as medieval. Some sheiks will pay outlandish prices for good birds, and gyrfalcons are especially popular. They are valued for their sleek looks as much as for their speed and endurance. One Saudi allegedly offered to write a $25,000 check on the spot for the white gyrfalcon that is the mascot of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs (the offer was declined--presumably the U.S. military is sensitive to any perception that it can be bought by oil dollars).
By all accounts, the U.S. government strove mightily with Operation Falcon to gain only a handful of indictments. "The vast majority of falconers hold very rigidly to the law and want to make their sport look professional," says John Buhnerkempe, the Illinois Department of Conservation official in charge of approving falconry licenses. "They're a very demanding group. They demand a lot of their people. I think they're well ahead of other hunting groups."
Operation Falcon was perhaps the final kick in the pants falconers needed to accept the idea that in an age of publicity they would be better off not being quite so secretive. But the changing perception of the birds themselves has been a major factor too.
Falconry, as a largely aristocratic diversion, was never imported across the Atlantic. Anyway, by the time the United States was established firearms had become a much more efficient way to kill game. And in a nation of yeoman farmers hawks, eagles, and owls were far more likely to be seen as enemies than as entertaining hunting companions. They were branded as rapacious killers of lambs, chickens, and other wild birds. (Some raptors do attack those animals, but not to the extent that was claimed.) Even ornithologists condemned some raptors as "murderous," "destructive," "bloodthirsty."
But the subsequent slaughter of raptors went well beyond any notion of protecting agriculture by killing predators. Later, hunting hawks was done just for entertainment. The example of Fisher's Island in Long Island Sound, where more than 14,000 birds of prey were shot while migrating south during some autumns in the 1920s and '30s, is by no means unique.
Bucking this tide, a few scattered Americans became interested in falconry and learned, sometimes by trial and error, some of the old techniques. But the bad reputation raptors had meant that falconers were always in some danger of having their birds blown away by malicious or ignorant gunners. The sport was barely regulated; George Richter, who has been a falconer since 1966, recalls that all he had to do to become a falconer in official eyes was to send the DOC a letter stating that he wanted to be one. Falconers generally kept a low profile, figuring that most members of the public either thought hawks were nasty predators and would distrust anyone who kept one, or thought hawks should remain entirely in the wild and would distrust anyone who kept one. The prevailing philosophy among falconers was: By being secretive we will dissuade those who might be interested in the sport but are not fully prepared to devote the time and attention required to the bird.
Nowadays organizations like GLFA--the second-oldest regional falconers' group in the U.S., founded in 1956--dissuade the uncommitted by openly letting the public know that theirs is a demanding sport. To that end GLFA sponsors exhibits at the Illinois State Fair and other events, and welcomes newcomers to its meets (part of the purpose is social, since falconry tends to either attract loners or make loners of its practitioners).
They walk a fine line between informing the many people who find falconry interesting--what state-fair visitor would not be arrested by the sight of a large hawk calmly staring down passersby?--and provoking those who find it offensive. Yet so far antihunting activists have been able to restrict or ban falconry only in a few places. The sport is banned in Connecticut and Rhode Island due to the efforts of what Ken Felix, president of the North American Falconers Association, calls "little old lady Auduboners who are opposed to falconry for absolutely, positively irrational reasons."
In general, though, the animal-rights issue has remained more a worry than a threat. GLFA vice president Rick Wenneborg points out that compared to other forms of hunting, falconry is "a small target." There are only a few thousand falconers in the U.S. Felix says, "We have not been accosted [by animal-rights activists]. Either they don't know about us, or they step back and see that people are not doing the killing. It's the natural world of prey and predators. What we do is basically glorified bird-watching."
The existence of so many state and national falconers' organizations has fostered a certain confidence--strength in numbers counts even when the numbers are small. It has also led to a concrete improvement in relations with conservation officials, who have shown themselves willing to accede to falconers' wishes in loosening regulations in many states. Wenneborg, who also serves as the GLFA's legislative liaison, says, "We're in a supergood period with the state. We've got great cooperation." Illinois recently liberalized its regulations so that they virtually match federal regulations.
The good relations have come not only through activism but also because of increasing biological evidence that falconry isn't deleterious to either the raptors or the prey species. Biologists generally agree that the field practice of falconry cannot have much of an impact on the environment. "There aren't enough falconers for them to have much impact on game populations," says Bob Bluett, the Illinois Department of Conservation officer responsible for overseeing falconry regulations. Ken Felix calls falconry "a very unproductive manner of hunting"--a raptor typically nails its intended prey only about 10 percent of the time. Luke caught only 16 rabbits all winter long, probably far fewer than a wild red-tail.
As for the raptors, ornithologists believe that about 70 percent of new-fledged raptors do not survive their first year in the wild. It's hard to learn how to hunt, especially in the winter, when food is relatively scarce and calories are most urgently needed. And there's lots of competition from adult birds with years of experience. (Once past their first winter, many raptors live to ripe old ages: one wild red-tail lived to age 21, a peregrine to age 12.) By trapping young birds before their risky first winter and guaranteeing them a meal ticket, falconers save hawks that would otherwise starve. Afterward some of them will escape and breed in the wild; some falconers intentionally release their birds for that very reason. (Matt Jones says he may release Luke once he has been with the hawk for five years, though he adds that by then he may be too attached to the hawk to let him go.)
"The vast majority of falconers are raptor conservationists," says Felix. Ironically, it's not just better education about the role of predators in ecosystems that has helped improve public opinion of raptors and of falconry, but the near extinction of the peregrine falcon. In the 1950s and '60s peregrine populations declined drastically in the U.S. and Europe. The birds were laying eggs with thin to nonexistent shells, which the adults broke while trying to incubate them. Biochemical research eventually revealed that the culprit was the insecticide DDT, which had been widely used since World War II to control insect damage to crops. DDT residues passed up the food chain and collected in the fatty tissues of bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and other high-level predators. Both raptors were in danger of being extirpated from their range in the continental U.S. by the time DDT was banned from domestic sale in the early 1970s (it is still manufactured here for sale overseas).
In the 1960s, when some ornithologists were predicting the peregrine's imminent extinction, no one knew more about the bird than falconers. In an effort to augment the rapidly diminishing wild population, several east-coast falconers figured out how to get the birds to breed in captivity.
When it came time to release their newly bred falcons, the experimenters used techniques straight out of Frederick's book. Medieval falconers took their young falcons from wild nests but raised them by hand to accustom them to human company. Yet they believed the eyases had to spend some time in the wild on their own to learn how to hunt well. The falconers learned to release the eyases at a designated spot and to regularly leave fresh meat there for them. The fledglings survived on the precaught food until they had honed their hunting skills and could support themselves--at which point they were retrapped.
This method, known as "hacking," is still used today in releasing captive-bred falcons, such as those living in Chicago. Twenty years of captive breeding and releasing throughout the U.S. have brought the peregrine back to much of its former breeding range.
Captive-bred peregrines are now relatively common not only in the wild but also on falconers' fists. Since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1972 it has been illegal to take peregrines from the wild. Those flown by falconers now come from backyard breeding projects like George Richter's--which are, if anything, even more tightly regulated than the rest of falconry.
Richter raised his first peregrine chick, Baby, ten years ago, and he still owns and flies her today. Since then he has raised 28 more. He keeps his breeding pairs--this year he started out with two--in large indoor enclosures behind his house. Breeding them arguably encompasses much of the hassle of falconry without the pleasures of hawking. The birds still need to be fed every day, but they're kept from human contact. This spring one of the females died during egg laying. "Hey, it happens in the wild too," Richter says.
One of the regulations GLFA won from the state in the last year allows the handful of falconers with captive-breeding permits (there are only three in Illinois) to sell young peregrines. The question "Who owns wildlife?" is an old one. The government has historically claimed that right for itself, so it has never been legal to sell birds captured in the wild. But the loosened regulations put owning captive-bred birds of prey on a par with owning horses or pedigreed dogs. Captive-bred birds do tend to be more tractable and less likely to fly off than those caught in the wild. But don't let a falconer catch you calling them pets.
The new regulations will allow George Richter to sell any birds he manages to raise. He could expect to sell each one for anywhere from $1,200 to $1,800. "They're not going to get rich," says Wenneborg of the falconers who are licensed to breed falcons in captivity. "But they might recoup some of their investment."
The country in which a novice is sent up to wait on must be sufficiently open to permit the falconer (should his bird fly off) to follow easily and without encountering obstructions.
--Frederick II, On the Art of Hunting With Birds
Captive-bred birds are a new twist in the age-old argument: which bird is best? Falconers will talk about this for hours. Every species has its own characteristics. Everyone agrees that the red-tailed hawk is the workhorse, a dependable, tough, everyday sort of bird. The Harris's hawk is sociable, easygoing, and seems almost comical. The goshawk is on a hair trigger and can explode at prey--or the falconer--in an instant. The prairie falcon is irascible. The gyr, with its long tail chases, is tractable, nonplussed by humans; the peregrine too can have a very agreeable personality. Hardly anyone flies a golden eagle, but they are so big and dangerous that no one can completely ignore them; they can hold a grudge for a long time.
Captive-bred hybrids are the latest twist in this debate. Using artificial insemination, falconers have mixed peregrines and gyrfalcons, and prairie falcons and merlins. It is said the hybrids usually have the good qualities of both parents and the drawbacks of neither.
In general it's possible to distinguish two types of falconry: "long-winging" and "short-winging." "Long-wings" are falcons, so called because their tapered wings are long in proportion to their width; "short-wings" are everything else (the wings of hawks and eagles may be longer than those of falcons, but they're shorter in proportion to their greater breadth). The modes of hunting are different too. Most falcons prey mainly on birds, which they attack on the wing, stooping on them from a height. Hence long-wingers often aid their bird by having a dog flush prey from the ground into flight. Some short-winged hawks are quite adept at catching birds in flight, but they typically aim for prey on the ground.
Since the Middle Ages, at least, the larger falcons--peregrines and gyrfalcons--have been the elite birds. In the U.S. there has never been a clearly defined falconry hierarchy like that set out in The Book of Saint Albans (nor is there a hierarchy anymore in Europe). But some long-wingers no doubt still consider their particular passion the sport's zenith. A snob who takes up falconry will gravitate toward the falcons by virtue of the tradition behind them. The red-tailed hawk can, after all, be flown by a beginner, and in the eyes of some that makes it solely a beginner's bird. But such elitists seem to be very much in the minority, or at least quiet. Falconry attracts a pretty egalitarian group, though it's almost exclusively white and largely male. Those excluded from it generally lack the time or money it requires.
Take the Richters. The license plate on George's pickup reads "LNGWING." Berni drives a van with a "HAWKNUT" plate. George flies a peregrine. Berni flies a red-tail. When they begin debating which is better on a snowy March afternoon after the first of their 1992 seminar series, it's clear they're engaging in a time-honored ritual.
George, 49, is burly and graying, with a mustache and a booming voice. Berni, who's 11 years younger and has black hair, shares George's confident presence. George is no snob; he doesn't think there's any less skill involved in flying a red-tail, or at least he doesn't admit it when Berni is around. Instead he gives her a hard time.
"When are you going to fly a real bird?" he asks her.
Berni hits back with disparaging remarks about long-winging. "You're not really doing anything out there," she says.
George shakes his head and says, "No, no, no, no."
The falconer flying a peregrine doesn't need to work hard in the field, Berni says, because the bird is so high up and it's the dog who kicks up the game from the field or marsh. Whereas with a red-tail you need to be out in the bush with your bird, flushing up the game and releasing the bird. There's a close, intimate relationship.
"No, no, no, no," George says. "With a falcon you are out there kicking up game. You're working the dog so she's not flushing up game at the wrong time. I'm out there making sure the dog and the bird are working in sync." But eventually he admits that flying a red-tail may require closer participation between the falconer and the bird.
"Some people like the way the red-tail crashes into the brush to catch a bunny," says Berni.
The peregrine is generally acknowledged to require more time than a red-tail. The peregrine must be flown more often to stay in shape. George owns an insurance agency and can build his schedule around frequent hawking outings. Berni teaches advertising art at the College of DuPage, raises three children, and writes the GLFA newsletter. "Red-tailing for me," she says, "is a weekend jaunt."
"It's a question of whether you have the time to fly a falcon," says George.
"Or the place," says Berni.
"Or the place," George agrees.
For 26 years now he has been flying hawks and falcons in Du Page County, and he has seen many of his favorite hawking spots vanish under new subdivisions and strip malls. The brushy fields and marshes give way to new buildings, and everything is linked with that deadly web of power lines. Hunting is illegal in parks and forest preserves, which doesn't leave much. Everywhere you have to watch for cars and gun hunters, some of whom are still not averse to aiming at a fast-moving if illegal target. The big open prairie has grown cramped.
Every fall George goes to the North American Falconers' Association meet, which is usually held on the plains of Nebraska or Kansas. For days he hawks the open plains. He gets together with a few other falconers, and they find a big spread and go to the isolated ranch house to ask permission. Usually gun hunting is prohibited, but the rancher is liable to say "Well, this is something I'd like to see" and go along. Sometimes you catch something and sometimes you don't, George says, but the rancher is always mighty impressed and tells you to come back anytime. The country is wide open.
In Du Page County there's still enough room for maintenance flights, the regular ritual outings to keep a bird in shape. But the five-star days are in the west.
"Falconry here in this country is paradise," George says. "Of course the serious hunting is done west of the Mississippi River. The quarry's more diversified, and there's more of it." He dreams of the Platte River country around Broken Bow, Nebraska, where there are many deer, coyotes, pheasants, ducks, geese, prairie chickens. Greater and lesser prairie chickens. Of course both are very difficult game, but then that's why one goes hawking. And there are sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse, quail, bobwhites, scaled quail, and something they call black quail. And fishing in trout streams and stocked man-made lakes. In five hours or less you can drive to great hawking in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Kansas. Paradise.
[The falcon] flies to such a height, that, being lost to the sight of Mortals, she seems to converse with Heaven alone, and, like Icarus, endangers her wings to be scorcht by the Sun-beams; and yet is fearless, cutting the fluid Air with her nimble Pinions, making her High-way over the steepest Mountains and deepest Rivers, and in her lofty career looks down with a seeming contempt on the greatest Glories we most estimate: and yet such is her Loyalty and Obedience to her Master, that a word from his mouth shall make her stoop and condescend.
--Nicolas Cox, The Gentleman's Recreation
On this afternoon in February George will have to be content once again with an industrial park. Suburban falconers often turn up at such places because some of the land is still open and it's off-limits to gun hunters. Today it's a five-acre lake behind several large new light-industry buildings. We park in a lot beside a warehouse, and George tells me to get out of the truck very quietly. He stands in front of the truck and glasses the lake with binoculars. There are some ducks in with the geese, he says.
He opens the back of the truck, lifts out some rubber boots, and pulls them on. This is one thing falconers who fly peregrines can hold over those who fly red-tails: they have to deal with mud more often, since peregrines are often flown in marshy situations after ducks.
George takes Baby out of the truck, where she has been perching on an artificial-turf platform along the sidewall. Heidi, his German shorthaired pointer, is going crazy in the truck. She knows why we're here. George tells her to be quiet. He holds Baby's jesses and takes off her hood. Her head feathers are slightly matted, but she looks around, wild and alert.
Baby is a ten-year-old peregrine falcon, barrel chested, powerful, but still sleek. Red-tailed hawks sometimes look tousled, but falcons almost always seem to have every feather perfectly in place. Her head is sheathed in black feathers that form a martial-looking helmet. Her back and wings are slate gray, her breast mottled white. The tip of her hooked bill is a bluish gray; its base, like the ring of naked skin around the eyes and the legs, is bright yellow. The foot-long wire of a whip antenna dangles from one leg; it's hooked to a tiny radio transmitter so that if Baby flies out of sight and hearing range George can tell in what direction she's gone.
Hawking with a falcon is fundamentally different from hawking with a red-tail. A red-tail is master of the surprise attack, the quick dive into brush after a rabbit, which is killed by the stabbing action of the talons. The peregrine does not have strong talons; instead it is a master of gravity. Peregrines subsist almost entirely on other birds, which are hunted in flight. The peregrine dives on them from a great height and hits them with its claws. If the falcon plans its stoop correctly, it will hit the prey bird with enough force to kill it instantly. Peregrine falcons have been timed diving at well over 200 miles an hour. Falcons have evolved a system of baffles in their nostrils that break up the flow of air coming in and prevent their lungs from exploding.
The falconer strives to have the falcon circle high overhead, waiting for prey birds to be flushed. "The falcon must be taught to circle about over the head of the falconer, that is, to wait on," wrote Frederick II. "The chief educational aim is to induce the falcon to fly high, almost perpendicularly above the falconer; for in this position, no matter in what direction the quarry is put up below her, the falcon will be at a favorable distance from the prey and be ready to stoop so as to strike or seize the quarry."
When George releases Baby, she flits away to the south, speeding on narrow wings with a quick, stiff-winged flight. She rises a little, circling around to the east. The wind is stiff, and she circles and rises until she is several hundred feet in the air. She doesn't look big enough to be a danger to anything on the ground. George tells me to let Heidi out of the truck.
Heidi springs out and heads for the lake before I can close the back latch. Then George and I also run for the lake. The wind is chilly, but it hasn't been cold enough to freeze the ground and the field is muddy. Later George will say, "Falconry starts getting to be a drudge when your boot weighs ten pounds every time you lift it out of the mud."
Baby is about 500 feet up, little more than a speck, and I keep losing track of where she is. As the dog and George and I approach the point where the ground drops toward the lake, the ducks flush. About two dozen mallards take to the air. They circle and fly off in various directions. I can now see Baby above the ducks. She's coming in from the northeast, still flapping her wings fast. Then she sets her wings at a sharp angle, close to her body and swung back like a delta-wing fighter's. She's flying very fast indeed, losing altitude and dropping toward a duck that's trying to change direction at the last minute. It's flying west and rising, the falcon is flying south and dropping, and suddenly their paths converge. It doesn't look like a hard blow, more like a caress, like two birds barely meeting and then parting. Both birds change course--the duck is still flapping, but it's dropping out of the sky. Baby rises again, flies west, then turns around.
The duck drops into the weedy growth on the shore. Heidi is running toward it from the north. George and I start running, then he trips over a piece of plywood. He gets up and starts running again, but as we head down the slope we see the duck flapping its wings and swiftly waddling into the water. It paddles away into the center of the lake. It's probably wounded, but we can't really tell.
"God damn it!" George yells. "If I hadn't tripped on that board I would have had it! Son of a bitch!" He curses again and asks where Baby is. After making another pass at the downed duck she flew off, and we both lost sight of her as we concentrated on the duck. Then we see her circling above.
In a moment the anger has washed away, and the episode can be filed away in a long list of falconry anecdotes--the frustrating afternoon when the duck got away. But a lovely golden light is still slanting through the dried cattails, and the lake water is a deep ruffled blue. And there's nothing better than being out on a crisp late winter day flying a falcon.
George asks me to walk around the west end of the lake. He will walk up the east side with Heidi, and together we will flush the few ducks that remain on the lake's north half. I walk through the dried stalks, and over on the other shore is the man with his dog. Baby waits overhead, circling with that odd, stiff-winged motion that propels her so remarkably fast. It's impossible to think of her right now as a captive animal. The word that comes to mind instead is collaborator. I can hear her bells tinkling as she crosses over the lake, and at that moment it seems to me that I remember, just barely, something very old. Somewhere in the light or the dog's excitement or the sound of bells is a deep echo of a time when humans went hunting for a living. At that moment I believed what I have often been unsure of before and since, that to hunt an animal is to establish an intimate connection with it--and with the wind, the weather, the ground.
Once we are halfway up the lake two pairs of mallards burst from the surface of the water. They rise and fly off in two separate pairs. Baby is circling above, but she doesn't stoop on the ducks. "She just wasn't paying attention," George says later, attributing this to her weight, which is slightly higher than it should be.
As I reach the north end of the lake a freight train rumbles by on the tracks a hundred yards farther north. Heidi runs to me. Baby is still circling above us. George takes a pigeon out of his hawking bag and releases it. It rises and before I know it Baby is stooping. She hits the pigeon, and it falls, hits the ground, rises again. Baby has flown on, close to the ground; now she turns, follows the pigeon again, closes the gap, hits it again. The pigeon hits the ground. Heidi runs toward it. George yells for the dog to get away from the pigeon, which miraculously gets off the ground again and flutters toward a line of trees that reaches out from the lake. It's headed toward the easternmost tree when Baby comes roaring by me. She's only a few feet off the ground and passes just yards from me. For the first time I realize viscerally that this is a powerful bird--not just a graceful flyer, but also a winged bullet that can hit with enormous force.
Just before the pigeon reaches the tree Baby catches up with it and deals it one final blow. Heidi runs toward the birds. In the west, George had told me, it's important to have a dog near once the falcon has downed her quarry. Otherwise the grounded falcon becomes easy prey for golden eagles or other opportunistic raptors.
George and I walk over. It's hard to walk slowly. Only later will I think of the blood shed, of the pigeon's life that ended so suddenly.
The kill is part of falconry. It's what the birds are so flawlessly designed to do. "I've become a hunter," says Matt Jones. "Before I flew the bird, I'd tell people the thrill was in seeing the bird fly. But now, certainly part of it is the thrill of having your bird be successful. If people say the thrill is all in watching the bird fly, I wouldn't completely believe them. If my bird catches a couple of rabbits, I'm proud."
Some raptors adopt a distinctive hunched posture when they're hungry and eager to kill. Falconers recognize that a bird "in yarak," as this state is called, is ready to hunt aggressively. I think of it as a heightened state of awareness in which the bird, like any good hunter, has the extra alertness and motivation required to pursue and kill another animal. When a hawk is in yarak, it's clear that its swift flight and mastery of the air have one purpose: to kill. Without the kill, the bird's flight is mere entertainment for the falconer.
Theodore White called falconry "a tonic for the less forthright savagery of the human heart." The falconer seeks to share the bird's alertness and hunger. "When you're out with the hawk on your fist or in the air, and you're out pushing game, it's almost like you are the hunter," says Berni Richter. "You get an intense feeling about it--you root for the bird, and if the rabbit gets away you think, 'Man, that's one smart rabbit.' It gives you respect for both the bird and the rabbit. You become the hunter. It's just a weird feeling you have.
"You take an average young bird, and you think they have great abilities. But they don't. Each time you fly the bird, they learn something new. They learn new moves. It's almost like they're thinking, 'I should have done that.' And then sometimes it just amazes you what they can do."
Baby is perched on the pigeon, plucking feathers. Several bright red wounds show on the pigeon's plump body. George warns me to stay back. He walks over to Baby and maneuvers his hawking bag underneath her so that she's perched on the canvas instead of the pigeon. He clips her jesses to the bag, then manages to pull the pigeon away from her and replace it with a raw chicken leg from a pocket. He will save the pigeon for Henny-Penny, Berni's red-tail. Falcons shouldn't eat pigeons, George says, because they carry so many diseases. Red-tails, which are much hardier birds, can safely eat the rich meat.
George was sorry to see the duck escape, but he was glad to see Baby deal it such a glancing blow. A harder blow would probably have killed the duck, but it might have injured or killed the falcon too. During the NAFA meet last fall in Kansas he flew her on a drake mallard in a strong wind. Somehow the wind caused her to misjudge slightly, and she hit the duck hard. The duck dropped to the ground. Baby "put on the air brakes and landed," says George. But by the time he got to her she was lying on her side, helpless. He began crying. Soon Baby revived and even began pulling at the duck, but it gave George a real scare.
"It must be terrible to lose a bird after all that training," I offer.
He says, "No, it's not the work. It's the feeling you have for the bird." For ten years now he has flown only Baby, a fact he points to with pride.
George walks back to the truck with Baby on his arm tearing at the chicken leg. By the time we get to the asphalt, she's pulling at the final bits of gristle. George takes her to the back of the truck, hoods her, and puts her back on her perch inside. "You flew great today, Baby," he says. "You flew great today."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.