Hunting with Falcons

A West Coast school teaches the ancient art of handling birds of prey.

Falcon Nikita zooms in to "kill" Tigan's lure as the author watches (far right).
An hour later we take a "hawk walk," plodding through dense woods beneath two hawks flying overhead. With broad, short wings, Harris hawks are forest dwellers. We all don thick leather gloves and walk normally, lifting our arms when we want to "accept" Diego, a black Harris hawk. Diego leaps from tree to arm to tree, searching for chip-sized pieces of quail. He lands gracefully on my arm, resting there for about a minute before moving on.

After a hands-on lesson about making our own falconry equipment, including leashes and jesses (leather straps that connect the birds to gloves), the instructors bid us good night. Leaving us covered in mud, dried glue and poop, they promise that Sunday will be our most difficult day. "Remember, these falcons are killing machines," says Tigan. "We want them to remain that way, so we keep them in shape."

Sunday morning is sunny and 65 degrees, and we're all hoping that Tigan will take us out for a real hunt. After so much talk of "the kill," we want to watch Nikita send some poor field mouse to its grave. But Tigan can't promise the birds will find anything to stalk, and he's worried about wasting time, standing around. Instead, the instructors assign us to a falcon. One by one we take a bird into an eight-by-eight office that smells of falcon feces. This is the hardest part of caring for a captive bird, managing its weight and feeding it a diet similar to what it eats in the wild; if a bird is just a few grams off, it will die.

I aim to feed my falcon, Alexandria, so that she ends up between 520 to 530 grams after lunch. Tigan's assistant reaches into a cooler and passes me the cold, limp carcass of a quail. "Gut it," she says, laughing at my grimace. "And be glad that's not jackrabbit - they smell even worse." Never having carved anything but pumpkin, I snip the head off and try not to inhale; Alexandria whines, impatient for her meal.

After she has eaten and we've logged her post-lunch weight, I take her back to the yard, crouching down so she can step off my arm to her perch. As the birds stare at me for the last time before I leave, I wonder what it's like to spend every day with a raptor, running to the grocery store to pick up duck when it's too foggy to hunt. "Maybe 1 percent of people I teach actually become licensed falconers," Tigan says. "But 100 percent of them have become advocates of falconry." I know that hawks and falcons haunt the concrete canyons of Manhattan where I live, and now that I know what to look for, I'll be spending a lot more time on the roof of my apartment building.




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