The blast of air whizzing past my head startled me, the sound of beating wings more dream than distinct.
As the Harris’ Hawk landed on my thick, outstretched leather glove, I briefly recalled the first dozen times I fired my shotgun during a long ago opening day of dove season: my head turned away and my eyes tightly shut closed, my fingers curled around the trigger and barrel in fists of fear.
I’ve forever been interested in birds, but mostly concerned with hunting, butchering, and slowly roasting their succulent, little bodies, preferably plumped with fresh herbs and enjoyed with mature Pinot Noir. Today, falconry is not so much about securing dinner (unless your bird of prey retrieves rabbits and ducks), but rather training a bird to hunt in his natural habitat and return to his keeper. The bonding of bird to falconer dates back thousands of years; colorful Egyptian hieroglyphs etched on walls exhibit the spiritual connection falconers develop with their birds through a commitment to breed, train, handle, and fly them.
After my initial shock at being transformed into a human perch faded, I slowly turned my head and opened my eyes, coming face to beak with a stunning creature of evolution. I studied the curve of his head and the earthy shadings of his feathers as he gobbled a raw piece of chicken leg from my heavy glove, which protected my forearm from his curving, yellowish talons.
Falconry has a long and distinguished history in England and it was in the small town of Grange-on-the-Sands in northern England that I had come to learn a bit about its artistry. My mentor for the day was an eccentric middle-aged woman, a falconer of 20 years, who possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of birds of prey. With her eyes set widely apart and her mane of thinning brown hair combed into a high crown, she oddly resembled one of her charges, an image made more real when she whistled for the hawk to descend upon us from his perch high in the evergreens.
We spent the drizzly afternoon learning about the habits and nature of birds of prey, while the Harris’ Hawk followed us through the thick, damp forest, occasionally landing on my arm to feed and study me, undoubtedly bewildered by my intentions to understand him.