I can recall Lily at the beach, standing in her stroller with her chubby arms outstretched, mimicking the soaring seagulls. She was a year old. At five, when we lived in the mountains, a library bus left her a book about raptors—hawks, falcons, eagles, owls. She memorized it. At 10 she announced she would be an ornithologist; she had several sketch pads full of bird studies to confirm her choice.
Now she is 13, and for the past two years Lily's bedside table has become more and more top-heavy with books on falconry—or hawking as it is sometimes called—and her conversation has become a ritual chant on raptor behavior. Lately she has kept a journal about these things, and one of the early entries reads: I never really thought of myself as being a romantic. Maybe that's part of it. But for me, hawking is more of a personal identification with birds of prey. I can't explain it, but without a hawk of my own, I could never feel fulfilled.
In New York State the minimum age to apply for a permit to keep a hawk is 16. That means I don't have to throw up any roadblocks—for a while.
Instead of getting Lily a real hawk, I started taking her to monthly meetings of the Long Island Hawking Club. I assumed that her fascination with predatory birds would soon fade. My mistake.
May 18, 1986
As it does annually, the North American Falconers' Association scheduled its 1985 Field Meet during Thanksgiving week. It was in Lamar, Colo., which is surrounded by fields rich with raptors' quarry and friendly ranchers willing to let falconers hunt in them. What La Scala is to opera buffs the NAFA Field Meet is to falconers. When Lily and I arrived, the parking lot of the Cow Palace, Lamar's largest hotel, was filled with pickups and vans displaying mud-caked plates from states on both coasts and everywhere in between. Nearly 350 of NAFA's 1,600 members had honed in on Lamar. They came from around the U.S., from Canada, England, New Zealand and Venezuela, and they brought with them an estimated 230 raptors.
In Lamar, Lily wrote in her journal: My poor father doesn't really understand these things, for the falconer's gene isn't in his blood. I'd like to thank him anyway for humoring my decision to be a falconer, and for taking me here.... My anticipation of meeting a lot of fantastic falconers had seemed impossible before, but now that I have arrived, it is true.
Sumerians and Assyrians hawked. Egyptians and Vikings hawked. Emperors of China and, most notably, the Khans, Genghis and Kublai, did, too. Kublai, it is said, hunted wolves with golden eagles. Our more recent antecedents, however, were European blue bloods of the past 500 years who stressed the pomp and pageantry of the hunt. There was as rigid a protocol for birds as for people: Only kings possessed gyrfalcons; princes kept female peregrines; barons were permitted male peregrines only; knights held the desert falcon, known as the saker, and so on all the way down to the lowly knave, who was allowed a tiny kestrel.
Falconry got off to a very slow start in America. The early settlers hunted for food, and the idea of sending a bird to do a bullet's job was plain silly. In time, however, full bellies and an abiding sense of romance brought the sport to this side of the Atlantic.
Terminology is very important to falconers. The straps a bird wears on its legs are "jesses." A "creance" is the long tie line used to keep a flying bird in tow while training. A "haggard" is an adult bird caught in the wild, and an "eyas" is a nestling. Of all things, it's the simple word "falcon" that causes more confusion than anything. A falcon is any member of the long-winged family Falconidae, which preys on other birds. But certain plebian falconers hunt with hawks, short-winged predators that generally prefer ground game. So there is the added confusion of folks "falconing" with birds that are not really falcons. Lily makes her own poetic distinction. Long-wings she calls "masters of the wind." Short-wings she labels "the sluggers of the sport."
"I'm not sure how I'll handle it if they kill anything this morning," I confessed to Lily as we accompanied a brace of red-tail hawkers out into the countryside to look for jackrabbits.
"Don't be so squeamish, Sam. Taking prey is the object, after all."
My negative attitude about raptors in general had improved considerably since I'd thrown a red-tail from my gloved fist a year earlier on Long Island. The bird belonged to a local master falconer Lily had persistently sought out and eventually cornered. As the bird circled widely and skimmed the ground back toward my fist, its wings beating out a quivering hum, I felt a quiet thrill that I knew I wanted to repeat. But merely flying a hawk is not the same as hunting with a hawk. Lily was right: For all its esthetic and historical richness, hawking is a blood sport.
In her heart, Lily was a hunter. But I, if and when I ever could meet the federal and state requirements for this most highly regulated of field sports, would surely be captivated more by the birds' beauty and by the strange relationship that exists between bird and man. I would undoubtedly be a "head" falconer, one who enjoyed the esthetics of the sport rather than the hunt. Yet my head also wanted to understand my daughter's mysterious heart.
Lily and I had been on a real hunt only once before the NAFA meet. That was with long-wings, and no game had been flushed. We had seen Long Island falconers throw live quarry—pigeons—up for hovering birds, but the following chase had always carried hunter and prey out of sight and we had never actually witnessed a kill.
Now we were in the country, out to kill a jackrabbit. A dozen of us formed a loose line at one corner of a field of scrub brush. The sky was a pewter wash. Four red-tails perched on the left fists of four hunters who were spread along the line. The rest of us were beaters; our job was trying to flush jacks from the brush.
Slowly we advanced across the field. A huge hare shot out directly ahead of us. Someone shouted. Two birds left two fists. They flew low and swiftly. The rabbit ran along a drainage ditch. As the red-tails closed, the rabbit cut sharply to the right. The hawks, anticipating this, did the same. Instantly, one put the rabbit down. A kill? No. The second bird tangled with the first. The jack escaped. The hawks were "crabbing"—angrily locking talons—when the hawkers arrived and pulled the birds apart.
We beat on, and jacks flushed regularly. But the birds flew without success. I was surprised by the hawkers' appreciation of a good try. "Nice flight, sweetheart," Rick Wenneborg, a joyous preacher from Illinois, cooed to his red-tail, Sally.
Falconry makes you appreciate the subtle difference between "tame" and "trained." Raptors do man's bidding when they've been trained, but they always remain wild. The instrument of control is the very thing that makes them predators—their need for food.
In the wild, raptors live on the knife-edge of survival. If they fail in the hunt, they weaken. Their chances for success diminish further with each failure. This delicate survival balance is the key to training. A falconer must discover his bird's perfect flying weight, the weight at which it will seek food actively. The bird should never be so light that it isn't strong enough, or so well fed that it will be inclined to fly off and fend for itself. The difference is usually a fraction of an ounce. If you send up a bird that is too well fed, you risk losing it forever. They are, after all, wild creatures, not house pets that are easily conned by human affection.
The great wings may provide speed and maneuverability, the talons the means to wound and kill, but it is the eyes that give the falcon its edge. "Eyes like a hawk" is right on target. Raptors live behind a pair of binoculars.
We were still beating the brush when Greg Thomas's venerable red-tail, Bruce, suddenly flew off his glove and proceeded quickly to make the first kill I ever saw. A jackrabbit had darted out of the tumbleweed in front of Lily. Bruce rose, dived and hit the hare about 40 yards away. The excited Thomas rushed to the scene. First, he killed the jack by snapping its neck with a swift head and leg jerk. Then, he drew his hungry bird off with a morsel of meat in his glove. The other hunters shouted gleefully as they approached.
While this was going on, I watched Lily leaning close in to look at the kill. I couldn't tell what she was thinking, but nothing about it appeared to repel her.
Later these words appeared in her journal: Today we went out on a hunting expedition with red tails.... The kill was a clean one, and I almost felt the same thing the birds did, a sense of pride flowed through my veins. The hawker allowed his bird to feed up a little on its kill. Then, after no more jack rabbits were discovered, we came back to our hotel.
That night I asked Lily why she thought the men had gotten so excited at the kill. She spoke calmly. "Pride in their birds, I guess. Sometimes hawks have to make 30 flights to get a single kill. Gunners would have cleaned that field out easily, but hawking is much more difficult, and it's much more satisfying when you're successful."
True. But I sensed something more complex. Gunners seek to dominate nature with technology in a simple, straightforward manner that gratifies the human ego fairly directly. Falconers, however, understand in their very bones the dictum of Francis Bacon, the 16th-century English philosopher: "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." Birds of prey are far more subject to natural law than to the will of men, so falconers must learn to serve their birds in order to have their birds serve them, a subtle and complex partnership. Those exultant human cries at a kill signify something more than pride: They signify the triumph of obedience.
Postal workers and preachers, policemen and pharmacists, truck drivers, engineers, photographers, doctors, lawyers, even ornithologists, have converged on Lamar. In more than a few of them, a passion for hunting with raptors has become an obsession. And it's an overwhelmingly male obsession, although it was good to learn that there were more women with birds at this meet than ever before. If Lily were a boy, would her passion for hawking seem less alien to me?
When they're not hunting, most of the birds in Lamar are tethered by leashes in a fenced area behind the hotel. After dark, the birds are put up in cars and vans or tucked into hotel rooms. If left tied up outside, they would be sitting ducks, so to speak, for the champion predator of them all, the great horned owl.
One day, in the yard behind the hotel, curiosity drew me to a young woman who was calming her bird. Her name was Meg Robinson, and she looked too young to be a master falconer, not to mention a veterinarian from Ohio, which she was also. She was 27. She had acquired her bird Tess, a male red-tail, when she was 14. Tess sat attentively on a perch that Robinson had made herself. "When you get interested in falconry," she said, "one thing always leads to another and you end up doing lots of things yourself. My dad even took to raising quail and mice in the basement to have food for our birds."
"Your father got you interested in falconry?" I asked.
"Noooo. He tried to put up every obstacle he could. When he saw I wasn't ever going to give up on it, he finally relented." This sounded familiar.
"After I got Tess," Robinson went on, "little by little my father got interested. Now he's flying that goshawk right behind me." A great blue-gray bird was preening, and there was Meg's father, Charles. "Yes," he said. "I created roadblocks for Meg, and one by one she knocked them down. She even bought a used shed for the bird's mew with $700 she earned selling earthworms and working in fast-food places. The truth was, I didn't understand why she wanted it so badly. I had no idea then what the commitment would be. If you ever get involved, be prepared to do all sorts of things, such as making equipment, raising food...and moving farther out into the country." Charles Robinson, a Wisconsin machine manufacturer, has done all of the above.
Passion, by its very character, is impossible to capture in words. Meg Robinson tried. "For me, I guess the flight is the most important underlying theme. It's really a form of flying by proxy."
In her journal, Lily agreed: In my opinion, the satisfaction of falconry has most to do with a feeling of wanting to leave the earth and its problems behind and fly above it on wings of freedom.
The majority of falconers are, like Lily and Meg, bitten at a very early age. "For as long as I can remember" is the standard falconer's answer to "How long have you been interesed in falconry?" More often than not, the starting point is a powerful identification with flying birds in childhood—an almost Jungian memory of the human race's fascination with and envy of flight.
Not every kid who jumps off the garage with an umbrella, however, turns to falconry. At the moment, there are only an estimated 2,600 falconers in the U.S., the majority of whom, like Lily and Meg, became fascinated with the sport at an early age.
Lily and I are excited about going on a duck hunt with other members of the Long Island Hawking Club who have come to Lamar with a couple of long-wing cross-country birds, a gyrfalcon and a peregrine falcon. We step out into the frigid morning air, but Lily rushes back into the room and runs some eye liner across her lower lids. I feel that something has to be said. "Don't you think that's a bit of a vanity out here?"
The answer is quick in coming. "Face it, Sam, everything's a vanity."
If that's the case, this morning's true vanity comes in the form of guys from New York who think they can send East Coast falcons after Western quarry, flying over unfamiliar terrain that lies nearly a mile above sea level. Whereas most short-wing hawks are sprung directly from the fist to attack quarry on the ground, long-wings soar overhead and conquer only after the game is flushed into the air. Long-wings' quarry is other birds—out here in Colorado, duck, quail and pheasant mostly. Positioning the free-flying bird properly in relation to the potential quarry is the challenging part of hunting with falcons.
Jim Bonelli, a regional manager for Coca-Cola, is flying the hybrid gyrfalcon dubbed Galahad. Tony Berlingieri, a retired truck driver, has the immature hybrid peregrine called Apollo. We wait about an hour near a small prairie pond for the morning ice fog to lift. There are ducks on the water. The two raptors, hooded and on perches, wait in the rear of a rented station wagon. When visibility improves sufficiently, Jim edges toward the water to be sure the ducks haven't flown. Then he maps out Operation Duck. We take positions around the pond and fix the flight in our field glasses. If ducks and falcons head away and Galahad brings one down, we can run to the spot.
The chances of Galahad's success are exceedingly slim. Not only is the bird out of his element, but he is also a young gyrfalcon who has never flown duck before. Nevertheless, Bonelli, a longshot player like all true falconers, hopes against hope. He disappears with his bird on the far side of the pond. I see Lily on her belly in the tall grass, and when I chuckle she shushes me with a scowl. Then her eyes flash skyward. Jim's bird is aloft. So far so good.
Shouts from Bonelli now rouse four dark-colored ducks from the pond. They fly directly over Lily's head. Galahad, perfectly placed above their path, makes a half-hearted pass. The quarry heads east, toward Kansas. Afterward, Jim claims to be satisfied with the flight. "He was in perfect position. All I have to do now is show him what a duck looks like when we get back home."
With the ducks gone, Berlingieri decides to flush pheasant from a nearby field. Apollo is an even less experienced hunter than Galahad and has an exasperating tendency to perch—on the station wagon, a telephone pole, a fence post, a dung pile—instead of fly. Fortunately, he is slightly airborne when a pheasant is flushed from right under my foot. Apollo is a fraction of a second late in starting, but he zeroes in on the pheasant. The chase is straight as a stung, at about five feet of altitude, for 500 yards across a fallow cornfield. Then they disappear into a distant clump of trees. There's a slim chance Apollo has caught his prey, and Berlingieri is excited as we dash toward the trees. But, no. The peregrine comes immediately to Tony's lure. He would not have returned so quickly if he'd downed the pheasant. Nevertheless, Berlingieri is ecstatic. "Did you see him?" he keeps repeating. "I've got a heck of a bird there."
The cold is fierce, and it has even chilled Lily's enthusiasm. She doesn't balk at my suggestion that we quit duck hunting for the morning, and we begin driving back to Lamar. An unpleasant odor fills the car as we pass a huge cattle farm. Cheeseburgers on the hoof. Lily asks me to stop the car. She wants to take a picture of this bleak scene.
From Lily's journal: Yes, these birds are wild but not 100 percent wild. To a slight degree, their familiarity with their owner makes them a little less wild. It is possible, I guess, to tame the wildness out of an animal or a person. I don't think you can reverse the process...Today I saw thousands of cattle in a production plant, or whatever you call it, and it depressed me. I was glad for the wildness in myself....
In the large room where most of the NAFA competitors meet after dinner, some of the day's kills are recounted in phrases that jar. "My bird hit that sucker going about 80," a young hawker reports, "and I knew there was one less jackrabbit in this world." His tone strikes me as far too arrogant.
Bonelli sums up the essence of the sport far better. "For me, the true mark of all good falconers is that they have very little possessiveness about their birds. They see it as a partnership, not a domination."
"I'm going to write my Congressman," Lily vows as we drive up the interstate toward the airport and our flight home.
"I've got to get the age for permits changed to 14. I just can't wait three more years to get my bird. Unless ..."
I know better than to say, "Unless what?"
"You could take the test and get us a bird."
"We'll see. We'll see."
Sam Toperoff's latest book, "Noble Savages," will be published later this year.