"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.