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.