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.
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.