SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
February 04, 1963
For nearly as long as records have been kept, the compulsion of some men to take, train, dote upon and adore the birds of prey has been recorded. Something—the esthetics or symbolism of a hawk in flight, the alternating waves of affection and frustration that wash a falconer as he tries to man his bird, the experience of flying a hawk free and then calling him back from the sky to the fist—something has caused falconry to endure. The addictive hold of hawks and hawking on the susceptible is as strong now as ever. You never meet a man who has had and manned just one hawk and then sworn off falconry.
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February 04, 1963

Paean To A Winged Hunter

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"Might as well," I said, as though Eric, not the hawk, had convinced me.

We held Tor's wings folded at his side, taped his talons together and dropped him headfirst into a toeless nylon stocking. The stocking holds a bird firmly but gently; he cannot beat his wings or thrash. (Guinevere not having sheer hose, how did Lancelot keep a newly caught hawk?)

The classical birds of falconry are Falconinae (peregrine, merlin, kestrel) and Accipiter (goshawk, Cooper's, and sharpshin). The Falconinae are fast, acrobatic flyers who often take their prey in mid-air. The hunting dive of a peregrine has been clocked at 150 mph and is one of the magnificent sights of this world. Accipiter , with long rudderlike tails, are aerial ferrets, and can pursue their prey through the tightest cover with consummate agility. Red-tails are of a third family, the Buteos, which some falconers contemptuously dismiss as buzzards. Redtails are bulky hawks with broad wings and tails. They are versatile rather than spectacular hunters. Redtails will hunt high, soaring tirelessly, or low, quartering a field, gliding just above the ground; or they can hover like a helicopter. A redtail will go into heavy cover after game, if need be on foot, bounding along, breaking through vines and brush. A red-tail will take grasshoppers and mice but is strong enough to stop a pheasant, rabbit or woodchuck. A redtail cannot fly with the speed and elegance of a peregrine, or pursue as agilely as a goshawk, but he is a tenacious hunter. In his way, he is as exciting to watch at work as the traditional birds of falconry.

When I got Tor home I took him to the long shed, which, among other things, serves as a primary schoolroom for birds, and dressed him as hawks have always been dressed—with jesses, a swivel and a leash. A jess is a soft strip of strong leather. One is tied to each leg, just above the foot, in a noose knot that will not open or draw shut. The free end of each jess is sewed to one ring of a brass swivel. A leash is clipped to the other swivel ring. Tor lay for a minute on the bench after the stocking was slit open, not knowing he was free. Holding the leash, I perched him on my gauntleted hand. He immediately lunged off my fist, bated and hung head down against the leash. A hawk bates when he jumps off the fist or perch in anger or alarm. A hawk bating is like a child in the grip of a blind temper tantrum. He knows nothing, cares for nothing but his own fury. Bate, bate, bate again is what a wild hawk does, and it seems to the falconer all he will ever do.

To stop a hawk from bating, a falconer shuts off the bird's vision. Hawks know the world almost exclusively by their wonderful eyes. A hawk that cannot see is passive, manageable. Most falconers use the hood, a leather cap drawn tightly over the head, to calm a new bird. I do not, since I am clumsy at working leather and have a shed that can be darkened to serve the same purpose as the hood. (There is nothing new in falconry; Japanese hawkers had perfected the dark-room scheme 1,300 years ago.)

I let Tor bate from my fist half a dozen times to stretch his cramped wings, and then turned off the light. I put him on a padded perch, and he sat in the dark quietly. I tied the leash around the perch and left him for the night. Occasionally during the next several days I went to the shed to make sure that Tor had not tangled his jesses or leash. When the light went on he would bate furiously, thrash back to his perch and bate again. In the first days with a new bird it seems imbecilic even to consider teaching anything to such an irascible, intractable creature. On the second evening, however, I was able to approach him closely enough to put my gloved hand against the back of his legs. Reflexively he stepped back onto the fist. I picked him up and he sat for a moment before bating. I put him back on my glove. He bated. We kept at it for 15 minutes and during the last five he sat more than he bated. A hawk's progress is measured by such small changes in behavior. Because a wild hawk has such a vile temper in the beginning, any improvement, like a civil word from a misanthrope, seems remarkable.

Romantic trappings aside, manning a hawk is (always has been) a simple thing. The hawk must be trained to come to the man on command. Once he will do this, he can be flown and hunted free. To accomplish this, to make a hawk a falcon, two lessons are persistently repeated. The man handles the hawk, carrying him on his fist, until the bird is conditioned to regard the man as a familiar, safe place. Secondly, the man holds food in his hand and offers it to the hawk. At each offering a simple command, a whistle or call, is given. The process is repeated until man-command-food are inextricably associated in the bird's consciousness. Intelligence, affection, punishment are of no help in manning a hawk. Being unreasonable, a hawk is immune to reason. A hawk has no need or desire for the good opinion of other species. A hawk has no experience with punishment; he can be beaten to a pulp without changing his ways. A man has only one lever with which to move a hawk. He must bargain persistently, grudgingly, over the one thing the bird needs from him—food.

Tor sat two days in the dark shed without eating. On the face of it, since I had the food, the advantage appeared to be all mine. However, he had a lever, too. A big hawk in the wild may go a week without eating, but a hawker is never certain how long he can safely let a new bird go hungry. I was getting to Tor by sharpening his appetite, but he, by sitting without eating, had been getting at me. How long could he be allowed not to eat? On the morning of the third day I went to Tor with a nice rat trapped the night before. I held out the rat and gave a shrill, toneless whistle which is my "come hither" command. Tor was impassive. For all his reaction I could have held a rock rather than a rat. I left him again in the dark.

A man must be able to talk to any beast he intends to train (anthropomorphism be damned). He must know at least enough to ask understandable questions and understand the answers. Hawks are independent, introverted, unintelligent creatures, but they can make limited, primitive sign talk. To understand hawks, learn the language of the wings, the eyes, the talons, the set of the head and plumage. At noon Tor had something to say. He peered at the rat surreptitiously. He shifted his talons on the perch. Twice he opened and shut his beak, like a man licking his lips. Translations: "Yes, a rat. Rats are edible. A rat would go nicely, but my custom is to eat rat in a field rather than on a glove. Is a rat on a glove a rat? I must consider."

I went back in the afternoon to tease Tor with the fiat whistle and dead rat. He began to weave his head in a reptilian manner, watching the rat. He leaned forward, almost losing his balance, trying to reach the rat without leaving his perch. "The matter of the rat. It is certainly a rat, but such a place to eat! But then, one place is much like another when you're hungry. A rat is a rat is a rat. To hell with it."

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