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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Suddenly, wonderfully, Tor jumped onto my glove, dismembered and devoured the rat. This is a good moment in falconry, when the hawk comes to the hand for the first time. The man is like a teacher who has taught a backward child to read. The door to so much else has been opened. Now I had a language—glove, whistle and food—which Tor could understand. We worked a few more days in the shed. I fed him an ounce of meat at a time. The distance he had to jump and fly was increased with each feeding. When he learned to come unhesitatingly the length of the shed, Tor was moved outdoors. After a week in the dark, isolated shed, everything Tor saw from the outside perch was new and strange—the house, the garden, children, dogs, donkeys, cars in the drive. Even the perch, though it was identical to the one inside, had a different feel under his talons. He reacted predictably by bating. The question was whether the seed of habit that had been planted in him—the association of food with me, the glove and the whistle—would stay rooted through his squall of rage. Sometimes a great change or fright will undo all the early work. A sort of Gresham's law applies in working with wild things—it is easier to lose their confidence than gain it. Tor, however, proved relatively adaptable. Between two bates I offered him a bit of meat. He took it casually, reflexively, not obeying me but obeying habit.

Once outside, we commenced the second of Tor's conditioning exercises: learning to sit easily on my fist as I walked. Walking a hawk is a companionable part of falconry. Man and bird are not pressing each other, haggling about food, and there is a chance for quiet, mutual observation and discourse. To carry a hawk, the arm is bent, fist held upright so that the bird can perch on the knuckles. The bird is held close to the face and chest, to protect him from brush and wind and simply so that he will grow accustomed to being close. We walked for an hour or so each day, back and forth in a sheltered belt of white pines above the house. Tor bated less frequently, and when he did it was a reasonable sort of bating, because a branch whipped us or the wind ruffled his feathers the wrong way.

When he settled down in his new perch, Tor was put on the creance and his flight training continued. The creance is a strong, light line, tied through the swivel, by which the hawk is controlled and restrained while being trained. Flight by flight the creance is payed out from a coil or reel. Each trip, the hawk is forced to fly farther for his bit of food. During his week in the shed Tor had come along faster than most birds, but once outside on the creance he performed, hawkwise, as a genius. As a rule, a redtail must be flown for 10 days or two weeks on the creance, until he comes immediately 50 yards or so on command. Astonishingly, Tor flew this full distance on his third try. On successive days he was flown with the children and dogs about. He was called across the creek, over open fields, through the pines and down from treetops. I called him with my back turned and the meat hidden. I hid behind brush and trees and then whistled him in to me. If a hawk has never flown over a dog or had to hunt for the whistle, he may not do so when it counts, when there is no creance to jerk him short if he flies the wrong way.

I had never before flown a hawk free with less than three weeks of training. Tor, however, two weeks from the day he was trapped, was working so well as to set me damning myself as a coward for making him continue to fly with the creance dragging behind. We were in the pine woods, and quickly, so as not to have time to back off" from my own dare, I unsnapped the creance and threw Tor into the air. He flew to the crown of a pine, 50 feet away, 20 feet above me. He sat there as free as he had been two weeks before, nothing tying him to me but the strands of habit. A hawker throwing out his hawk for the first time worries like a mother whose only child leaves home. Is he ready? He has so little experience; is it too soon?

I whistled to Tor. He switched his tail once and dived out of the tree. For grace and skill, a big redtail coming through the woods does not give anything to a peregrine or a goshawk. Tor, four feet from tip to tip, scarcely moved his wings, held them stiff as he banked and twisted through the pines like a sailplane. He came in low, skimming the ground, and at the last moment rose and dropped on my fist as lightly as a falling leaf. The experience of having a free hawk come back to the hand for the first time does not lend itself easily to analogy. I quote a friend, who, except that he trains hawks, is no more than ordinarily eccentric: "I'm always glad I lived to see it again."

By way of final examinations, Tor was flown free against half-grown domestic rabbits. He took this tame game swiftly and efficiently. Occasionally every hawker is challenged, "How can you feed those little rabbits to a hawk?" Except for a rare vegetarian, these challengers are cow, lamb, piglet, bunny and squab eaters. If "predators" are villains, then the whole scheme by which life sustains life is villainous.

Tor was ready to hunt, to become, so to speak, a formal falcon, by the second week in November, but we could not get out. The weather was wrong. A hawk should not be hunted in rain because the flying is bad. In high winds the flying is too good; a gust may catch him and carry him out of sight and sound. Then, too, hunting season was in. Redtails are protected, but it is a rare hunter who knows a hawk from a handsaw, or if he does can resist pumping away at a "varmint." Things weren't right until after Thanksgiving. Then the city gunners went home. The weather improved. Tor was in yarak.

Yarak is the state of being ready. A hawk in yarak has a keen appetite, quick eye, is alert, sits straight on the fist, is in good plumage. But more, a hawk in yarak is all hawk, self-possessed, ready, poised to use all his skills and powers. Yarak is such a rich, complex word it is a wonder that, like so many lesser terms of falconry, it has not come into general use. Perhaps it has not because men are so rarely met in yarak.

The short-winged hawks, Buteos like Tor and the accipiters, are hunted from the hand. When game is flushed, the bird is thrown off the fist toward the prey. The man follows until he either picks up his hawk with its kill or recalls him for another try. Tor and I worked through a series of abandoned, bramble-grown mountainside pastures. In the first 10 minutes we kicked up a cock pheasant, but I did not see the bird in time and held Tor back until it was too late. Then, as though in retribution for my blunder, we walked an hour without luck. Finally in the upper field we found a rabbit. Tor was tossed off the fist in good order. The rabbit ran toward the ruin of a vine-hung stone fence and beat Tor to this cover. The rabbit turned and ran downhill, hugging the wall. Tor stayed with him, swinging from side to side over the fence, trying for a clear shot through the vines. After 20 yards they came to a gap in the wall where there had once been a gate. The rabbit tried to bolt across the opening. Tor pounced and I saw a momentary confusion of wings on the ground. When I came up, Tor was sitting, wings spread protectively over his kill. I let him gorge himself by way of reward. It was a satisfying afternoon for both of us. Tor was full of rabbit and I was full of Tor.

Tor is still with us. Now I seldom carry him on the fist once we are away from poultry yards and other dangerous spots. In the woods I throw him up and walk on. Like a dog, Tor follows from tree to tree, occasionally going far up, wheeling in the sky, but always, so far, coming back at the whistle. Someday he may not. Some inner stirring, some stimulus may make him ignore the whistle and he will keep going. If he stays the winter, he will be sent off in the spring with my best wishes to make his northward migration. When he goes, I, like any well-adjusted falconer, will commence counting the days until September, when there will be hawks over the ridges again.

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