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.
I have been well hooked by hawks for 10 years. It is not that the pleasures of falconry are so intense. Rather, it is that once having had a hawk, the misery of being without one is unbearable. (This is perhaps the difference between an addiction and an appetite.) This year I have Tor, a big, strong-flying, fair-hunting redtail. Last winter it was a Cooper's hawk. Before that other redtails, a peregrine, kestrels, a harrier, a sharpshin and an assortment of owls, who in some respects were better hawks than the hawks.
Tor was taken in mid-October at a bow-netting blind on one of the middle Appalachian ridges. He was a good bird to trap. He has been a good bird to fly—not a marvel, not the very best, but good enough to give the challenges and satisfactions that have drawn men to hawks for several thousand years.
Bow netting, or some like means of trapping wild birds of prey, has always been a necessary subsidiary of falconry. To take a hawk with a bow net, the trapper works from a blind, using a complex arrangement of lines to manipulate pigeons which he uses to lure hawks into his nets. One harnessed pigeon, the lure bird, is swung high around the top of a pole. If in God's good time a hawk is attracted, the lure bird is dropped into a concealed box. The trapper commences to work a second pigeon which is staked within the circumference of a net lashed to a bow-shaped frame. If the hawk comes to the bait pigeon, the trapper pulls a trigger that releases a spring on the bow net. The net flips over the hawk, pinning it to the ground beneath the mesh.
In the East we bow-net in the fall, from mid-September until Thanksgiving, when the birds of prey are migrating. On good days hawks are concentrated over certain mountains because of the buoyant updrafts that are created by a northwest wind beating against the sharp ridges. The hawks ride these upwelling currents, gliding and soaring, as they move southward toward their winter hunting grounds. A few of us, a small sect, have built half a dozen bow-netting stations on the ridges. Each fall we take 30 or 40 hawks, releasing most of the birds as soon as they have been measured and fitted with a Fish & Wildlife Service leg band. Those of us who cannot face the winter without a hawk take one of the trapped birds for falconry.
The day we took Tor was a bow-netter's delight. The sky was clearing after two days of rain. A northwest wind, strong enough to put the hawks in the air and keep them there, blew steadily. The temperature was in the 40s, cold enough to hone a hawk's appetite for pigeons. Three of us, John, Eric and I, met at the ridgetop where we have a blind. We stayed 10 hours and saw a hundred hawks. A dozen accipiters, sharpshins and Cooper's, came by, three marsh hawks, two red-shoulders and, late in the afternoon, a peregrine falcon. In the main, though, it was a redtail day. Red-tails are powerful, heavy-bodied hawks who handle high winds easily and migrate late in the season. A big female redtail has a wingspread of nearly five feet, exceeded in this part of the world only by the osprey and eagle. Of the hundred hawks, 38 came down to make at least one pass at our pigeons. For one fine moment a Cooper's and four redtails were all circling, diving, screaming in front of the blind. There were in fact too many birds to make a good banding record. Repeatedly hawks would pass at the bait but draw away at the last moment, spooked by other birds circling above. Eventually we trapped, banded and released five redtails.
A big female redtail was harassing our lure pigeon when we first saw Tor. He was half a mile away, flying across the ridge, when he saw the pigeons. He jumped, did a double take in the air, turned and came toward us. Three hundred yards away he wheeled into the wind and commenced a gliding dive, wings spread, held stiff. Because the female was still with us, we expected him to pull up, but he kept coming, struck the ground in front of the net and skidded in on the pigeon. John hit the trigger line and the net slapped down over the hawk.
There is a bad moment for a bow netter when a hawk is first taken. Having prayed that he will come in, you now wish that he had not, that he had spooked or that the net had hung. The hawk may be released in five minutes, none the worse for being trapped. Still it seems that, by reaching up with strings and monkey hands to pull down a hawk, you have befouled the sky. Most of us stand for a moment looking down at the hawk pinned under the mesh and think about what we have done.
Some birds are passive, shocked under the net, but Tor fought hard and was quick enough with his talons to draw blood from a carelessly exposed thumb. Spread on the grass, he measured 47 inches from wingtip to wingtip, 21� inches from beak to tail, and weighed two pounds four ounces. He had been hatched the spring before. (The brick-red tail that gives these hawks their name does not come until their first spring molt. Tor's tail was still brown.) He was sexed by his size. Among the raptorial birds, the females are invariably larger. For redtails, anything with a wingspread of less than 50 inches is recorded as a male. He was a light bird, with a clear white breast, cream-colored lines over the eyes, many flecks of white in the brown plumage of the back and shoulders. He was handsome, and the other signs—the way he had come in under the first hawk, his fight against the net, his style—were right.
"A good bird," Eric said. "You going to take him?"