SI Vault
Clive Gammon
January 17, 1972
Brimstone, an evil-looking hawk eagle with blazing eyes, turned out to be a feathered joke compared to a feisty six-ounce kestrel that drew lots of blood—all of it the author's
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January 17, 1972

Fly Me-if You Dare

Brimstone, an evil-looking hawk eagle with blazing eyes, turned out to be a feathered joke compared to a feisty six-ounce kestrel that drew lots of blood—all of it the author's

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It was becoming clear that Glasier's single human weakness was for peregrine falcons, steely blue birds that live on high sea cliffs but which have declined spectacularly in number since DDT came in, though he gave grudging admiration to merlins—tiny moorland falcons weighing six ounces or so which hunt larks—and sparrow hawks and goshawks. The latter two are not, of course, falcons at all. That name is reserved for dark-eyed, pointed-winged predators with notched beaks that work in open country. The rounded-winged hawks have long tails and yellow eyes and usually work in woodland cover. But you don't differentiate when you are talking about the sport.

He had given us a definition to write in our notebooks: the birds of the sport are those that catch their prey with their feet. This, Glasier offered, would seem to include the secretary bird, which digs up insects. And owl, too. But definitions can't have everything and, anyway, owls are slow learners, he said.

I had the feeling that I, too, was going to prove a slow learner. Glasier had a daunting pile of notes in front of him. As the morning wore on, he took us inexorably through every kind of predatory bird there is. Luggars from India (no good); prairie falcons from America (pretty, but temperamental); crowned eagles from Africa (useful for hunting monkeys and, Glasier slyly seemed to imply, children). It was scribble, scribble, scribble for all of us, but when the cause of the now very distinct wet-dog smell blundered in, a big, gravy-colored German bird dog, Glasier had to hustle it out, giving Betty the chance to wiggle her fingers winningly at Brian and tell him that she'd write it all down for him, pet. It was also the chance for the rest of us to exchange first, numbed impressions.

"Goes on a bit, don't he?" said Roger. Terry, a smooth number who was later variously to describe himself as a stockbroker, a P.R. man and a financial journalist, fingered his tightly knotted club tie. "I didn't know it was going to be like this," he said, speaking for all of us. "When does the action start?"

Outside, the fields through the somewhat grimy window looked more mournful than ever as the snow changed to sleet. Surrealistically, from the depths of the house, a soprano enthusiastically belted into "One Fine Day" from Madame Butterfly. Returning, Glasier said briefly, "My daughter." He looked around, as if challenging us to dispute this statement, then, without explanation, started to hand around lengths of nylon cord knotted at one end. "Leashes," he said.

I fingered mine nervously, since I had a shrewd idea of what unpleasantness was coming next. We were going to have to learn to tie some kind of knot. At one time, during my service with the 27th (Wesley Chapel) troop of the Boy Scouts, I had been involved in intensive knot tying every Wednesday night through a long winter. By Christmas I had mastered the reef knot and the fisherman's bend, but the sheepshank and the bowline remained beyond me, in spite of intensive coaching by my Uncle Eddie, the sailor. (It was this failure, together with simple jealousy of my electrician's badge, that prevented me from ever making patrol leader. Or so I've always thought.) Anyway, I am not one of nature's knot tyers, but I suspected everyone else in the class was, even though Betty took a long time teaching Brian. We were learning the falconer's knot for tethering a falcon to its perch, and it finished with a kind of bowknot that you had to do with one hand. Glasier moved around us like a pacing tiger, deftly demonstrating, making unnerving snorting and clicking sounds until the pupil got it right. I didn't get it right. "If you had a swivel with a clip on it," I said to him reasonably, "you wouldn't need all this."

"Falconers tie knots," he told me coldly.

But the class could not be held up indefinitely. I was left in the corner to practice and simultaneously to listen to what Glasier was telling the others. He had now moved on to Training Your Falcon: Part One, Manning.

Manning is getting the falcon used to your hand. Actually, as I was to discover soon, the bird cannot get away from you, first because you have its leash firmly held in your clenched fist and, second, because it has nowhere else to perch. The real aim is, I suppose, to make it like sitting there, which you achieve by being sure that this is the only time it gets any food. At least that seemed to be the gist of what Glasier was saying.

It was clearly the cue for romantic Roger to do his straight-man bit again. "I was reading," he said, "where you had to sit up all night by candlelight with your falcon, never allowing it to close its eyes until it took meat from your fist. You had to do this night after night until you had it trained."

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