"Yeah, bwana." Georgi stands to the side, a short, stocky 21-year-old with an augur buzzard on his gloved left fist. The buzzard's four-foot wings are outstretched in the wind. She is a handsome raptor, a bird of prey, with auburn wings and an auburn-speckled breast. Augurs, named after the ancient Roman religious officials who sometimes predicted the future by the flight of birds, are the most common raptors in Africa.
Georgi says, "Pasipo wants to fly."
Georgi and I found her in a treetop nest when she was two weeks old and resembled a downy toad. I named her Pasipo, Swahili for "loneliness," a nod to her alien life among humans. We raised her, feeding her mice, chicks and lean beef, and she quickly grew to be a foot and a half tall, her coat of down giving way to a second, darker downy coat and then to white and auburn feathers. She "imprinted," as the biologists say, and came to think of us as her parents and of the aerie as her home.
As soon as she could stand, Pasipo began to eat off my gloved fist. After a month, when her quills were no longer blue but hard and white, she began to hop about, trying out her wings. A few days later, with a short leash clipped to her jesses—the leather thongs we had placed on both her legs—Pasipo was flying 10 feet from a perch to the glove as Georgi or I stood by the hang glider dangling a dead chick. We were conditioning her to the sight of the yellow-and-hot-pink glider, which we hoped Pasipo would come to think of as her dining room. After another week Pasipo, now on a long leash, was winging a hundred yards across the field on top of the peninsula and touching down lightly on the glove.
The pleasure of a trained hawk, a feathered friend, coming when you call is immense, for the training process is painstaking. Often a novice falconer makes mistakes that take months to correct. Hunger is a raptor's only source of motivation, and there is a fine line between persuasive hunger and starvation. You love and nurture the hawk as if she were your child, and you live in the fear that you will kill her. Georgi and I had been absolute beginners at the sport, working out of several books, and we had made all of the classic errors with our first four birds. One augur was frozen at 15 feet; for months she simply refused to fly any farther.
But Pasipo's training progressed without any setbacks. When she crossed the field daily on clumsy fledgling wings, Georgi and I were overwhelmed with a joy akin to that of parents watching a child toddle across the living room. Still, the joy of Pasipo's first flights was met with the fear of losing her, for at six weeks of age it became time to "hack" her. Hacking is the falconer's term for the period when a nestling is allowed to fly free in order to gain skills as a flier and hunter. Ideally, several nestlings are hacked at the same time because the group will call back the most daring of the youngsters when it strays far from home. Still, we had no choice with Pasipo; she had to learn to hunt on her own, or one day, when I was flying with her far from the promontory, she might become lost and starve to death.
Reluctantly we clipped the jesses from her legs and left her on her perch. It took her several hours to understand her freedom. Finally she flew up to the highest point on the promontory and perched on a flame tree, which was leafless but covered in red blooms, and she stayed there until dark.
The next morning she was gone. Georgi and I walked fretfully through the mountains, calling her. Late in the afternoon she came swooping out of the blue, screaming from hunger. I cut a long piece of steak, pulled on the glove and ran out to her. She was sitting on the thatched roof of the bird mews and dived down to the glove, where she ate greedily. She then winged up to the flame tree.
During the next week Pasipo would stay away all morning but return in the evenings to feed. When she was gone for two days in a row, we knew that she had made her own kill. Anxiously we awaited her arrival. On the evening of the third day, when she came to Georgi's fist to feed, we cuffed her legs with jesses and put her in the mews. The next day we gave her no food, and the following day we flew her on the long leash across the field to eat by the hang glider. For several days we followed this routine and then flew her for a week with no leash. She was fat and happy again in her invisible gilded cage.
"Unafikilia kwa Chanel?" In Swahili, Georgi asks if I am thinking about Chanel's flight. "Think about Pasipo," he says. "This is the big day. You're going to fly together!"