This story begins the afternoon my husband brought home a kestrel – America’s smallest falcon – in a paper bag. He carefully opened the top, and I peered in to see a pretty little bird hunkered down in the bottom of the sack. It had a rufous back and a dark slate blue cap on its cream-colored head. It turned slightly to look up at me, or maybe at the light, but it made no move to try to escape. Tim told me the young bird had been rescued by a woman in a trailer park who’d seen some boys trying to feed it a ham sandwich. She knew that that probably wasn’t a good idea, so she got the bird into a bag and drove to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, where the bag went from desk to desk until it got to Tim’s. When I asked Tim why he’d kept the bird, it all came tumbling out – I’ve got to get my license renewed and build a mews and get some food . . . He stopped when he saw me looking at him as if he had suddenly grown an extra head.
“I’m a falconer,” he said. “I just haven’t had a bird for about twelve years.”
“These birds are not pets,” Tim would insist. I know he meant that when he said it, but I would hear him giving little whistles at his peregrine, Macduff, as the bird ripped apart the dead quail that Tim had just given him. It didn’t take me long to figure out that what I had thought of as a quaint, anachronistic hobby was now a full-blown obsession. Soon a big bag of frozen, day-old chicks – the male chicks that are culled from the local poultry farm – was crammed into the basement freezer. On a typical morning, I’d make a batch of waffles for the kids while Tim would take a few frozen yellow chicks, wrap them in paper towels, and defrost them in the microwave so they would be more lifelike in death when they were fed to the falcons.
By this time, Tim had built a mews in our attic. Our family had expanded, and we’d moved around the corner to a big pink Edwardian house that sat in the center of the village. There were dormer windows on three sides of the full attic, and Tim made enclosures around them to house the falcons. Sometimes as I went down the walk, I’d get a strange feeling, like I was being watched, and I’d turn around to see a falcon looking down at me.
During the falconry season, which in upstate New York lasts through autumn and early winter, Tim gets up before dawn each day to take his peregrine to the field to get a flight in before work. He throws his waders in the back of the Jeep and loads up Macduff and the telemetry equipment (a battery-operated tracking device and receiver and antenna). He drives a circuit through the countryside, going past ponds he thinks might have ducks on them. When he finds one, he goes through an elaborate ritual of getting himself ready, getting the bird ready, releasing the bird in a field next to the pond, allowing it to circle high above him, then flushing the ducks from the pond by running at them and waving his arms like a wild man. Finally, he makes sure his bird doesn’t get beat up by a thrashing duck if the peregrine happens to nail one.
During the falconry season, the birds sometimes get more of Tim’s physical and emotional energies than his family does. It’s like living with a sports nut – only Tim’s sport includes the ultimate: death to the prey. There’s a terrible and wonderful intensity that characterizes his devotion to falconry and to his birds. For years, there was a narrow distance between us that grew wider as the season progressed, and at times I felt myself losing ground to the peregrine in the fight for Tim’s affections. As a non-falconer, I found it hard to understand the fanaticism that comes with the years of dedication to this solitary pursuit. And ultimately, it is a solitary pursuit. You can be in the field with other falconers or with your family but in the end it comes down to the working relationship between you and your bird. It’s the ultimate hunting partnership.
Tim hunts as if each day might be the last one of the hunting season. This is not an unreasonable assumption when you’re hunting in Upstate New York because in every falconry season there comes a morning when you wake up, look outside, and know all the good ponds will be frozen and empty of ducks. I think this feeling is also a function of Tim’s age – he hunts as if each day might be his last day of hunting ever, as if each day might be the last time he will ever see his peregrine fly. This makes both the experience and the way he approaches everything during those months of hunting much more intense.
I don’t know if a person can really understand falconry without being a falconer. Until someone has flown a bird and had a kill, he probably can’t really know the sport. Until he’s felt the adrenaline rush and seen the life-and-death moments, the knowledge of falconry is academic. For the hardcore falconers, this kind of knowing is in every fiber of their being.
Falconry is a lonely pursuit, but I don’t think falconers are lonely. They’re too focused to be lonely. They’re doing something that gives them enormous pleasure and enjoyment, and for those of us left on the outside watching and waiting, there’s nothing we can do but accept it and be happy because they’re happy.
The other morning, I accompanied Tim to the field to watch him fly Macduff. It was cool and drizzling when we reached the field and parked the Jeep. Tim brought his bird out from the back of the vehicle, checked to make sure the telemetry receiver was working, then started walking down a dirt road that ran through a hedgerow of hardwoods. I ran to catch up, then stood at the edge of the open meadow while Tim took Macduff 50 yards into the field. He reached over and loosened the braces of the falcon’s hood with his teeth and right hand and stood there with his left arm outstretched. The falcon shook his feathers, looked around, then pushed off from Tim’s glove and began a slow ascent into the leaden sky.
Tim still uses bells on his bird. In the East, where the fields are small and hemmed in by trees, Tim wants to hear where his bird is at all times. Ching ching ching ching. The sound of the bells attached to the bird’s ankles was comforting as Macduff began to ring up. As Tim ran to the little pond on the field’s edge to flush some ducks for his bird, I stood back, closed my eyes, and felt the rain on my face as I listened to the falcon’s bells high above my head.
by Rachel Dickinson
This is an excerpt taken from Rachel Dickinson’s book, Falconer on the Edge: A Man, His Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). For more information about Dickinson and her book, visit www.racheldickinson.com, or view her blogs at http://thehaikudiaries.wordpress.com and http://falconerontheedge.wordpress.com