A Day of Falconry in NC

It was a spring morning, full of sunlight and clarity.  It made one feel exuberant and zestful.  It was a fine day for doing things.  At my request, Bill Halstead, my young visiting friend and soon to become a colleague, who happened also to be an accomplished expert falconer, agreed to demonstrate for me the delicate and ancient art of “flying-the-falcon”.  We chose to do so at my farm.  It is a vast, open, grassy expanse with gentle hills, surrounded with pine trees and century-old oaks complete with ponds, grazing cattle, browsing sheep and swimming geese.  A pastoral tableau of the South, appropriately named “Alkyonis’ Farm” located outside of Raleigh, NC where I live and practice.

At our arrival my friend’s mood was now intense as he was slowly preparing for the flight.  His demeanor and attitude was that of an artist or an acrobat preparing for a difficult and delicate act – a ritual.  The bird, a female Peregrine (i.e. the wandering) falcon of three-years-old was an astonishingly beautiful creature when seen at close quarters.

Her eyes keen, piercing, “watching everything” akin to the eyes of the biblical God, “missing nothing”.  Her streamlined body balanced, smooth, lean.  Under her spotted, immaculate feathers, her muscles were tensing like coiled springs on the ready.  Her beak; cured, elaborate, arranged – and as strange as it may sound, very similar to that of another predatory sea creature; the octopus!  – my friend called the phenomenon, a convergent evolution.  Her talon’s were in the shape of semicircular hooks, akin to those of a dinonychus (Greek for terrible taloned lizard), a small but ferocious dinosaur who is now believed to be the direct ancestor of this very falcon from its’ distant evolutionary past.

The bird exuded an overall readiness for rapid action.  Truly the picture of the ultimate raptor of our childhood books, who along with a cheetah are in fact the fastest creatures on this earth.  The falcon is capable of swooping down from the skies, zeroing in on her quarries at speeds that may exceed two hundred miles an hour.  Her overall presence felt alien, unconnecting, aloof, from another world and another era.  Perhaps the five hundred million years of our evolutionary separation was a telling presence!  And yet there were feelings of kinship aplenty coming from different quarters.  It’s alertness, the keen eyes, its autonomy, its readiness and swiftness and, as the later events gave us the opportunity to witness its amazing, unerring, targeting skill in securing her quarry and her overall competence.  All qualities we ourselves as humans value and cherish much.

As I was watching I soon realized that the falconer’s and falcon’s relationship was complicated.  Their behavior toward each other was subtle, full of meaning.  The bird really was not “his” i.e. he was not her master.  Both appeared as free agents accepting each others’ presence and interactions for their enjoyment i.e. partners.

The falcon now being readied with the attachment of miniature radio-transmitters on each of her legs.  My friend’s movements were small, deliberately measured.  Each item being introduced separately.  The bird’s beak pecked at them, ritualistically before the final attachment.  Meanwhile, Bill continuously imitated “chupping” falcon sounds, all intended to assuage the creature’s uneasiness in being invaded in her special privacy as well as reassuring her that they will act in unison as hunting partners.

As Bill’s heavily, gloved arm was extended, the bird perched on it, watching, pondering sizing up her surroundings.  Finally with a swoosh and quick flapping, off she went, gaining rapidly altitude.

The beeping sound of the receiver, the only connection with the distancing falcon, now flying in circles eagerly searching to hitch a thermal.  As she finally succeeded in doing so, she was rapidly and effortlessly propelled upward.  Her presence in the blue expanse became a mere dot.

Presently, I was seized by a wish, a yearning and an envy.  I too wanted to soar the skies.  Floating free, watching the landscape below, gliding the thermals here, swooping over a tree there as the whim dictated.  An ancient yearning shared by the likes of Ikarus, his impetuous son, Dedalus, the multidimensional Leonardo and those tenacious bicycle makers, the Wright brothers.  Now an alive, fully grown and every bit as keen pigeon appeared from the far corner of the vast pasture out of the tall trees flying high.  To my amazement suddenly, the new bird, mysteriously cued, dived directly to the ground now flying low and rapidly, continuously hugging the ground soon reached an enormous oak two miles away.  It too “knew” perhaps built-in, in his genes something about falcons.  A second and third pigeon appeared and with equal rapidity did exactly the same.  This time gaining protection in the branches of other giant oaks.  No amount of chasing or “scaring” induced them into a new flight.  They just stayed put!  And now a new development.  The radio signal was rapidly weakening.  Evidently the falcon on his own, infected by the exuberance of that lovely day and apparently frustrated by the quarry’s behavior far below decided “to explore the world”.

Now and for the following three hours, myself at the wheel of the car and Bill with the telemetry radio in his hands were following literally the sun, south by southeast.  Small, poorly paved roads were replaced by national highways and back to small roads again.  The beeping weakening now reassuringly loud later.  On we went.

Our chase with the built-in randomness gave us an opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of the Eastern, NC.  We witnessed open enormous farms, new equipment in a row, followed by ramshackle tenements with rusted, ancient farm machinery all around.  Dogwoods in the white glory alternating with pine forests and then open expanses.  Beep-beep went the telemetry receiver.

We crisscrossed small towns and names like Four Oaks, Princeton, Spiveys-Corners,  and Sims.  At long last, we arrived at a several hundred acres, open expanse which was looming ahead.  The signal loud and steady was now coming directly overhead.  As we stopped soon enough yet another flock of pigeons appeared.  This time one of the new birds tried to gain altitude.  A mistake.

Suddenly and literally out of the blue sky a black dot became a dark fist.  The drama unfolded fast.  The falcon with cunning precision intercepted the quarry for the kill.  The great dove was dead while still airborne.

Talons reaching for the now dead bird, the falcon came swooshing down.  “Ka-chup” she cried, “Ka-chup!” the extended wings enveloping her victim protectively “ka-chup!” the falconer uttered reassuring.  The drama was over.  Nevertheless, a whiff of compassion enveloped me as I witnessed the event.  “Poor little dove”, I murmured.  “Poor little dove”, now somewhat disingenuously as I presently remembered the legion of grilled chicken, chicken cooked in Marsala wine, and others made up as chicken a la Kiev I myself have devoured in my rather long life.  The elegant falcon just got his food for the day.  The only way she knows how, and then I remembered that’s how it is in nature.  Children of hers all of us being contributed and contributing.  Mother Nature, equally affectionate and concerned for the little pigeon’s flying, the little lark’s chirping and the falcon’s survival skills.  Delicately balanced all.

On the return trip the falcon once again perched on the gloved arm of my friend and proceeded to consume the dead pigeon bit by bit, carefully setting aside its unwanted feathers.  While driving Bill’s truck home, through the corners of my eyes as I saw the peregrine eat with relish the crimson morsels of flesh, I imagine like peering through the reverse side of binoculars at the far distant scene of dinonychus perfecting his own similar skills on a dispatched, small mammal (perhaps one of our own pre-ancestors!), among the ancient, primitive, giant ferns.  It was an eventful day full of adventures and wonders.

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