Winging it in Vermont
Published: June 2009
By Ted Conover
In Vermont, amateurs learn the high-flying sport of falconry in just four days
It is a motion that dates from the ancient Chinese, and a pose you've seen a hundred times: the gloved hand rises, the bird alights. Here, on the first day of falconry school in Vermont, that hand is about to be mine.
Our instructor, Chris Davis, emerges from a room in the former dairy barn that is now a mews, with Arthur perched on his gauntleted fist. I don't see why this hawk would ever prefer my fist to his trainer's, but Davis says to go ahead. "Lift your hand higher than mine, and brush the back of his legs. The raptor always prefers a higher perch." Sure enough: with little fuss, Arthur lifts one big clawed foot and then the other onto my hand. He opens his beak and screeches, revealing a thin pink tongue. He swivels his head, angling for a better view. I try to keep my forearm still and not aggravate this bundle of feathered fury. If you look them directly in the eye, some hawks will attack, so I regard Arthur with a sidelong glance. How can a bird weighing less than two pounds put the fear of God into you?
The wildness is why. Though trained, these birds aren't tame. They don't like to be stroked, and they don't grow affectionate; a careful system of hunger and reward keeps them in the falconer's thrall. I was like most people: birds of prey for me were as close as the eagles on the quarters in my pocket and as distant as the wilderness. I once came within a foot of an eagle on a silent river in Alaska. I didn't know it was there until it had concluded its dive on me with a parabolic zoom upward, the sudden whoosh of air through feathers nearly sending me out of the raft. To hold such a wild thing on your arm is to have usurped a wizard's power. Is it coincidence that the small falcon known as a pigeon hawk is also called a merlin?
Earlier, I had sat with the five others in my class around a table at the Equinox hotel, in Manchester, Vermont. We were there for four days to learn the lore and the arcane language of falconry, a sport hundreds of years old in England and even older in the Middle East and China. The school-- the American branch of the British School of Falconry, located in Auchterarder, Scotland-- had recently received a first-of-its-kind license allowing students to fly its raptors in the United States.
Among us were Ed and Charlene, who had gotten a first taste of falconry in a brief session at America's other new falconry facility, at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Wick, a gentleman farmer from Tennessee who raises prize geese, was intrigued by falconry as "the purest form of hunting." Matt, 12, had dreamed for years of owning a hawk. And there was Donna, a social worker who was on squawking terms with her two parrots but approached hawks with a hushed reverence.
After lunch we met at the mews, where the 20-odd birds were kept, two miles from the hotel. The chorus of hawk shrieks I heard while approaching the open barn was exciting but also bone-chilling: I felt a sudden empathy for small, fur-bearing creatures. Actually, the hawks were "food begging," as Davis and the other instructor, Robert Waite, explained. Food, or its absence, provides the falconer with his means of control.
We learned the nuances of this after meeting a large Russian steppe eagle, and then the Harris hawks that we would work with during the session. A daily ritual for hawkers is the weigh-in; and each of us, after getting the bird on our fist, weighed our hawk by placing it on the perch of an old counterbalance. The results were posted on a chalkboard on the wall, next to each bird's "flying weight"-- the weight at which the bird is nourished but hungry enough to hunt. (Birds that are too fat won't hunt and may not return.)
My bird, Arthur, stood quietly on my fist and was weighed without a fuss, at one pound 5 1/2 ounces-- a half-ounce over his flying weight. Davis demonstrated another way to check the weight: with thumb and forefinger, you feel on either side of the keel, or breastbone. In a hungry bird, the bone is pronounced. Though I avoided his gaze, I couldn't help noticing Arthur's sharp, curved beak, about a foot away from my cheek: Didn't the punishment of Prometheus spring from some timeless, subconscious fear of being eaten alive?
Not to worry, said Davis, on the several occasions I brought this up. Hawks do their main damage with their feet. I checked Davis's and Waite's faces carefully for scars; they were clean.
Other birds gave more reason for concern than Arthur. Wick's hawk, Rolf, kept bating-- trying to take flight-- but was foiled by the straps that held him to Wick's glove. After a few flaps, he would swing upside down and dangle from the fist like a chicken on its way to market, all majesty gone. Davis showed us how to swing the bird back to its feet, pushing on the breast so as not to touch the wing feathers, which are weakened by contact with our skin oils.
The schooling continued, with morning instruction in one of the Equinox's meeting rooms and afternoon work with the birds, leading up to a hunt on the last day. Waite gave us lessons in making falconry furniture-- the leather equipment with which all the birds are fitted. Davis showed us how falconers affix a small transmitter to the bird's tail, to help track it down should it fail to return. Given a length of cord, each of us also practiced the falconer's knot, a one-handed maneuver used for tying the bird to a perch.
The Equinox hotel-- in a 228-year-old building-- provided a fine roost during the course. The falconry package bought a high-ceilinged room with a view of a mountainous nature preserve, and included buffet breakfasts in the hotel's fancy Colonnade restaurant. Manchester Village, which the Equinox dominates, is an oasis of gentility about half a mile from a long strip of factory stores, so shopping is available but not intrusive.
One night, at the hotel's Marsh Tavern restaurant-- a former meeting place of the Green Mountain Boys-- I had a drink with Donna, the parrot enthusiast, who was so excited by the school that she arrived at every session early and stayed late. Sometimes she was close to tears as she held the birds; it was their beauty, she said, such a contrast to the horrific lives she came in contact with as a school social worker. "And it's the way they trust me."
Falconry made a different kind of sense after I spoke with Wick. He had helped preserve Canada geese in Tennessee, he explained, and now winced to see hunters shoot their limit of three a day, sometimes leaving on the ground the ones they didn't need. Falconry was a purer form of sport, as he saw it, because it was natural-- nature intended hawks to kill, and they didn't do it to excess.
After class each day, we'd head to the field. Waite re-created for us the steps he'd taken to train these hawks. First, they flew to us from perches in the field, tied to leashes called creances. Next, they leaped from their perches to attack a furry decoy that Waite pulled through the grass; he rewarded them with bits of meat. Then, freed from the leash, they followed us around the field's perimeter, perching on one tree
after another. And finally, on the fourth day, we took them hunting.
It was the reenactment of an ancient rite: the first falconers flew their birds as a source of food in winter months, when it was scarce, and then released them in the spring, when game was more plentiful, to avoid the necessity of feeding them (the men would catch new birds the next fall). Into the school's Chevy Suburban we climbed, with three Harris hawks in pet carriers and a young Brittany spaniel. We drove to a grass airstrip surrounded by woods-- enough open terrain that a bird could do its job. Two of us held aloft hunting perches that looked like upended push brooms with AstroTurf on top instead of bristles; two of the birds ascended readily to these superior vantage points. Our procession strode into the field, spaniel in front. Soon, spotting a partridge, the dog came to a point. Davis grabbed its collar and flushed a partridge from the brush. The moment it was airborne, he and Waite yelled "Ho!" and in a flash the hawks descended upon the rising game bird. The hunt was repeated throughout the field, our party of falconers, dog, and birds on poles looking like something out of a Monty Python movie.
Back at the mews, we parted like people who had, over the past four days, caught a glimpse of the same rare natural wonder. We had liked each other okay, but what we really would miss was the birds.
The British School of Falconry at the Equinox in Manchester, Vermont (802/362-4780), opened in 1995 as a sister to the school at Scotland's Gleneagles Hotel. The package, which costs $1,460, is scheduled three times a year, in April, July, and September. Hourly and half-day sessions are also offered every day from late April through November.