One of my assigned readings for my upcoming creative non-fiction class is a book called H is for Hawk (Macdonald, Helen. New York: Grove Press. 2014), an account of a woman’s simultaneous struggle to grieve the death of her father and to raise and train a wild goshawk. Goshawks are a type of raptor that is often employed in the traditional craft of falconry, and the narrator of this book, a British woman, also covers some of her homeland’s history with that pastime in her text.
Before reading H is for Hawk, I’d never really had that much interest in falconry. Although I didn’t love the book, after reading it I did find myself quite curious about human-raptor interactions and the draw that some people feel towards these birds. They aren’t cute and cuddly, like so many of our species’ favorite animals are. In fact, they are rather standoffish – in additional to being highly skilled killers. I wondered where their magnetism came from.
For the years I lived in Teton Valley, Idaho, I routinely drove past Wilson, Wyoming’s Teton Raptor Center. I would hear about their periodic releases of rehabilitated birds, and I knew a few people who volunteered there; but for some reason, I had never gotten around to visiting the facility. Last week, I finally booked a spot on one of their presentations and showed up at their educational tent with camera in hand.
I learned that raptors are defined by three behaviors: they eat meat, they kill with their feet, and they tear their meat with their beaks. The word raptor comes from the Latin verb rapere – “to seize or take by force” – so these birds are in fact defined by their predatory behaviors. Other key characteristics shared by these birds include excellent eyesight and powerful talons. Eagles, owls, kites, falcons, hawks, harriers, and ospreys all fit this bill.
The Teton Raptor Center works with all of these species, serving a three-pronged mission of rehabilitation (last year they treated over 140 birds injured by cars, window strikes, gunshots, electrocution and lead poisoning), research, and education. Founded in 1991, the center now occupies a beautiful piece of land which was once the site of the Hardeman cattle ranch and includes several historic barns.
During the course of the presentation, I got to “meet” several of the center’s resident birds – birds who cannot be returned to the wild and therefore are used for educational and demonstration purposes. There was Gus, a twelve-year-old golden eagle with a broken wing; Ruby, a seventeen-year-old red tailed hawk; River, a five-year-old bald eagle with a wing impairment; and Hunter, a peregrine falcon.
I learned all sorts of factoids about these animals. For instance, peregrine falcons can reach speeds of up to 240 mph while diving. They see at 100 frames per second (we see at only 32!) and therefore can see a hummingbird’s wings as they flutter, whereas we just see a blur. I learned that female raptors are almost always larger than males, and that owls have five times as many rods in their eyes as we do, allowing for incredibly keen night vision.
But perhaps more significant that the acquisition of new knowledge for me was the fact that I think I actually “got” the human fascination with raptors. There is nothing quite like being close to a bird with a seven foot wingspan – especially when it flies. The sheer size of these of these creatures stops you in your tracks, and to think that they can soar great distances with minimal effort is remarkable. It is equally breathtaking to see them land so accurately on small pieces of meat – especially when they approach at a such high rates of speed.
On top of their athletic prowess, these birds also have what I want to call “presence.” Each and every one of their movements seems deliberate and calculated; they appear to waste no energy on unnecessary action. When they are still, they exude strength, confidence and poise. Of course, all of these qualities are human qualities, and by ascribing them to birds of prey, I am inappropriately anthropomorphizing them. Yet, their embodiment of these qualities was a key part of the fascination I experienced in watching them. I wish I were more deliberate, efficient, regal, and confident. It’s no wonder I enjoyed staring at fellow living things that appear to be.
My favorite of the birds was K2, a Eurasian Eagle-Owl. She was enormous, intimidating, and incredibly graceful. We watched her fly from perch to perch to seize and gobble up whole frozen mice. Her wings were both long and wide, yet her flight was silent. Her feathers were covered with intricate patterns and rich brown tones, and her eyes were downright piercing. Apparently she could kill a deer in the wild, and is able to eat pocket gophers whole in a single gulp. Not a wilting lily.
I could see how developing some kind of a relationship with her would be emboldening. It’s one thing to get a dog or a cat to be loyal; you just need to give them food and a little attention and they’re on your side forever. With raptors, it is clear that you need to earn their trust. You need to meet them where they are, play their game, and be on top of your own.
When the narrator in H is for Hawk had small successes with her goshawk, she was ecstatic; when her bird scorned her, she was crushed. That’s a relationship all right, and an intense one at that.
As I lingered to watch River, the bald eagle, bathe in her kiddie pool post-performance, I could barely take my eyes off of her.
So, now I think I get it.