A Most Unusual Encounter

by Karen Bailey

Today my new friend Roger came to see me as we had planned.  Since I read the book, “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White, I have been fascinated with falconry. But I have had few chances to ask anyone about this 4,000-year-old sport. Little has changed over those 4,000 years in methods and practice. The sport is practiced by licensed falconers all over the United States.
Then one day a while back I read the book “H is for Hawk” and again my interest was piqued. The book is about a lady who is getting over her father’s death and she needs something to do, so she decides to train her own hawk. But there are technical discussions in that book which now apply to my situation. I contacted a wildlife rehabilitation center here in Indiana to inquire if there were any falconers I could meet. The center passed along one gentleman’s e-mail address, and I wrote to him, explaining my fascination with raptors and where this began.
I also kept track of birds in a conservation area on Cape Cod when I lived there. With the sounds of all the birds there, I was able to surmise that we had some raptors in the woods. I heard a red-tailed hawk, and every year I heard great horned owls that came to nest in November and March. So I waited, and sure enough, the gentleman, Roger by name, had replied to me. Roger and I have discussed differences between dog and bird training.
Finally he told me he was thinking of visiting me to show me his birds. One is Knuckles, a red-tailed hawk, and the other is Onyx, his falcon.  I was thrilled since I hadn’t seen or held any birds for a long time. I was actually able to see some birds when I was younger; they came to our feeders. I’d also felt some in the pet store that were hand-fed. With the decrease in my vision in later years, I was unable to watch them fly outside any more, so I wanted to touch them. I held an African gray parrot and a cockatoo back in the ‘90s.
This is a very unusual visitation since the public is not allowed to touch the birds, neither at falconry conventions nor anywhere else. The guidelines are even stricter than with guide dogs. So this was a real privilege. Roger and his daughter Lauren came to visit me and Zelda (my guide dog). While Roger held his red-tailed hawk, I tied Zelda upstairs, sure she would react to a live bird in her living room.
Roger has a type of box that acts like a hood to restrict the bird’s vision while they were driving in his car and when they first came into the house. I said carefully, “I don’t know just how to handle this. Maybe you should guide my hands.” So he did. I was excited, but he said that I should go slowly. I did, and very gently felt this wonderful hawk’s feathers.
He got Knuckles from a rehabilitation center, and is teaching her how to hunt again after she was rehabbed from West Nile virus and a concussion. So far Knuckles has done well with its training. Roger explained that he isn’t sure whether Knuckles is female or male; only blood tests could tell the difference. Some birds you can tell since the female is a duller color, but not here. He thinks this bird might be female since it is smaller; but the hawk isn’t full-grown yet. The bird will be molting in spring. Right now the hawk is a basic brown in color. After it molts, the beautiful red tail will come out.
I slowly reached out, with Roger guiding my hands. The birds are wild creatures and can only be tamed to a certain extent. How wonderful to have this opportunity to touch such a beautiful wild creature! The wings of this bird are so soft they feel like silk under your hands, and you can’t stop touching. But too much touching upsets the hawk. So I touched in little spurts. I was able to touch all except her head, since she might bite. She is about two feet long, and her wings when spread are about four feet across. I startled her; when she spread those enormous wings so quickly, it startled me at first. At the same time, I was enthralled and amazed. I did briefly touch her tail which is long and sort of rounded off at the end. It too is very soft to the touch.
When the wings were in place, I could feel their outlines as I touched her. Roger let me touch her talons too. There are four on each foot.  Eventually her eyes will go from a golden color to red. The talons are very deadly; it’s how they catch their food. The inside first talon or claw is longer than the other two front talons. There is one back talon on each foot, which is how they kill their prey; it’s huge! It is long and thick. Roger showed me just how pointy all her claws were. I felt her lovely rounded breast too. I patted her back gently.  Then she raised her wings and flapped so hard it was like a fan cooling me off.
Then Roger showed me his glove. She had both her front legs on the top of his thick glove. This is the glove they are trained to aim for when coming back to their person. The next thing I noticed was the jingling of bells. These are attached to this thing called a pair of jesses. Jesses are two ankle rings that are attached to the hawk’s legs. From there are leather pieces that Roger holds in his fingers while the glove is on his hand. This keeps the hawk in place where he has her. Then when he flies her, he lets go of the jesses so that she can hunt. The bells are to help him with location. The little falcon he has is different. The falcon will go distances away so there isn’t any need for bells on her. She wears a tracking device instead.
Since Onyx, too, is very wild, it took hours for Roger’s friend to fit her with the tracking device. She wasn’t very cooperative.  However, the hawk may only go 200 feet away so she may be tracked with bells on her legs. The falcon is another story. She was outside when we took Knuckles back to the car. He took out Onyx, who is a bad biter, as many falcons are, so I couldn’t touch her, but Roger described her to me. She is black with a little white and a very orange breast. Her grandparents are from Peru. So really she does best in states like Arizona. He said our cold weather was a bit much for her right now.
And I found out one thing: she talks to Roger constantly. She sure is vocal, and she lets him know what she doesn’t like. So I got to hear her little voice. She is actually a tiny breed not more than a foot long. She was so much smaller than the big red-tailed hawk.
This is one of the most memorable visits I have ever received. They were here an hour, and I will never forget those soft, silky feathers of the beautiful hawk! Next spring after Knuckles has learned how to hunt for herself, Roger will make sure she knows how to get her food, then she will be released to be a wild creature once more.