Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Capture: Part 2

I returned the next morning to where I last saw him the night before. There he was, on the pole, still sitting and watching the world go by. It was around 7AM and even though we were in a rural area, people were leaving for work, hunting, and school. A big yellow bus drove by and I clenched the wheel of my truck tight enough to whiten the knuckles. I was so close, had wanted this so long, and if a rickety bus send this bird packing I would be back to road spotting. I watched the bird as the bus rambled past. It didn't move.

I drove out of the bird's sight and when I couldn't take it anymore I headed back to the trap site, past hills, ponds, and farms that looked ready for their L.L. Bean photo shoot. When I was within a hundred yards the truck crawled along the road, and slowly the telephone pole came into sight. It was empty!

This was a great sign, and perhaps my hungry bird had headed for the trap. I pulled over and acted fast, getting my gear bag out of the back seat and headed down the slope of the ditch. There he was! And he was certainly trapped. One of the loops on the top of of the cage had been stuck on a talon. I literally had a tiger by the toe. As I gained ground and got closer he flapped his wings and opened his mouth wide, as he leaned back exposing his white stomach. This was sign of shock, and he would be as easy to handle as a kitten. Well, a kitten who might grab me with a foot capable of squeezing with 400lbs of sharp force, but I tried not to think about that.

More traffic was picking up on the road and I didn't want people stopping and asking questions. What I was doing was totally legal, but folks aren't used to seeing weekday morning hawk captures on their way to drop off the kids at school and I didn't want to invite any debate, small talk, or fuss. I wanted this bird safe and on our way to Ed's house. I had done this twice now. I guess Third Time really does pay for all, doesn't it? But this time it wasn't about releasing, it was about gathering. So I came up to the bird and got a closer look. He had one foot trapped but the other was up and lashing out. He was a scrapper. I grabbed a leather fake bird on a string (called a lure to falconers) and let him hold onto that while my left hand gathered both legs to keep us both safe. Within moments I had him off the trap, his talons taped shut, and a length of panty hose with a hole in it wrapped around his body. This seems so barbaric, but it is all about safety. A bird with claws and flapping wings in a truck is a disaster - either the human or the bird will get injured. If feathers broke or he was harmed I would be in big trouble with Ed, and feel deeply ashamed. Which is why I didn't put him in a dog crate or cardboard box, since all he would do is thrash. I slipped a hood over his eyes so the world went dark.

I packed all my gear and got into the truck. I did it. It took weeks, a whole community, friends with binoculars and offered time, and last night's stake out but I had a wild passage red-tail in my possession. I just took one small step for a woman… I thought of Ed's talk about hearing the moon landing the last time he trapped a bird. December 2nd 2013 wasn't as eventful. It was Cyber Monday. I just got one hell of steal….

I held him against my body, his head resting on the crook of my left arm as I called Ed at 7:30 in the morning. His wife picked up and handed the phone to her husband, who sounded a little tired and surprised to be hearing from me. "Ed, I GOT A BIRD!" I exclaimed and he sounded (for the first time ever) genuinely excited for me. "Oh, good! Wow, good good good." and I knew he was as shocked as I was, being so late in the trapping season. We made arrangements for me to head right to his farmhouse in south Cambridge and I told him I was on my way.

The drive to Ed's farm was a blur. I barely remember any of it, just that for the first time in weeks I wasn't looking up. I was looking at this beautiful, scared, quiet animal in my arms. To go from an observer of hawks, a casual appreciator to their companion? Or rather, their hunting partner? This was such an amazing feeling of accomplishment, eagerness, and awe. I knew the bird wasn't very large, maybe 2 pounds? But he felt enormous in my arms. So much potential, so many stories, lessons, mistakes, and adventures ahead. It was like holding a potion, equally dangerous and horrible as it was beautiful. I wasn't scared though. I just wanted him to be okay.

I pulled into Ed's driveway and was rushed inside. It felt like those old clips of ER where people run into the double doors with stretchers to the Operating Table. And there was one, kind of. Right there in Ed's kitchen was a laid out towel, scissors, leather anklets, grommets, jesses, and a tool box. Ed and I weighed the bird while it was still safely wrapped and made note of it (982grams, a little under 35 oz). Ed said it was a large male, noted by the smaller feet than females and his weight. We undid his taped feet and removed the stocking and the replaced my too-big hood with one Ed himself handcrafted. Ed thought it was an old, damaged thing but I thought it was the most beautiful hood I had ever seen. Green and dark leather, beautiful closer ties and a decorative top knot. It fit the bird well.

Ed worked masterfully, the 60 years of experience shining through. He was entirely focused on the animal, not at all interested in me or the story. I have learned that falconers are a friendly lot but the birds always come first. Always. Pat offered me coffee and I gladly accepted. I had not showered, was in 4-day old insulated work pants and didn't even remember to put on a bra. I looked like a homeless person who stole roadkill in pantyhose and scrambled away in her dented truck.

It didn't take long to have the bird totally outfitted in anklets and jesses, hood, and ready to stand on my gloved fist for the first time. I set him up and he sulked, drooping as if someone had set him in a bowl of half-formed Jell-O. But then he stood up, as if his entire life was spend on large monster's hands. Ed was impressed, I think so anyway. He said some birds flop and sulk for hours before taking to the fist. This guy was already perching like a pro.

And so, with my hawk on my fist I was handed a cup of coffee and asked to sit down. Have you ever sat at kitchen table and sipped French Roast with a hawk on your left hand? Me either. At least not until that morning. It was strangely comfortable. Ed and I talked a lot. He wanted to make sure I had a plan for training starting tonight. He had some words of advice and we had the little problem of getting the bird home to my farm…. but we rigged a perch for the passenger side seat of the truck. The bird went from total restriction to riding shotgun in under an hour.

And this is how this adventure begins. Two animals, one goal, and a lot of learning in-between. Right now I have a wild animal in my care, and he will remain a wild animal. He is not a pet, but a partner in the hunt. In a few weeks of training, time, and luck we will go from strangers to pack mates. Two loners learning what it is like to think as a team with the hunt on our mind and big fat hope in our hearts. I like this bird, very much so. I named him, too. I call him Italics. It seemed like the right kind of name for a hawk manned by a graphic designer-cum-author. The word always sounded like a bird of prey to me, anyway. The tilt, the hint of the word Talon, and the almost slinky nature of the word seemed to fit him. And it does. So I have a bird in my mews. And now the real work starts.

Nothing holding me back but fear. Right, Ed?

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