People are not used to needing other species, not really. We no longer depend on horses to get from point A to B. We don't count on a team of beagles to put meat in the pot or a hawk to get enough protein to a lactating mother. And so these skills and practices are seen as primitive or cruel to people who know animals based on their Bichon or Discovery Channel Specials about ivory poaching. The idea of capturing a wild animal is sacrosanct. They will call foul at a falconer while biting into a bacon cheeseburger from a drive thru dollar menu after a day at the mall with a dog in a sweater. The mind reels.
I have received more comments and emails about falconry than any other activity I have ever pursued. Occasionally I get letters from vegans about turning Cold Antler into a petting zoo, or the stray comment about how horses were not put on earth to wear harnesses. I used to get notes about dogsledding, rabbit dinners, and the dangers of herding sheep with a border collie (to the border collie and the sheep, not me). But those sorts of correspondences were rare. But now I get a comment or letter a day questioning falconry, its purpose and ethics, and why I would take an animal from the wild to hunt when I have a gun, a trap, or a grocery store. It has upset people, not many, but enough. Enough to make me explain a few things at least. I hope to offer some perspective.
Folks, Paul Blair died today. The New York Times reported doubt on al Qaeda's involvement in Benghazi. Armed children are being forced to march in the south of Sudan. There's a nationwide manhunt for a cop killer. A Texas man is bragging about knocking out an elderly black man. Two men just died hours apart in Wyoming avalanches. A pregnant teen was murdered on Christmas day in Indiana…. These are the headlines available on Bing's News Section this morning. They are all worth your emotional response, comments, and action. You should read about Paul Blair's legacy playing baseball in a time of such racial unrest and hate in America, his story. You should worry about avalanches if you're of the ilk that hangs out around snow in volume, specifically in volume at higher elevations than yourself. Child soldiers should upset you, I mean, they BETTER upset you. If they don't you might be an android and should be melted for parts. Murder, assault, hate crimes…these are things worth getting upset over.
A falconer in New York State is not.
Yes. I have captured a wild hawk during its first migration. It is now being fed by me, trained by me, and soon it will be let go by me. But here's the thing. When I do let it go it's most likely going to land on a branch 30-60 feet away from me and if I raise a glove and whistle it'll choose to fly right back. Why? I haven't been slipping it Kool-Aid, it's because I have earned the hawk's trust. Italics knows I am not an animal that is going to hurt him, in fact I'm going to help him. I consistently offer food and shelter along with the freedom to leave at any moment he is soaring free. This is because Italics was not out in the wild soaring to Enya songs and landing at random Pow Wows to spread his wings in the name of the Great Spirit. He was a wild animal, doing what all wild animals do every day of their lives: trying not to die. Red-tails have a 90% mortality rate before they reach breeding age around two years. That's not because of falconers. In fact, next time you catch a glimpse of a wild peregrine falcon - you can thank a falconer. Their efforts in protecting, capturing, and breeding the animal is why we didn't lose the entire species to DDT a few decades ago. They are also why the Peregrine Fund exists. Google it.
Falconry isn't slavery, it's codependency. We depend on each other to work as partners for a goal that is mutually beneficial to us both as an evolutionary species. And around this farm that is nothing new. When this blog started I was running sled dogs in Idaho, raising rabbits for spinning wool, chickens for eggs, and bees for honey. Since then I have raised sheep for wool (and sheepdog training), goats for milk and soap, pigs for pork, rabbits for meat, poultry for eggs, and horses to ride and pull. All animals on this land are here for a reason. I either use them for work, transportation, or food. The hawk is also here to be of use. He's here to hunt by my side, and help put healthy meat on the table in the form of game. I can not wait for the chance to go out as a team and flush rabbits, grouse, pheasants, and squirrels. These are things we both eat and enjoy. It is not about sport, but groceries.
I very much like that I am learning this ancient form of feeding myself. It connects me to the ages and has taught me so much about raptors a whole new world of ornithology, flight patterns, nesting habits and identification has opened up to me. I have become an amateur naturalist and learned to appreciate these animals in ways I never even thought possible. I also like the relationship I am creating with this individual. Learning to communicate with a hawk is WILD, a total thrill and if we can get to the point where I can walk into a field and set him free, hike and poke at brush below him while he watches from above, and take game to feed him and myself...that is sublime to me. It seems a lot more natural than a shotgun. It seems a lot less hard on nature than traplines or the noise pollution of rifles. And while hunting is the skill - it is the entire community and process that has me hooked. I have met so many great people, shared meals and stories, was given advice and equipment, leant books and time...the selflessness of this subculture astounds me. It is so beautiful, and I feel blessed to be a small part of it.
And if the idea of a bird of prey living at my property still offends you, well, that's your prerogative. But stop and consider where that lands on the Scale of Import in a world with creeping mortality, child soldiers, factory farms, hate crimes, and crooked politicians? Why, darling, are you wasting your energy on this? We all only have so much anger in us and I would suggest not wasting it on a legal sport practiced by a small minority. Use that disdain to make the world a better place for all animals, starting with your fellow man. That's what I'm doing. Every time I get a complaint about falconry I set a can aside for my local food bank. I figure if people are going to punch under water someone better get something good out of it.
I am so proud of my work with Italics. I am excited to wake up every day and see what he has to teach me. Falconry has gifted me a goal, friendships, and experiences I will never forget. Someday I hope to get to the point where I am the one teaching others how to capture their first bird, or showing a class of students patterns on tails and telling tales of the one that got away in the sunset on a perfect October day. Falconry is beautiful, messy, frustrating, bloody, satisfying, terrifying, and rewarding as hell. It's life bottled up and carried in your pocket, but so much more than a novel or a song, because this life has a bird on the fist and a partnership created out of blood, sweat, and effort beyond most Bicon owner's ken. It isn't wild life, it is a Wild Life. And I sure as hell wouldn't trade that in for a 100% approval rating.