Eclectic Autodidact: Wednesday is for the birds


With spring suddenly remembering it’s late and cranking up the heat to make up for lost time, Flo and I have taken advantage of the improved weather to start up our Wednes-dates again.

Wednes-dates are a tradition that goes back a few years for us, though they began as Tues-dates, and the occasional Thurs-date. Our schedules this spring have largely conflicted, so the only period of time we both have reliably free is Wednesday afternoons. In the past few weeks we’ve gone to museums, on hikes and to the dentist (That last one wasn’t a date, it just happened to be on a Wednesday). Weather permitting we will have gone kayaking yesterday. Two weeks ago we went falconing.

Falconry is something that I was interested in even before The Simpsons did an episode about it last month. It is a sport of kings in that it’s the closest to athletic activity the average monarch would be up for. I did not actually go hunting, instead I had a lesson in handling the bird. I find myself less opposed to the concept of hunting with a hawk than conventional hunting. After all, in falconry, the hunter is essentially just a bystander in an evolutionary arms race that goes back to the Eocene.

We went to New England Falconry in Hadley, run by Chris Davis. The birds in question were Harris’s Hawks, a raptor from the western United States, which is a good starter bird. They hunt in packs, working together to drive out prey and then setting upon it with razor sharp talons. Though seeing as hawks predate razors by several million years, we should be calling razors talon sharp.

To protect my soft simian skin from these appendages adapted for evisceration, I wore a heavy leather glove like a fireplace mitt -- a gauntlet really -- that went half way down my forearm. The hawks are trained to fly to the glove when it is raised, leading to two important rules. The first is to hold the hand level and away from the body, creating a flat landing spot for the hawk from the back of the thumb and the side of the index finger. The second is to keep your hand by your side unless you want a modern velociraptor diving at you.

When it was time, I would hold my hand up and out. Chris would place a small fragment of beef on my glove between my thumb and first finger, and step back. He gave a whistle, and the hawk swooped down. She would flap her wings once or twice then coast a foot above the ground toward me, talons outstretched.

And then there was a dinosaur standing on my hand. That isn’t fear talking; phylogenetically birds are dinosaurs and may still have some ancestral memory buried inside of when we were just tiny squeaking things the size of shrews that fled from their mighty footsteps.

The hawk was surprisingly light. It felt as though the glove was more encumbering than she was. She grasped my hand with talons that I’m sure could have torn apart the glove if she decided to put the effort in, and devour the meat. Her meal done, she shot me an appraising eye to see if more food might be forthcoming, then looked away and out across the field with the aloof boredom that only a bird of prey or a 13-year-old can manage for any length of time.

When she tired of perching on me, she would take off, finding a tree to watch from or strutting along the ground. At Chris’ cue, and a fresh bit of meat on my hand, she would return to the glove for a snack and to hang out. We continued on until our time was up, sending out and calling back the hawk like a feathered boomerang with a deadly intelligence.

My hope is that when we look back on this spring from years in the future, it won’t just be a blur of everlasting winter that jumped straight to summer, instead we would have a series of memorable experiences and adventures that define it as a time of being together and trying new things.

Oh, also, Flo and I got married.


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