FLYING FREE- My Journey into Falconry
There was a moment a few weeks ago when I watched the sun setting over the distant tors of Dartmoor and i saw her far far away. Over a mile away and heading north, a tiny dot on the horizon. At that distance I couldn't tell if it was a buzzard, a raven or her. I opened my mouth and whistled my call to her; long , drawn out and as loud as i could. Instantly I saw the tiny dot in the sky turn and grow bigger as it flew towards me. As the shape grew I knew it was her and a strange feeling overcame me. Joy, pride, excitement, and above all else relief. She’s coming back to me. Our bond is formed. Within less than a minute she was back on my glove. Another small graduation in my journey to becoming a falconer.
I’ve done some pretty epic things in my life , as we probably all have. But nothing has quite prepared me for the training and teaching to hunt of an eyas, a young hawk. “But where on earth did you buy a hawk”? I’m often asked. “From a bloke called Paul in Somerset i met online“ is my answer i offer weakly. I’m a gung ho sort of person and consciously choose not to think some things through too closely . I know if i did the cold light of reality would dissuade me from doing half the interesting stuff i have. Yes I’d probably be a more relaxed and time spacious guy but life would lack the rich tapestry it has too . Not that I hadn’t read up on the subject though.
We all have books by our beds which we’ll finish one day, right ? I never finish a book, never. I barely start them, just don't have time. Yet last year in six months I read six books on training hawks cover to cover. Six books ! That’s my five yearly average. That’s when I knew something was stirring deep within me. Some latent calling. Someone said falconers aren’t made they’re born. Sounds a bit grandiose and self important but i do resonate with it. I almost feel like i was made for this. I’ve always loved birds, hell i’m named after one; and particularly birds of prey. We even named our first born after one- my son’s called Tawny after the owl. But training my own hawk has truly felt like a rite of passage, and i feel a long way from being a falconer yet; or technically, as she’s a hawk, an austringer.
In our relationship who’s truly under the thumb? This old expression comes from the bird being under the thumb of the falconer, as he holds the jesses , which are attached to the ankle of the bird , between his thumb and fore finger and under his thumb literally . But in reality I feel like its actually me who’s under the thumb. It’s been a challenging, angst ridden and deeply rewarding journey but never dull that’s for sure.
Behind me is this long lineage of falconers disappearing into antiquity and the dawn of time. Humans have been forming this unique bond with birds of prey for at least 4000 years, and some say for even longer. Falconry was recognised by UNESCO as being an ‘ Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind’.
Her name is Yarak, which is Turkish and ancient Persian before that I believe, meaning the perfect hunting weight and condition of a falcon. Like a boxer’s fighting weight it is a careful balance of appetite, muscle, diet, and both mental and physical conditioning. Yarak is a captive bred Harris’ Hawk of North and Central American origin, which is the most popular bird used in falconry now due to its natural sociability as well as its accepting and relatively easy going nature. Called the Wolves of the Sky , these social and therefore intelligent birds of prey, hunt in packs and as such quickly accepted myself, my son and my dog to be part of her pack. Others birds of prey are solitary hunters and can take more experience to train and become a hunting partner of. That’s not to say it was a straight forward process !
For the first few days she wouldn’t even sit on my glove and eat the food between her toes but would fly away from me, called bating, in fear. Endlessly picking her up and placing her gently back on my fist just for her to take off again was a test of patience for sure. But bit by bit she learnt to trust me and Tawny, and our bond and sense of pack grew. After the initial few weeks of gaining her trust and training her to fly first short distances, and then gradually increasing the distance, came the big day of flying her free. This means detaching the creance, which is a long string, which runs from her jesses, next to the bell on her ankles, to me. As i detached the line and let her have her freedom i was reminded of the old sad lament for a lost hawk : “The saddest tale i ever did tell was of a empty glove and a silent bell”. But this first time went ok and she came back.
Reality truly bit though the second time she flew free. I misjudged how comfortable she was in the low dusky light and wouldn’t return to me as darkness fell and she spent the night at the top of a tall Beech tree. Concerned that a buzzard might chase her away or a distant squirrel might entice her away we returned pre dawn and spent a worrying two hours trying to get her back.
Less than a week later we had both regained our courage and she flew free again. Settling high on an oak branch she was suddenly surrounded by fifty jackdaws and rooks circling around her, mobbing and dive bombing her. She looked down at me wondering what to do and gratefully returned to the safety of my glove, reminding me of what Helen MacDonald wrote in ‘H is for Hawk’ : “the beating wings brought her straight to me, and the thump of her gripping talons on the glove was a miracle. It was always a miracle. I choose to be here it meant. I eschew the air, the woods, the fields”.
As the Arab proverb goes : “It rises with the softness of a prayer and descends with the speed of a curse “
There’s no getting away from the fact that the bond between a falconer and his or her bird is strengthened by blood. These are hunting animals. The moral maze around the ethics of hunting can wait till another time, but it’s worth saying that i see the impact of her hunting as being at best, of benefit to the local ecosystem and bio diversity as a whole and at worst as being neutral. Few people could argue that knocking the grey squirrel population back in a woodland where they are inevitably causing huge damage to songbirds through nest robbing and trees through ring barking, is a bad idea. Or flying at the non native game reared pheasant which is competing with the native local fauna, particularly birds, for food sources. Or taking the occasional rabbit from a well populated warren.
There’s another moment that sticks in my mind. It was 10.30pm on a wintery Friday night and being dog tired was on my way to bed. I had one last glance up at the waxing moon which was two thirds full , and had been filling the sky and illuminating the landscape below all evening. But this time the clouds were building and moving across it blocking its light. The wind had picked up too. I realised it might just be possible. I grabbed Yarak ,Tawny, and my lamp and set off for the high moor and a farm where i had permission to hunt rabbits at night. I had trained her recently to fly to a lamp and to return to me through the pitch darkness if needs be. It doesn’t get any better, stalking my way through moonlit hedgerows and starlit gorse bushes with my lad at my heels, a hawk on my fist and the feel of the land under my feet. We were out there for well over two hours, ever careful to be downwind, silent and waiting for thicker clouds to pass across the moon’s face so as not to alert the rabbits of our presence. Aaaahhh the privilege and excitement of watching her flying at full speed at night. Now that’s what i call a proper Friday night out… with my bird!
Which all brings me onto those invisible threads of connection i’ve made with different parts of creation through this journey into falconry. The moon’s phases now has much more significance to my every day life, as does the wind direction and potential rain; plus a much deeper understanding of how many mammals and birds behaves. I’ve always strived towards that indigenous like reading of the landscape through natural navigation or interpreting bird language and knowing the sparrowhawk will arrive a minute before it does from the robin’s aerial predator alarm call forewarning me. Flying Yarak through all these different habitats has greatly increased that intimacy to the land and connection to place.
If I’m canoeing I want to collect shellfish at the same time. If i’m hiking I want to collect bilberries. We’ve lost our connection to place through food and I want to be made of my bio region. I can’t just go for a bike ride or a walk for the sake of it. My inner hunter-fisher-gatherer-forager is too strong and needs feeding; both literally and metaphorically. Falconry brings all these different threads of interest from field craft to tracking, and from bird language to hunting and synthesises them all into one activity. I can’t wait for her to accompany us on parts of our Old Way program, which is a year long exploration into the hunter gatherer life-way in modern day Britain, where hopefully she’ll play her part by providing rabbit, pheasant and squirrel for the communal dinner pot.
In February we even had four dinners in a row which could qualify as “Hawk caught food”. Surely a new vogue niche market for foodies!
When I’m setting off hunting with her flying high above me from tree top to tree top or riding my fist, the sheer energy and excitement in my body is something I only experience when I’m just setting off fishing at dawn, or when i’m about to have sex or play football. And i can’t do that anymore because of my knee (the footy not the sex!).
Yarak's now ‘fed up’ (another falconry term) , meaning she’s full of food and not very responsive to me and she’s fattening and resting up whilst she’s moulting out her juvenile plumage feathers . The next time I’ll fly her she’ll look a completely different bird as she will have replaced all her feathers. I still feel very much like a novice, but hope one day I can call myself a true falconer.
The truth is I do sometimes think about giving her up and having an easier life. The reality it that it has taken its toll on me; the time put into it whilst working pretty much full time, the responsibility, the pressure of providing her with good hunting ground. And then I remember all the good things in life have a price to pay for. And I remember the evening I walked home with the sun setting over Dartmoor painting the sky orange, and the song thrushes singing for the first time that year; with a hawk on my fist and rabbit for tea in my bag, and I know I won't . It’s no longer a choice.
The Old Way Yearlong course is an exploration into hunter-gatherer life-ways, re-wilding and indigeny based in Devon, UK, with a trip to the Kalahari learn alongside the Ju/Hoansi master trackers and their families.
Places are limited, so please apply early. Dates and costs are available on the website and applications are open.
Contact us: www.theoldway.info/