Following a Falcon

Following a Falcon

Following a Falcon 977 731 Sharna Fabiano

“The bird is not your friend.”

This was our first lesson from Kirk and Denise at Sky Falconry, outside San Diego last Saturday morning. Raptors are not pets, and they do not form attachments with humans, no matter how romantic falconry may appear in the movies.

The truth is actually far more interesting.

Falconry is thousands of years old, though relatively new in the Americas. Certain cooperative hunters, like this Harris Hawk, are especially tolerant of humans who present themselves as advantageous hunting partners. As in all mutually supportive relationships, active leadership and followership are present.

Falconry is traditionally an alliance of mutual interest, which the bird can break at any moment by flying away. You can capture a young bird, but if you want one to fly freely from the glove and, more importantly, return to you, you can’t take on a superior role. Rather, you must demonstrate your worthiness as a partner in the hunt. You must see her as your equal.

In a balanced partnership, we learned, it goes something like this:

The falconer rustles up ground prey from the bushes, as a fellow bird might do in the wild. The hawk dives, using her extraordinary vision, speed, and talons to pin the animal.

Larger prey like bunnies and squirrels might be too large for a hawk of this size to fly off with, so the human can provide ground support by racing after the hawk on foot and quickly killing the struggling animal to protect the bird from injury.

Then, the human offers the animal’s vital organs to the bird. Is this act of strategic deference a form of inter-species followership? We were instructed, under no uncertain terms, never to take anything from the hawk. When full, rather, the bird will (hopefully) release its powerful grip so that the falconer can retain the body of the animal for later human consumption.

With repetition, the hawk learns that the falconer will reliably guide her to a place where hunting is good. So, she returns. Maybe that’s a hawk’s version of followership.

Because the hawk literally has super-human abilities, the experience of interacting with her was profoundly humbling. Raptors have eyesight so good they can see thermal currents in the air and spot prey up to a mile away.

And it was also thrilling!

For an hour, I stepped out of my human-centric view of the world, which was both freeing and terrifying. I realized how precarious survival is, at the end of the day. Civilization has made it unnecessary for humans to hunt or gather for food, and if I had to, I’m pretty sure I would not make it.

Survival, also, is not very romantic. The hawk caught and ate a lizard during our walk. Elegant and efficient, she did not bother to kill it first.

Still, at one time, falconry was an ingenious way that humans collaborated with birds to increase both of our chances of survival. And that, itself, is rather elegant.

I was also delighted to learn that traditionally, falconers only trap young birds, who have a slim 25% chance of survival. Young birds are easier to establish a relationship with, and trapping older birds would disrupt the population and greater ecosystem. After around 3 years with a falconer, birds have gained experience and hunting skills that can increase the likelihood of survival in the wild, and it’s at that time that they are traditionally released to mate and reproduce.

So not only did human and hawk collaborate to survive the day – at one time this unlikely alliance also seemed to support the wellbeing of both groups over longer periods of time, to even contribute to ecological sustainability.

What other ideas might emerge from this way of thinking, positioning ourselves as partners with animals and all of life rather than their masters?

For another great conversation on this topic, check out my interview with place-based education expert Tara Laidlaw on the Lead & Follow podcast.