Flights of Fancy: A Lesson in Falconry
By Gay Courter
Is there anything more wondrous than launching a falcon from your wrist, watching him soar into the sky and land where he wishes -- and then having him return to you with a gentle pounce back on his perch and gobble a treat out of your gloved hand? Since childhood I've been fascinated by the ancient sport of falconry but never expected to fly a hawk myself until I discovered Ireland's School of Falconry on the magnificent grounds of Ashford Castle and booked their Hawk Walk.
Our adventure began with a stay at this eight-centuries-old castle, once the home of the Guinness family. Most recently used by the family as a hunting and fishing lodge, the castle is situated on Lough Corrib in western Ireland. The staff and ambience made us feel as though we had been invited for the weekend to Downton Abbey. It seemed quite normal to be heading to the mews where hawks are kept through the manicured castle grounds in a misting rain.
Our falconer, a woman from Brittany named Mel -- short for Melisandre -- met us and fitted my arm with a leather gauntlet, then went to fetch Beckett. This handsome Harris's hawk weighed about a pound and a half and had warm brown plumage with chestnut shoulders and wing linings. I felt a connection as soon as she transferred him to my arm.
"Each bird has a distinct personality," she said. "For instance, Beckett is afraid of things with wheels, like bikes and strollers." Just then Beckett startled and fluttered his wings. Mel motioned me to stay still and nodded to a bike leaning against the wall. "Pull him toward your chest until we're past it," she said, and he calmed.
We strolled through a gate and off through the 350 acres of old-growth woodland. As Beckett ruffled his silky feathers I sensed how ready he was to fly.
The art of falconry is a delicate balance of keeping the bird hungry enough to keep coming back for the easy reward of delicious morsels instead of escaping to forage for himself. In the end, though, the choice to return lies with the bird.
Like all birds of prey, Beckett had the ability to spot targets the size of a rabbit a mile away as well as maintain focus while in fast pursuit. But for the moment he seemed content to remain tethered to my arm, his yellow feet with their sharp, ebony talons clutching my glove. Mel had threaded his jesses -- the thin leather straps on both legs that the falconer holds that are also used to tie the bird to his perch -- under my thumb. When we reached a clearing, Mel demonstrated how to loosen my grip on the jesses and extend my arm to release him to fly. Up wheeled Beckett, the bells on the straps jangling in joy. My heart clenched with worry that he would keep going. He flew fast and free before landing on a faraway limb. Mel scooped something furry out of her bag and pressed it into my open palm. Beckett found this rodent tidbit irresistible and swooped toward me with all deliberate speed, his beak reaching for it just as he alighted on my arm.
"Don't make a fist yet," Mel said. "He loves to sip the last drop of juice."
She went on to explain that both the hawks and their food are weighed daily. Beckett had to be hungry when flown to ensure his swift return.