Sitting In The Dark With A Killer

After hours on end I think I am hallucinating a little.

Colours in the garage seem exceptionally strong. I had started trying to find items of a certain colour to keep my mind active but then began to glow. Red colours first. Then yellow.

I feel movement. Movement that feels like he is reaching down, bending down towards food. I don’t look. My breath stops. I open my eyes.

This is the second day of manning, the process by which your hawk bonds with you. Every minute together where both you and the bird are calm is a victory. He is sitting on my fist, quite uncomfortable. On edge.

I have decided to name him Chabhair, which is literally Gaelic for hawk.

We begin near the very start of the falconry journey. Getting a hawk or a falcon is daunting, an enormous undertaking that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Getting your bird, which typically happens when it is removed from its parents at 4 months, is an incredible mix of dream and nightmare. As a novice falconer I was hugely nervous of what lay ahead of me, I knew I would be tested in the extreme. I knew also I would experience something visceral and primal when compared to my normal day to day life, as a primary school teacher. This was unquestionably part of the attraction.

In receiving your bird, the first job is to bond with it. To get it to trust you. This is no puppy. This is wildness, right there on your fist. He wants to be as far away from me as possible, but I have him tied to the glove. For the majority of the first day in the grey stillness of my garage he sits with his wings arched, his eyes eating into the side of my head. I stare resolutely ahead, not wanting to meet his glare and for him to see me as more of a direct threat. His posture is so unnatural to him that he loses his balance often, and flaps his monstrous wings to regain himself, talons creating a pressure on my fingers like I have never felt before. The crippling grip from the bright yellow feet is somehow reassuring though. Hours earlier he was bating time and again, literally trying to fly away from me at speed only to find himself hanging on the end of his tether. Over and over. One of the natural world’s most magnificent specimens hanging on a line from my hand. Chabhair is a hissing, breathless mix of fear and rage. It isn’t pleasant, for the falconer or the bird. Each time he bates I carefully put my free hand underneath his back and lift him gently back to the fist, then return to staring down the length of the garage.

I’m seeing colours, watching this familiar place blur and regain focus as I sit unflinching for hour on end. From the corner of my eye – God, he is big. He takes up more room in my mind than on my hand. It is incredible to be utterly in awe and utterly fearful of the same creature at the same time.This is a battle for calmness. The aim is for the hawk or falcon to begin to grow accustomed and comfortable on the falconer’s fist so that eventually the bird will bend his head and eat from your fist. This can, and does, take days. But, this isn’t disheartening – far from it. I feel utterly alive, and I’m sitting in a garage in suburbia. There is an electricity that charges through the air. It’s real to both me and my hawk, I can almost feel its silent pulse. Somehow this should juxtapose the calmness but at that moment the two are somehow one.

Sitting stock still begins to ache very quickly. Or at least one becomes quite aware of their pains when absolutely still. My lower back sobs to me consistently. It occurs to me that maybe I’m too busy to feel the aches of my ageing body and that sitting here in a garage space I have amplified my body. I can hear it better. I need the silence and space of a garage and this fiery animal to slow myself enough to feel. The aches are everywhere too, once you notice one, they multiply.

Those eyes burn like Sauron’s. I move my head only slightly, watching him on the very edge of my vision. His iris contracts and expands with super speed. He raises his wings again, aware of my deepened attention and irritated by it. I feel as though I’m getting nowhere. It’s half way through the second day of manning and he must be getting hungry. Since lunchtime yesterday I have sat food – a dead chick – at his feet, and he is yet to acknowledge its presence. I look away again, by simply watching him I feel the process is losing momentum. I close my eyes. I recall words from a recent and brilliant book by Helen McDonald, ‘H is for Hawk’. Training a goshawk, she talked of her desire to be invisible to her bird. As though you are not even there. I had thought up until this point that my stillness had promoted exactly that, but then it all became clearer in my mind. I was still, yes, but I was utterly, visibly present at every moment. So it was that I realised that the key was to clear my mind, empty myself of any thought, and believe myself to be as transparent as my mind.

This was the moment in which it all started. My understanding.

It was a moment of clarity, pun intended. Many months (maybe longer) had passed since I’d last meditated. But what else would you do whilst sitting with a hawk on your arm? I concentrated on my breath, noticing the coolness of the stale air on my nostrils as I breathed in. Then warmth as I breathed out. Slowly, with concentration I began to slip away from the garage, grew more relaxed, yet kept a focus on all of the sounds around me. Time passed and then I heard an unusual flutter of feathers: slow and contented. A while longer and then, there it was again. His weight on my arm, around 1 and a half pounds in old money, seemed to shift and be a little better centred too. I was growing into an observer rather than participant, and that was just what the hawk needed. I feel movement. Movement that feels like he is reaching down, bending down towards food. I don’t look. My breath stops. I open my eyes. His beak is inches from the head of the chick. He stares intently at it, then notices me looking at him. He straightens up again. He rouses for the first time whilst I’m looking at him. That contented ruffling of feathers.

I smile and close my eyes again. He hadn’t eaten yet, but I could feel a bond, right there in that moment.

7 Comments

      1. I know what you mean about a bit of a rollercoaster ride, when it’s on a daily basis with wildlife. I am an avid raptor lover; I journal on my blog every week or so on an Osprey family (I named Bella & Beau), it’s my second season this year. Their nest is about 100’+ from my balcony. What I see daily is amazing stuff, both the good and the bad.

        Anyway! I am an ‘amateur’ birder/photographer and enjoy posting on raptors and other birds inbetween. I will most definitely enjoy following your story with Chabhair, I’m excited for you both!

        Liked by 1 person

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