I really should have mentioned by now how to pronounce Chabhair. Gaelic for hawk, when spoken it sounds something like Cha-vaar. I found the name whilst looking for a new Munro to climb near my home. I’m still to get round to tackling the hill itself but the simplicity and the ancientness spoke to me immediately. Beinn Chabhair – the hill of the hawk – sits on the north eastern banks of Loch Lomond, proud and wild.
Chabhair is a Harris hawk or Harris’s hawk, depending on who you talk to. A very familiar name in falconry, the Harris hawk is famed for its ability to work in packs, like a wolf in the air. It is unique amongst raptors, with a forgiving nature that makes it the bird that most turn to in UK. Everyone’s perception of easy going is different though: those wouldn’t be two words I’d use to describe the first days of training.
The Harris hawk is not native to Scotland or the UK but rather can be found across much of Central to Southern America, often in warm climes. It is far from at ease in the damp and cold of a Scottish winter. To look on Chabhair in his juvenile feathers he has a mottled cream and brown chest, chocolate brown and burnished red wings and a white tipped tail. I have long had a desire for my first bird to be a native one, a common buzzard, like those that fly in large numbers across growing swathes of the country. Numerous in the wild but utterly scarce in captivity I set my sights on the Harris instead. This was no compromise. With the juvenile feathers of the Harris are so close to the buzzard I could almost trick myself.
The Harris’ hawk takes its name from an ornithologist by the name of Ed Harris, sadly not the guy from Westworld, as good as he is. Rather, this beautiful killer is named after a bearded friend of one James John Audobon whose birding pursuits led to the world renowned society in his name. Mr Harris accompanied Audobon on a number of expeditions in the Americas and for his company, expertise and financial support, two birds took his name. A little sparrow whose head looks as though daubed in black paint, and a desert dwelling bay winged hawk became the Harris’ sparrow and Harris’ hawk in the early 1840s.
Back in modern day Scotland, an eyass, a young bird of that year, is taken from its mother at four months of age, an age deemed appropriate for the young bird to be fully parented and be as wild as a captive bred bird can be. Human interference or interaction before this point should be at an absolute minimum, and as such, most breeding birds are kept in seclusion aviaries where the young are almost entirely unaware of any presence outside of its parents. Therefore the first time the young hawk sees you is when you enter the aviary to remove it. A far from pleasant experience all round, it’s fair to say. When you exit, unscathed or otherwise, you hold a startled, desperate and fearful raptor that only desires to rid itself of you by any means possible.
It is this fear, and rage, that you face down each day manning the bird on your fist.
Far from easy, it is dangerous and foolhardy. And so it should be. Unlike the dog this animal hasn’t been bent to human will over millennia, it is still free and unyielding. Falconry and the very act of manning is about trying to undo eons of evolution, developing a bond with the elemental.
But even after being manned, a hawk won’t do your bidding just because you have created a bond. There is much more to it than that, and much of that is free of mystery and myth but rooted in systems and measurements and mathematics. The weight of the bird, you see, is the key to your success, in equal measure to the relationship you’ve built. When a bird is taken from the aviary it has, what is called, a fat weight. A weight where the bird will do nothing for you but sit. This is the bird at its heaviest and close to a heaviness that might lead to a moult – a loss of feathers that will stop it flying. With the manning process begins an inevitable weight loss programme that sharpens the bird’s hunger.
A hawk should be weighed every day. At the same time.
Weighing your bird becomes an important routine. The numbers on the scale talk and whisper of how your bird will behave that day. The falconer’s job here is clear: to watch the weight with infinite care and attention, knowing exactly how heavy it is when it is ready to fly and to hunt. The falconer must then manage that weight, keeping the bird steady and sharp. Too hungry and it’ll be weak and unable to fly, feed it too much and feathers drop, meaning the flights are over for the season.