A partnership has begun. With each morsel the trust between us grows stronger. With every passing day I know it is now my duty to make my charge work for every meal.
Nothing is immediate of course.
Chabhair is still wary. Eating from my fist was explosive. Mind blowing. But whilst we start the next day with an obvious measure of distrust, it is noticeable there is an obvious lessening of the strain that salted the air the days prior. I feed him little now, he will have to actively embrace me if he is to receive food. He must make the first move towards me and choose the fist. And hunger is the best medicine for this.
Stepping up, as it is known, requires a hawk to leave its perch, stepping up onto the gloved hand of its own volition. Like everything at this stage, food is offered as enticement. In reality it is simply a stand-off. Especially as I’m now in the garden. Gone is the darkness and safety of the garage, replaced by a sensory deluge that see’s Chabhair looking left and right, up and down, swivelling to and fro with a constancy that is disheartening. Every movement and sound is a revelation to him and whilst it stifles his desire to eat, it does makes me see a little better. The careless bounce of a robin at the lawn’s edge, the creaking flutter of the aging sycamore leaves above my head, the cows mooing in the fields outside the town. They each bring something to the moment and whilst Chabhair’s interest in movement and sound is carnivorous, his sharp focus allows me to notice and reset a little.
My hand is level with the perch, a number of inches away from Chabhair’s feet. My arms grow heavy quickly as I urge him to take the step onto my glove. I whistle. Call his name. Move the chick with my hand as before to replicate life in the prey. His eyes tell me he is confused by this new trick. As time trickles by I fade off once more, donning my invisibility cloak through a mixture of breath and the sounds around me. In and out of focus. Present, then distant.
Time and again, little impact. No movement.
His eyes are locked on though. A pained expression and pure desire intermarried. A few times whilst manning I had seen him lick his beak in anticipation at the food that sat so close by. This behaviour had accelerated now to a regular feature assuring me, that if I had patience, all would be well. Sitting on the perch he is much more mobile than on the fist. His stillness in the early days had eased off, like a creaking door recently oiled. It had been a symptom of his fear and distrust but that was slowly, surely ebbing away. Now, he hops from foot to foot, his large luminous yellow toes curling and unfurling. He rouses repeatedly, spraying feathers out like a soft porcupine. Best of all are his tail waggles, which are a sure sign of his happiness in my company. It is warming to see. It’s a warmth that is easy to wallow in.
That doesn’t change the fact that he hasn’t yet stepped onto my fist though- and doesn’t look likely to any time soon. It crosses my mind that his happiness may even be due to the fact that I’m not holding him. I fight this thought. Let it simply flow away. Patience can be draining when drained. It’s amazing how quickly your thoughts muddy and darken.
I move my fist closer to him, centimetres away, causing him to cock his head and produce a mean stare. Righting his head quickly though he takes my proximity as an affront and raises the feathers on the crown of his head like I’ve never seen him do before. For a moment he is Bald Eagle, eyeing salmon, and I’m transported to the Canadian West Coast. The dreamy haze lasts seconds though and is shattered by my growing nervousness. He isn’t happy here. Watching me, then watching the food, he bends quickly for it as though we’re in a contest of some sort.
Now, whilst my fist is closer, it still requires Chabhair to move away and off of the perch to retrieve his reward. I can’t allow him to simply eat a chick from my fist whilst remaining on the perch or he’ll soon learn this as normal, and I’ll be left with a hawk that thinks it’s ok to attack and grab at food on my hand regardless of where it is. And one that doesn’t need to step up to get food. This is critical stage. Lazy birds that grab (or foot) you mean a real world of pain.
The shortened space means improved temptation.
He bends and pulls at the chick with his beak. These are the pivotal seconds. I hold tight and Chabhair pulls harder. He stops and look at me. You’re going to stop me eating now? Internally I wither a little under that glare. He pulls back and sits up right on the perch once more, clearly thinking.
We go again.
Tug-o-war begins again, and there is increased pulling power being exerted from the hawk, his neck thickening with the effort. I hold tight and hold my breath. Back and forward we go. I grip tightly. He leans forward now, and puts one foot on the front of my fist, across my fingers, to get extra leverage and pull backwards. I’m crushing the legs of the chick in my palm to stop him from being successful. He blinks, rethinks. Reaching higher with his foot now he brings in down right on the chicks head with absurd pressure. This is my moment. He is stretched. If I lift my hand he’ll need to come with me to get the chick.
Slowly does it. He’s aware of the movement and not overly certain of it. But his eyes glow with the prize and he returns his gaze there. I lift him higher still and his second foot is straining to hold onto the perch below. A split second impasse before he lets go. Rouses and rips. No looking back. He was on the fist, he had made the first step. Satisfaction burned warmly in my chest.
It continued in the weeks ahead. Literally a step, then a hop, then a jump. It seemed so smooth up until this point. But the truth be told I hadn’t even removed the birds leash yet. He was yet to taste any freedom in my company.
That would be next and that would be different.
It was time to teach the bird to fly free for the first time, and that fills every falconer with dread.