A Hunting Hawk Part 1: Preparing myself for the inevitable

The hunt is everything. It is falconry. Many would even explicitly say that falconry is the act of hunting with a bird of prey.

I stand on the precipice of entering into the ancient art in all its bloody, secretive, mythical beauty.

I have a complicated relationship with this part of my beloved sport. I am deeply uncomfortable with killing, and the concept of hunting in its wider sense sickens me. I don’t really go out with the express desire to track, hunt or kill other beings, but the thing is, hunting is the sole reason for a raptors existence. It’s what they do. And, when you first receive your young bird, all arrows point in this direction. All elements of training simply ready a bird to bond with man then to kill as they would in the wild.

Back, before I got Chabhair, when getting a bird had gone from dream to planned future, I remember walking in the fields with my mentor and talking through the idea of hunting. I’ve always seen myself as a birder first I suppose, a lover of all things avian. Flying a hawk, for me, is like getting closer than any birdwatcher dare and, greedily, developing a relationship with something so inscrutable and wild and unknowing. So when I talked to my mentor and others about taking a Harris hawk out hunting for rabbit, I was both intrigued and uneasy. I wanted to see my bird at its natural and most extreme yet I was also hugely unsure of the idea of having blood on my hands. Could I end an animal’s life? Be responsible for the stilling of a beating heart? Would I have the strength and coldness to watch the vitality in a rabbit’s eye ebb away before me? I sincerely doubted it.

But the time would come. It would have to. To train a hawk properly means that the hunt is inevitable. Inexorable. From the very first bond with Chabhair when he sat untrustingly upon my fist and ate for the first time, it was clear that this relationship would be based on food and my ability to provide it. Every stage of training demanded raw flesh. When he returns to the fist from free flight it is for meat.

Once a bird is flying free a falconer steps over the boundary from easy call and reward to making the link between wild quarry and food. The use of a ‘dummy bunny’ is introduced. A fur covered bean bag essentially, it is dragged across the field for the hawk to chase with food that the hawk recognises attached to it. Over time, not long at all, the bird make the connection and begins to see what had been naturally burning away in the back of its mind. That the food it desires is all around – it lives in the undergrowth, at the field’s edge, under bush and in the long grass.

In hindsight this would have been the moment to halt training if I was not serious about hunting with Chabhair.

The truth be told, I was completely under his spell at this point. This was my first bird too, and I really wanted to get everything right, to be successful with him and so to stop short, to deny him the ability to hunt wasn’t even on the horizon. My days at work by this point had become a blur, an inconvenience. I simply waited each day to be reacquainted with the raptor that haunted my thoughts. To be out in wild spaces, the hawk on my hand, the strong breeze blowing through me and the valley.

The conflicted internal dialogues though have been numerous. To hunt. T I told myself I’d be fine if my hawk was the first ever not to hunt. I’d be cool with that. I was lying to myself.

Those strong winds have been aiding Chabhair’s flight development no end. Finding thermals like a buzzard, he soars and circles. Swoops and dives. He is flying for the sheer enjoyment of it. He is exhilarated and it is truly joyous. His freeness lifts my heart as the thermal lifts his wing. Watching this, liberated me from any daily mundanity. Chabhair has become an expression of how I can leave behind my difficulties and be free of everything if I live and am present in the moment.

When he is in his most natural state he is somehow elevated and distant, operating entirely independently of me.

It is watching him in the air, his eyes focused on the ground below that I know I have to get this right. I might be uncomfortable and uneasy with hunting but I owe him this – he needs to express himself naturally and I am duty bound to prepare him.

I double down on fitness work and using the dummy bunny. Beginning with pulling the bunny on a long line across a wide open field I soon have too little speed to challenge him. The openness of the field was giving my game away: a fiercely intelligent bird will see the line that connects the bunny and my sprinting and put all three together. So, walking into the valley earlier in the day, I began planting the rabbit in thickets and bushes, near rabbit holes and other well-hidden nooks. Pulling the line rounds trees and behind walls of hedge I was more able to disguise my involvement in this merry dance. I want to make this feel more real. A surprise chase. He didn’t let me down. Sharp and lethal he was all locking talons and venom.

His desire to bind to his prey even as it still pulled through the grass meant the bunny had soon seen better days.

I could sense the change.

I could sense his knowledge that this was just a game, and that he had slightest feeling that bigger things were on the horizon. The pressure in his talons after a chase was new and frightening.

Then it was clear. He let me know of his desires. A reckless show of power, grace and bravado in the tangerine light of the evening sun. We were winding down from an extended night’s flying as I carried him on the fist down by the river, as a deer bounded clear of some thick brush further along the bank. My astonishment at its presence multiplied one hundred fold as my little bird flew directly at it, with aggression and such speed, he chased it parallel to the water’s edge and then up behind a stand of hawthorns. My heart thudded.

In that chase, those few seconds, I saw a window to something new. Something wilder. There was no turning back.

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