Monday, August 4, 2008

Keep Them Hungry

Let me preface my story with a little habit of mine. Whenever I'm on the road, I look up for hawks. When I'm on a long trip with my husband, I count the number of hawks I spot. I love hawks. Knowing they have only a 75% survival rate in the wild makes me appreciate them even more.

Over a year ago, I had the privilege of going to the Greenbrier, the oldest spa/resort in the country. Nestled in the Alleghenies in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, what began before the Civil War as a few cabins surrounding some natural springs of sulfur water for the fashionable set to ‘take the cure’ has exploded into a palatial resort with golf courses, restaurants, an artists’ colony, miles of walking paths, a retired underground bunker for the federal government, a television set for a grilling show, culinary arts classes, and a spa with every treatment known to (wo)man.

During my visit, on my birthday, I took a lesson in falconry. Known as the ‘Sport of Kings,’ medieval nobles (before the invention of firearms) would train hawks to partner with them in hunting for rabbits and wild fowl. They would release the bird from a cage and allow them to perch on a tree with a good view of the field or forest. When the bird spotted an animal, it would lunge down onto the prey, perhaps even kill it. The hunter would intervene before the bird had a chance to devour the prey, and trick the bird into thinking he’d eaten a piece of the animal by giving it a small piece of meat from his pocket before the hawk fully realized what had happened.
As we made our way to the cages where various birds of prey were resting peacefully, there was excitement as the trainer opened the door to the cage. All of the birds started to scream, “Pick ME! Pick ME!’ in hopes of a shot at doing some pretend-hunting with the trainer. He chose a Harris’ Hawk, a rather large creature as far as birds go, but only weighing in at two pounds of pure muscle, bone and feather.

Harris’ Hawks can be found in the southwest of the United States, and often hunt in pairs or groups, which accounts for their popularity in falconry. They see the falconer as a partner in hunting.

My question during this lesson, “Why don’t the hawks fly away?” I was told that they rather enjoy these exercises. When the trainer held his leather-gloved arm out, he would flick up a small piece of meat with his thumb and the hawk would fly in from whatever perch it was resting on. Apparently he liked the regular meals.

As the trainer worked with the bird, allowing him to fly out to a tall tree across the field and calling him back by raising his gloved arm and flicking a small piece of meat, it seemed these two had a rather special relationship. I was surprised to learn that raptors never become attached to humans the way a pet parakeet does. They are motivated by one thing and one thing only—food. The bird will respond in the way it has been trained only when it's hungry. Release a raptor with a full stomach and you may never see it again.

Each of us in the lesson was allowed a few turns at bringing the hawk in. The feeling of such a bird flying at you with the momentum of a bullet and then perching on your arm is indescribable.

Finally, still confused about why the bird keeps coming back, I persisted in my question. The trainer answered, “You keep them just a little hungry.”

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