Mike Lynch
Falconer Mark Manske owns several birds, including this Harris hawk, Frieda.
 
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One day I received a phone call from Zack, my friend and falconry sponsor. He was very excited and told me that he was getting ready to go out and do some kite training with his new peregrine, a big female that he had named Fresca.

Peregrines are taught to hunt by climbing to amazing altitudes and positioning themselves above their quarry far below and then tucking their wings and rocketing from the sky at phenomenal speeds, sometimes exceeding 240 miles per hour, to attack their unsuspecting prey.

To train these incredibly fast birds, a kite is used to carry small pieces of food hundreds of feet up into the sky. The food is attached to the string just below the kite and then sent skyward. The falcon becomes accustomed to flying at tremendous heights in order to get fed. When they reach the food, they grab it, and then the food is automatically released by a trigger device which allows both the food and bird to slide down the string to the ground.

Zack’s bird was in the early stages of kite training and was showing great promise. Fresca was his first pure bred peregrine and she was a beauty. Zack, an extremely patient falconer, had worked diligently with his birds to make sure that they were perfectly trained. He had been looking forward to the approaching hunting season with great anticipation and was eager to hunt with a large falcon. His bird seemed to be learning what to do very quickly, and it would not be long before Zack and Fresca would be chasing ducks on the farm ponds dotting the countryside.

It was a beautiful sunny day with a vibrant blue sky and just a slight nip in the air when Zack called. I could hear the anticipation in Zack’s voice and knew he was looking forward to flying Fresca. Falconers live for the moments when they are flying their birds, either on the hunt or during a training session. There is something special during these moments when you and your bird are magically connected; it is almost as if the falconer is up there with the bird when it is soaring.

I wished him luck and hung up the phone, enviously thinking that I would love to be flying that day too. But I was nursing an injured bird at the time, so could only dream of the flight and my next adventure.

I hung up the phone and continued to work with Eddie, my injured male Harris Hawk, when I noted that there was no wind and thought how that would make flying Fresca that much more enjoyable. Falcons tend to ride the wind and get blown off course easily, so no wind made for an extra special day for Zack and Fresca.

A few hours later, Zack called me from his cell phone. When I answered the phone he said in a very shaky voice, “I think we need a new hobby!”

“What happened to you?” I asked hesitantly.

“You are not going to believe me,” he exclaimed.

“Try me,” I responded as I began to prepare myself for a highly unusual story.

With a wobbly voice, Zack began to recount his harrowing adventure.

He had sent his kite up about 1,500 feet, which is a dangerous thing for him to do in his area because he lives extremely close to Fort Drum. On several occasions through the years, he had almost lost his kite to a helicopter on maneuvers from the Fort.

So that day, he had traveled to a farm several miles from his home and was confident that he would not have to worry about low-flying military aircraft. He had easily deployed the kite, with the bait attached about 100 feet below it. Higher and higher it rose into the blue sky until it reached the height he was hoping to attain.

Everything looked perfect, so he tethered the kite, got Fresca and let her go. She immediately started to pump her wings and quickly climbed high into the sky.

It was not long before she was a tiny speck in the brilliant blue sky and Zack thought that this was going to be one of those days that he would fondly look back on through the years.

Zack drew in a breath of excitement as Fresca tucked her wings and made a run at the food attached to the kite. She whizzed by the bait in excess of 100 miles per hour, banked left and circled in preparation for another run at the food. As she turned, she was rapidly gaining speed and altitude.

Anchored to the ground by gravity, Zack watched in eager anticipation from far below as she rapidly closed in on her quarry, which was dangling 1,400 feet above the ground. Just then a gust of wind blew through the field, and immediately she veered off to the right. The next thing Zack knew, she was heading for Interstate 81 about a mile from his location.

She was cruising at a tremendous speed and appeared to be relishing every second that she was airborne. Falcons seem to just love to fly, and Fresca was no exception. Within seconds of peeling away from the kite, she was flying between the two lanes of traffic in the wrong direction, at eye level down the busy interstate.

According to Zack, she was literally off the ground only about 5 or 6 feet. She shot between two tractor trailers as if she were coming out of a canon and cruised directly toward a motorcyclist. With a very weak voice, he stammered “The motorcyclist had to duck. I don’t know how we avoided a multiple-car pileup.”

Immediately after that, Zack managed to call Fresca back and he quickly left for home to call me.

That was only one of the exciting stories pertaining to scary behavior by falconry birds that was retold to me. Later that same year, Rick, a fellow falconer and friend, and I were driving home from a day of buying food for our birds. We were discussing the dangers of our sport and Zack’s close call. I chuckled and blurted out that we never know what will happen next. With a strange expression on his face Rick exclaimed, “Boy do you have that right.”

With that proclamation, he proceeded to tell me his most recent adventure with one of his birds.

It seems that Kenny, a mutual friend and falconer had borrowed Rick’s Harris hawk and was chasing gray squirrels near the city limits of Watertown. He was flying both his and Rick’s Harris hawks together in what is called a cast. Wild Harris hawks will hunt in groups as large as 18, so it is easy to fly them together when hunting. The hawks will work as a team, one bird will chase and the other will wait to ambush the prey.

They had an enjoyable day chasing squirrels and were about ready to call it a day, but Kenny decided to take a parting shot at one last squirrel. The birds flew up into the trees and waited for Kenny to scare up a squirrel or other prey item. It was at this point that a woman and her very young daughter walked around the corner. The little girl was clutching a bright yellow stuffed animal in her arms.

As the two strolled down the street, they unwittingly came dangerously close to Kenny and the hunting hawks. The woman, used to walking down the street without being molested by a marauding raptor, walked up the street oblivious to the danger that awaited her and her daughter.

Without hesitation, Rick’s bird instantly focused on the stuffed animal clutched in the child’s arms and launched itself from its perch. Before Kenny realized what was happening, the bird had snatched the stuffed animal from the girl’s grasp and carried it several feet away from the shell-shocked duo, where it landed on the ground and began to foot its prey with its extremely powerful talons.

Petrified to the spot, the horrified woman and screaming girl stood and watched as Kenny quickly ran forward and wrestled the animal from the grip of the snarly hawk. Upon retrieval, the slightly scuffed up animal was unceremoniously and silently returned to the little girl.

Without a backwards glance at the stunned pair, Kenny gathered the birds and quickly headed for home, leaving the bewildered woman and child a story I am sure they will talk about for the rest of their lives.

About a week after hearing Rick’s story, I was talking to Gigi from Northwood Falconry Limited in Washington State. Northwood is a falconry supply store where I occasionally purchase equipment. I had called to order some falconry equipment and ask about some of the products that they offered. During our conversation, I recounted a few of the falconry adventures that I had heard recently, and she added another story to the list.

She told me that the entire eastern part of Washington State was in a state of emergency because a man who owned an imprinted golden eagle had lost his bird. Apparently, it had escaped from its mews during a wind storm in which the door had been blown open, allowing this massive predator to make good its escape.

Golden eagles are formidable predators and are capable of taking a small deer if they want to kill it. An imprint bird is much more dangerous because it will look at humans as potential rivals for their territory and will not hesitate to attack a person mercilessly. These enormous creatures can actually kill a person if they attack him.

It was with great relief when I heard later that, thankfully, they had caught the bird with no incident. I can only imagine the anxiety felt by the eagle’s owner, say nothing of the trepidation which the area’s residents must have suffered waiting for that powerful bird to swoop down on them.

It is stories like these that make me think maybe we should all take up golf or something a little less dangerous.

Mark Manske is a public school educator, a falconer, a licensed nuisance wildlife control officer, an adjunct college professor at Paul Smith’s College and a retired wildlife rehabilitator. Check out his website at Adirondackraptors.org.