There are moments in life that test your resolve, moments that rise above the doldrum of day to day living. Some make a habit of avoiding these experiences, others seek them out. Training raptors requires the falconer to steel themselves against potential disaster and, like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, take a leap of faith. Unlike that rugged character however, we get to lay a few bricks before cutting the cord. Experience, wise counsel and gut instinct empower our decision to take the next step (it also helps to have tracking equipment on the bird just in case your instincts are dead wrong). The first time in the training process when the bird is allowed to fly unencumbered is a nerve-wracking endeavor to say the least. You must trust that the relationship with the bird is strong enough to keep them from vanishing into that great blue abyss. It’s a powerful moment, one that sticks in your mind and quickens the drumbeat in your chest.
Bolt is the first “longwing” that I’ve ever flown, a peregrine falcon born on the tundra of northern Canada, and caught mid-migration in the gulf of Mexico. She’s mild mannered, beautiful and wild. Falcons have a flight style all their own; you hunt differently with them and in turn train them differently than other birds of prey. Minus a few small hiccups, training has gone suspiciously smooth so far. The time has come to take a major and risky step in the process: the first free flight. I take her creance off (the safety line falconers use in training to keep new birds from skipping town), set her on the perch, and briskly walk away, heart pounding. I start to fish the pigeon out of my bag, glancing over my shoulder to make sure she’s where I left her. That glance is enough to trigger her flight, she’s coming my way…and I’m not ready. Panic sets in as I hold out my glove in hopes she will land there but no such luck, she goes past me pumping hard. I feverishly claw at my bag, accidentally ripping apart the buckle that keeps it around me as she climbs with every wing beat. Fortunately, the pigeon comes free quickly and flies well. My heart is in my throat, but relief comes as she instantly wheels around, and in short order collides with the bird. She attempts to bind to it, pulling feathers as she is not able to hold on. The pigeon tries to keep going but Bolt banks a second time and scoops it up, catching it easily.
Elation washes over me, but the danger isn’t gone. Until I have her clipped up, jesses in hand she’s a free bird. I make my way in, carefully reading her body language while not glaring directly at her. As I get close, she starts to vocalize quietly, but doesn’t show any desire to vacate. I carefully reach in as she dispatches the pigeon, grab ahold of her jess for dear life, clip the leash to it and lay on the ground next to her. Her demeanor has changed, it’s clear she knows something different just happened, that we just took a monumental step, or maybe it’s all in my head. After she finishes her meal, she gently hops to my glove for one last tidbit of food. She rouses, and looks right at me, through me. I stare right back pondering what the world looks like through those brown spheres as a smile drifts across my face. I quietly close my eyes, thanking the Lord that I get to be a part of her life, and that she performed well despite my screw up. My thoughts wander to how fortunate I am, and that while I’ll never get to feel a breeze the same way she does, I have the privilege of witnessing such an incredible creature fly free.