A Raptor in the Hand

A cluster of vacant farm buildings huddles in a circle around an old tree to the right of Route 47 in Hadley, just north of Huntington Road. When you see them, you are near New England Falconry.

These fading and slightly spooky structures aren’t where Chris Davis teaches about falconry. His “offices” are behind the farm buildings, out in the fields. A porta-potty and an orange traffic cone mark the front entrance to his institution. If there was any doubt, as soon as I stepped out of my car, I could hear his hawks screeching.

Davis lives in Shutesbury, where he raises 11 birds—10 Harris hawks and one falcon. When he offers classes and sessions with the birds, he drives a few of them down in his van and sets up in a thicket near the farm fields, where he rents 13 acres. When I arrived, across from a set of benches, there were four hawks standing on metal mounts beneath a fruit tree.

After morning pleasantries were exchanged, there was a brief pause as I found myself being scrutinized by the four meat-eating predators. They blinked at me with what seemed a guarded optimism, shifting their heads suddenly to regard me from a slightly different perspective. It took me a second to realize that Davis’ intense, focused approach to sizing me up wasn’t far different from that of his raptors.

“They’re a noisy bunch,” I said.

“That’s because they’re hungry,” Davis explained.

Maintaining the birds’ weight and constantly monitoring how much they’ve been fed are key tools in training and raising the birds to hunt and return. Davis was holding a session for a small group later that morning, and he’d agreed to meet me first before the sun was high in the sky. Having seen me, the birds were assuming they’d all be getting fed soon.

Davis has been a licensed falconer since 1979. He was the first falconer in the U.S. permitted to offer hands-on training. While he says most people who visit him in Hadley are content to have a few hours with the birds, sometimes he gets people who are considering becoming falconers themselves.

“Then I often act as a sort of reality check,” he said with a smile. “Falconry isn’t a hobby. It’s a full-time commitment.” In Chris Davis’ case, it’s been a lifelong commitment. He first got interested in falconry as a boy growing up in Colorado and credits his parents’ encouragement and support for getting him involved.

Preparing a bird for a demonstration, Davis explained to me that training involves first “manning” the bird—getting it used to being handled. Then the bird is released while tethered, allowed to fly a distance and then return to the falconer’s hand for food. (He uses scraps of mice and quail; the birds don’t appear to have a preference.) Over time, the length of the tether is increased until the bird is deemed ready. This basic technique has been used for more than 4,000 years to train first eagles and then falcons and hawks to hunt and return to their trainers.

Davis explained that the training that falcons and hawks receive, unlike that given some other animals, only results in a short-term modification of behavior. Getting the bird to return to the falconer’s hand to eat scraps of meat once or even dozens of times is no guarantee that the next time the bird won’t fly off, deciding it can do better elsewhere. When they’re ready for flight, Davis’ birds wear bells and a radio transmitter to help locate them if they go renegade. Training needs to be repeated continually throughout the lifetime of the bird.

While many different kinds of predator birds have been used, Davis works mostly with captive-bred Harris hawks. The raptors, who are native to the Southwest, are popular among falconers for being gregarious. Unlike all other birds, in the wild Harris hawks hunt cooperatively in packs. Like wolves, they use their numbers to go after prey that’s bigger than they are.

Davis handed me a well-padded leather glove for my left hand and showed me how to hold my arm out and turn my wrist when offering myself to the bird as a landing platform. As we headed out to the fields, he urged me to keep my hand down until he said it was time.

Just past the turnstile, the brambles opened up into a stunning early winter vista. All around were fields. To the north and east were forests that covered Warner Hill. To the south, across miles of farmland, was a panoramic view of the Holyoke Range. Near by, there are two old, gnarled trees and two perches Davis erected himself off in the tall grass.

Scooping the air in its curled wings, the hawk soared from Davis’ outstretched arm into the frosty morning sky. With a defiant scream, the hawk curled its talons up beneath its tail feathers and gained altitude.

But the bird doesn’t go far—just to the branches of one of the trees. Then the perch. And then the other tree. Next to Davis’ glove and then back to one of the trees again.

It was a magnificent display of maneuverability and grace. But the bird wasn’t showing off. He was anxiously waiting for the meat.

“Raise your hand,” Davis said, and as I did, he laid a piece of pink meat on my palm. Before I had a chance to think twice, there was a huge raptor devouring a protein-rich morsel at the end of my arm.

I’d been expecting the bird to feel heavier than it did. After Davis had doled out several meat scraps onto my wrist, the bird got comfortable with me and my camera. As he groomed himself, standing at the end of my arm, I alternately gaped with wonder and eagerly snapped shots.

In addition to appearing at local events such as Trinity Springfield’s Boar’s Head Festival and, between acts, at a Wilco concert at MassMoCA a couple years ago, Davis offers group sessions with his raptors in Hadley year round. Sessions run from 45- minute introductions (starting at $65 per participant) to a full, three-hour long hunt (starting at $225 per participant).

Davis refrains from bringing the birds out during the coldest days of winter, but he said that hunting with the birds in the woods when the trees were without foliage could be particularly exciting.

“Going out with a number of birds,” Davis said, “you can see them working together, corralling their prey through the forest.”•

Falconry sessions with Chris Davis and his hawks can be scheduled through his website, newenglandfalconry.com.

Author: Mark Roessler

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