Ave atque Vale, My Dear Six-Pak
In February, after decades of study and rehabilitation work with raptors, I became an apprentice falconer.
My first task, and one I needed to do quickly to get in a full four months of work with a raptor in my first year (ending July 1), was to trap one of the two birds permitted to apprentices: juvenile Red-tail Hawk or American Kestrel.
With the help of a falconer friend and mentor, on February 8, I trapped a young, male RT, who had a crop full of plastic and what looked like old mattress material. He was hungry! And wonder of wonders, 6 out of 12 tail feathers were the adult “red.” The other half were the typical the juvie stripes. Something had pulled out half his tail probably at least two months earlier. And he’d grown in his “seconds.” Naturally, I named him “Six-Pak.”
Sixy and I worked well together. He, like all birds, with their complicated brains, is smart – he caught the routine right away, and learned that if he came to my glove when I whistled, he got food. He never became tame – he was in fact a golden-eyed fierce boy always. Those extraordinary eyes are my banner now. But he was compliant, and in less than three weeks, he was flying on a creance (long leash), distances of 120 feet or more at my whistle and raised glove.
And then, in a freak accident, he broke his leg. I rehabbed him, with guidance from Dr. Brian Speer, DVM, of the Bird Medical Center in Oakley, CA. On his and my mentor’s advice, I decided that, since Six-Pak was a consummate bater – that is, when he was bored or nervous, he would fly hard and fast off the fist – I would not tie and fly him on a line again. Instead, I used Operant Conditioning techniques to get him to fly from perch to perch in a sizable cage, at my signal. He picked this up quickly, and performed with what looked like enjoyment every day for six weeks.
On June 14, I took him back where I found him, and let him go. Almost before we could get his hood off, he bopped off the fist and then shot away, out over a large field. And climbed into a splendid soar – up and up, down, up again, spiraling for 2,000 feet or more, for a full 15 or 20 minutes (how strong!). And then away.
Vale, Six-Pak. Go with the winds.