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The falconer

by Stephen Brown

I made the arrangements over the internet, a series of cautious exchanges that took over a year to culminate. I meet my contact in a Greensboro shopping center, at the Target. I chose the McDonalds’ side of the parking lot, not the Best Buy side. My contact, James, brings the two killers in the back of a blue VW wagon. That there are two surprises me; I expected just one.

Hollywood taught me there are only two types of hitmen: the efficient professional coolly screwing a silencer onto his highpowered rifle then killing from high above, or pairs of thugs who kick down doors at their mob boss’ command and finish off victims with brutal savagery.

James steps from the car, younger than I thought he would be, wearing only a black Kangol cap and black T-shirt in the 40-degree chill. We shake hands and I ask where we’ll find our targets.

“Up the road near the local park. Just follow me,” he says getting back in his car. I have yet to see the pair who will do the dirty work. The park is less than a half-mile away and typical of anywhere in America, with a jog- ging trail and a couple of baseball fields vis- ible from the main parking lot. We pull into the nearly abandoned overflow lot and I get to see the hitmen for the first time. Jack and Archangel fly from their locked perching boxes to the top of the car. They are two wild-born Harris hawks: Archangel a female from Texas, Jack a male captured in Arizona. They look and move like light- weight Olympic wrestlers, compact brown- and-tan balls of muscle, feather, beak and talon. Their deadly weapons scrape on the metal roof of the VW. A middle-aged jogger rounds a bend no more than 20 feet from us and for some rea son I feel guilty, like a politician caught mid- deal with a mafioso boss. I expect the man to stop, stare, maybe cause a scene, but if he notices the intimidating predators he doesn’t break his slow, determined stride. “What do we do now?” I ask. “We hunt,” James says, and walks across the jogging trail, out of the park and into a stand of piney woods. Small jingle bells attached to the hawks’ legs ring out as they fly just above my head, Archangel gliding for the treetops Jack flapping rapidly to keep pace.

Falconry is an ancient art and its origin is nearly impossible to pinpoint. A carving of a man with a large bird of prey perched on his arm and a dead hare in his hand was found in Turkey and dated back 3,500 years. Another carving that shows a bird with jesses, the leather straps used by the falconer to tether a bird, from Northern Iraq dates back 2,800 years.

Genghis Khan, whose Mongol armies conquered more territory than any other, is history’s most famous falconer. The Great Khan believed discipline practiced by falconers made better warriors. His grandson Kublai Khan’s hunts were witnessed by Marco Polo, who detailed the magnitude and pageantry of massive field hunts involving hun-

dreds of birds of prey and falconers. Latter European royalty took to the sport with great enthusiasm: The famous Bayeaux tapestry shows King Harold with a hawk on his hand riding to visit William of Normandy. More than any other histori- cal figure, Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II advanced the sport with his The Art of Hunting with Birds, now called The Art of Falconry. Harris hawks are known as the “wolves of the sky” because they live in groups and hunt in packs. Cooperative hunting among birds of prey is extremely rare, but groups of up to seven Harris hawks work together to take large prey and lessen the risks when making kills. Working together, Archangel and Jack have caught grasshoppers, frogs, snakes, rab- bits, opossums, pheasants, starlings, pigeons, quails, sparrows, mice and turkeys, and once pulled a raccoon from its nest. That fight ended in a draw, as none of the combatants wanted to continue their brawl once they landed on the ground. They also gave James a scare by taking a big copperhead down one day.

“I was just glad the snake was long dead by the time I got there,” he said. When tak- ing birds on the wing, Jack will harass them from the side and Archangel will deliver the deathblow from the prey’s blindside. These hawks can be trained to work in tandem with dogs or even ferrets (though hunting with ferrets is not legal in North Carolina) who flush the game for them but today James’ trained eye and my loud stumbling will have to suffice.

James has been a general falconer for about four years after finishing a two-year apprenticeship under a falconer who has been hunting since the 1940s.

“I’ve flown all types and had more birds than I probably should have by now,” he says.

Coming from a farming background, he doesn’t believe in any mystical connection between hawk and handler.

“I can pretty much get any bird I want to do anything I need them to do in a couple of weeks but there isn’t a bond with them, not like a dog.”

It’s just business: Trapped native-caught birds will be released when the hunting season ends; captive bred birds are sold, traded or given away. Falconers have come from as far away as Maine to pick up one of James’s birds.

According to him three types get into falconry.

“Rednecks who figure it’s another way of hunting, eccentrics looking for a unique hobby and people fascinated by the birds.

Your average falconer is a mid-40s white male, but the internet is bringing in some younger kids.”

There are female falconers, but they are rare. James dated a girl who apprenticed under him, though she wouldn’t get back in the car once when the birds had been eating off a skunk carcass.

This is his second season hunting Jack and Archangel; last year they took over 130 head of game. This year’s take has been less bountiful because work, women, school and illness have all cut into hunting time.

“I’ve had four favorite birds,” he says.

“These two, another Harris named Zap, and Ariel, a red-tail who was fearless.”

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All the birds display traits common to their breed but James sees personalities emerge in each bird. Ariel liked tangling with squirrels and had the marks to prove it. Archangel was supposed to be a breeder, her injuries too severe to allow her to hunt. But the first day James flew her, she made a kill and has been hunting successfully ever since. Jack hated James at the start of their training but overcoming this animosity made him a favorite, in the way a difficult student who goes on to great success always makes a serious teacher proud.

Our hunt is nothing like I expected, like watching a couple of avian Special Forces operatives storm a forest until an insurgent squirrel made a run for it. The birds fly through the branches at impressive speeds, landing high in the canopy near any squirrel’s nests they find. Then they talk to each other, the sound a combination of a hiss and a groan. James assists with a couple of swift kicks to the base of the smaller trees then commands his birds to move on if no squirrel flushes. After commands he narrates the action for me, telling by their movements and posture which bird thinks it has a target. I often lose sight of the birds while trying to track them above. His shout, “Ho Jack, Archangel come,” makes them materialize on silent wings. Is he afraid of losing them?

“Nah, these two are practically bombproof.”

And they respond to voice commands? “Yeah, where I trained them was near a baseball field and I didn’t want them getting confused by the coaches whistles.”

A half hour into the hunt, the birds flush a squirrel from high up in the treetops. He has a world of trouble on his paws: To his left are 23 ounces of steely-eyed Jack, and on his right 28 ounces of hissing Archangel. He lays flat against the tree, weighing his options. There is no room for negotiation; it is freedom or death for him now.

Strangely another squirrel comes out behind Archangel and the bird’s attention divides briefly. Squirrel No. 1 makes a break for it, running down thin, bouncing tree limbs and leaping from tree to tree. He still finds himself hemmed in by the two predators.

Whenever he scrambles, the hawks take flight, trying to time their moves to grab him with their talons. He breaks downward and at the 20-foot mark his desperation outweighs his fear. He leaps like a man from a burning building. I watch him, stretched out in Superman fashion as the birds swoop at him. I hear the loud thunk as his little body hits the ground hard. He scrambles under leaves and sticker bushes with the two hawks flapping madly behind him. I race after the action, well behind James and impossibly clumsy compared to the hunters and hunted. Jack sits in the brambles; Archangel stands in a clearing further on. James can tell they’ve missed.

“I knew they’d hunt kinda lazy based on how much they’ve eaten lately.” James said. If that was a lazy attack, I can’t imagine how furious a determined one must be.

We head over to a likely rabbit spot and James kicks about a bit, but the hawks have found a stream and are sneaking drinks and preparing to bathe. A bath right now is bad for two reasons, first a hawk can’t hunt effectively carrying extra water weight on its feathers, and it is cold enough that frostbite is a concern. Some falconers have had to clip sections off their bird’s wings if they’ve gotten wet in cold weather. Power lines, cats, raccoons and owls are also dangers to hawks. Cars are the biggest hazard to hawks; on my ride here I saw the broken body of a hawk just off the highway, a bent wing flapping in the breeze from the passing cars.

Our hunt ends now as the bird’s health takes precedence over my curiosity. James throws them meat from his game bag and like siblings they squabble over the last piece. James, the stern yet caring parent, gently nudges them apart with his foot. Back at the car they go into their carriers easily and James drives off. I am left alone thinking there is one lucky squirrel in these woods with a good war story to tell his grandkids someday.

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