Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve the hawks and falcons my brother-in-law kept and trained at my parents’ house in Pasadena. While he was studying for his doctorate in ornithology at UCLA, he and my sister Paula lived with us. He had a red-tailed hawk that sat on a perch in the garden.
The clay-colored bird looked big enough to kill me. I was always a little apprehensive about the way it turned its head 180 degrees and watched me as I walked by. Those eyes made me feel like prey. Along with the red-tail, Tom had an old prairie falcon that had suffered a gunshot wound under the wing. He named him Republican for Ronald Reagan, who had been shot under his arm around the same time. After the red-tail, Tom acquired a healthy prairie falcon, which he lost and found several times, once at a car dealership, where the falcon got stuck underneath a car on the lot. Before Tom found it, my brothers and I and our friends rode around the neighborhood on our bikes, looking up into trees for the roaming raptor.
I remember a falconry meet Tom brought us to in Hemet. There were hundreds of falconers and many varieties of birds of prey. Three memories of that day stick out in my mind: a tiny, sharp-shinned hawk riding under an overturned milk crate on the back of his owner’s Harley; a peregrine falcon diving from 1000 feet to kill a fleeing pheasant a few feet above-ground; and two Harris hawks, flying side by side, gliding underneath a pickup truck while chasing a rabbit.
Harris hawks are what local falconers Mike Faircloth and Stacey Scott fly. I met them on a late-fall morning at the entrance to Fiesta Island. In the back of Faircloth’s school-bus-yellow pickup are two wooden pens. They are similar to dog kennels, but it’s not dogs they hold. One houses a Harris hawk, the other, a larger feruginous hawk. Both birds screech and squawk as I talk to their masters. “This is my apprentice, Stacey Scott,” says the tall, gray-blond haircloth, introducing the shorter, wiry falconer. ‘Today we’re going to take my Harris hawk. Scamp, out in the middle of the island. I was hoping we could fly him with Stacey’s Harris hawk, but Stacey didn’t bring his bird this morning.”
“I was out here yesterday,” Scott explains, “and Otis—that’s my bird’s name—caught a rabbit, and I let him eat some of it. So he was just too heavy to fly today.”
“See,” continues Faircloth as he removes Scamp from his pen, “there’s a weight range a bird flies well in. When it gets very much below a certain weight, it’s too weak to fly, it can’t pursue the rabbits fast enough to catch them. At too much above the given weight, he’s not interested; he’s not hungry. So there’s a small window there. This bird here flies at about 700 grams. I can fly him down to about 650 and he’d be okay. He’d be awfully hungry. But I can fly him up to about 750 grams. That’s a pretty big window, really, but he’s an older bird and he’s been doing this for a long time. He’s at about 780 today, so he’s a little heavy. He may not respond well. If he doesn’t. I’ll put him back down and I’ll take the bigger bird out. But we’ll take him out and see what happens. We’ll beat some bushes, and if he doesn’t want to respond, we’ll bring him back down.” With that. Scon hands me an old ski pole. “That’s a bush-beating stick,” he tells me. We climb over the sand dune, which is between the road around the island and the interior. Faircloth carries Scamp on his left hand, which is protected by a thick leather glove. The bird is about two feet tall, its plumage black, bronze, and white. Its hook-shaped beak and sharp talons tell you this bird was made to hunt and kill. From each ankle hangs a four-inch leather strap— called jesses — and a couple of jingle bells. Faircloth holds the straps in the gloved fist that bears the hawk.
From the top of the sand dune we descend into the sagebrush and cattails on the other side. Faircloth walks with Scamp between Scott and I, while we whack at the brush with our ski poles. “The idea of beating the bushes,” Faircloth tells me, “is to scare rabbits out of their hiding places. We’ll walk around with Scamp on the Fist, and if we bounce out a rabbit, he’ll go after it. It’s a different form of falconry than having a falcon 1000 feet overhead and bouncing a duck up off a pond.”
“It should be only a matter of seconds before we bounce one out,” Scott adds. “Yesterday, I took one step off the edge and two busted up.” No such luck today. We walk through the brush for 30 minutes and see no rabbits. Most of the time. Scamp rides along on Faircbth’s hand, but from time to time, he jumps off and glides to the top of a mound or tall bush. “When they’re a little heavy,” Faircloth explains, luring Scamp back with a piece of rabbit meat, “they act independently like this. He’s forcing me to call him back with food. The heavier they are, the more they’ll do that.”
As Scamp flies back to the glove, a cottontail scrambles out from beneath the thatch-like ground cover next to my foot and sprints. “Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho!” Scott and Faircloth yell. An instant change comes over Scamp. He had been gliding gracefully toward Fairdoth’s glove, but on seeing the rabbit, he banks 90 degrees right (a foot from my face) and with powerful wing beats, accelerates and overtakes the fleeing rabbit in three seconds. He crashes to the ground talons first, but the rabbit eludes him. Scamp jumps back up into the air to try to spot it again, but the rabbit has hidden under a cattail bush and probably won’t come out for another hour. Faircloth calls Scamp back to the glove with two quick blows on a whistle and gives him a bit of rabbit meat. “I’ve got to reward him because he did well on that one.” How many times will Scamp miss before he catches a rabbit?