For my birthday last year, my wife bought me three hours with Chris Davis, a master falconer and breeder of hawks. My time would be spent meeting the hawks that Davis flies and following them into the scrubby woods and deadfalls behind the buildings of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I went with another man who’d gotten the trip as a birthday present from his wife.
Davis has been a master falconer since 1979, but, technically speaking — the language of hawking and falconry is extensive and ancient, like the language of heraldry — on the day of my visit he was an austringer, a handler of hawks. Davis raises Harris’s hawks, a species native to the American Southwest. “Harris’s are the only hawks that hunt in packs, like wolves,” he told us, “and for the same reason: their usual prey in their native environment — jackrabbits — are larger than they are.” The birds looked plenty big when Davis took two of them from his van, holding them on his heavy glove by the jesses — straps attached to the hawks’ anklets. They had a look of malevolent intensity, like movie villains, but they were so schooled in the rules of their world that we two beginners could hold up a glove topped with a piece of raw beef and the hawk would fly to us, settle, and eat. The grip of their big feet was remarkable. Indeed, this raptor grip was the thing that had drawn us to them: unlike other birdwatchers, we were there not only to watch hawks but — if we were lucky — to watch them kill something.