Easy Chair — From the July 2015 issue

Dressed to Kill

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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.

We were lucky: after we’d bushwhacked for a while, following the hawks from tree to tree, one chased down a squirrel that she’d roused from the very pine she was perched in. She circled down inches from the trunk, great wings beating, repeatedly missing the racing squirrel until it made a last-ditch leap from some twenty feet up. She caught it on the fly. It was beautiful and elating to witness the chase, the flight, the skill — both of the hawk and of the squirrel. On the ground the hawk mantled, lifting her wings like Dracula’s cloak to hide the prize.

Falcons kill quickly, by biting the neck and breaking the spinal cord of their prey, Davis had explained to us, but Harris’s hawks kill with their feet, stopping the heart by compression. (To us, the quicker death has the appearance of mercy, but it’s obviously a plus for the predator — your dinner can’t wriggle away.) Davis took the squirrel from the hawks and gave them some mice he’d brought along. “They’d be hours eating this squirrel,” he said. He kept it, though, to give them later — or maybe to eat himself. “It’s very sweet meat.”

Some people have told Davis that while they’d love to watch and hold his hawks they really don’t want to see any animals hurt. And yet to watch hawks at work is to enter into the process of death. In her recent memoir, H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald says that she’s loved hawks and falconry from childhood, when they existed for her mostly in books; she learned the lore and the language, the science and the mythology of raptors, and later came to train and fly hawks herself, including a Harris’s. Her book is about acquiring and raising a goshawk, a larger bird that is known for being temperamental. She named her goshawk Mabel. Macdonald made sure the rabbits Mabel caught were dead before the hawk began to eat them; her human sense of the animals’ suffering ended with their deaths, but the association of death with suffering is hard to break, even for the trainer and devotee of a large and efficient killer.

“What am I going to do with the hawk?” Macdonald wonders at the start of Mabel’s training. “Kill things. Make death.” Hawks, like wolves, like lions, are innocent, but to enable, enjoy, and admire their prowess does bring uneasiness to many present-day humans, an uneasiness of the sort that makes for thought.

We — our kind, humankind — are unique among animals in knowing that we will die. We are also the only animals who know that everything else that lives will die, too. Montaigne notes that the animals we keep (people in his time lived in proximity to more species than we do today) are afraid of being hurt by their human masters and take care to avoid pain. “But that we should kill them, they cannot fear, nor have they the faculty to imagine and conclude such a thing as death.” An animal pursued by a predator is certainly aware of threat, danger, and extremity, and expends all its energies and wits to avoid capture, but it doesn’t know death is imminent even when it’s seized. This knowledge unique to us shapes our relations with nonhuman species as much as it shapes our sense of ourselves.

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