Elana Renata

© Copyright 2018 by Elana Renata

Photo of a red tail hawk.  (c) 2018 by Audubon.

I became enraptured with raptors such as Red Tail Hawks, Great Horned Owls, Peregrine Falcons, and Bald Eagles when I started working at the veterinary clinic at the University of Minnesota.

Henry and I met through Maggie, the first year Red-Tail Hawk.  She sat proudly on his wrist at the Midwest Falconer’s Meeting held at The Raptor Center.  A dark morph, red plumage tinged with gold, she flapped her wings and stamped her talons impatiently on Henry’s fist.

Henry interviewed me for a falconry apprenticeship the following week at Perkins Restaurant, this time without Maggie. He spoke slowly and deliberately to me of his commitment to Maggie.  She was a young, first year hawk: an eyas, He had lured her out of the sky in the south of Minnesota by the bluffs of the Mississippi River.  Abundant thermals kept Maggie high above the cliffs in the clear blue sky.  Maggie was a hungry hawk and was lured to the bait trap Henry set that day.  She landed feet first and her feet stuck.  Henry reached her and safely unhooked her talons.  Henry told me that the apprenticeship with him would be long.  It would begin with a long period of silence and observation.  I could accompany Henry, but could not touch or interact with Maggie until Henry was satisfied that I merited the company of such a wild, fierce and regal bird.

After several meetings for coffee, Henry agreed to take me to his favorite hunting spot which was on Highway 62 and 34th Avenue.  Skirting the early morning traffic, we jumped the rails of the nearest cloverleaf on/off ramp.  The rumbling of jet engines roared above as Henry removed Maggie from her carrying box of plywood which was the shape of a windowless cube. Inside was a perch wrapped with cord made of sisal.

Her bells rang as she thrust her body up and out onto Henry’s gloved fist.  Henry had a true falconer’s glove, fringed in dark leather.  The glove enclosed Henry’s fist and arm up to the elbow, protecting Henry from her razor sharp talons and strong feet.  She flapped her wings, flared her nostrils and bated off the fist.  Henry held her high and she perched again on his fist and Henry held her by the jesses.  The jesses were two leather straps with a slit in each to accommodate a metal clasp and a long leash.

Eyes darting towards the sky, Maggie cried “scree, scree”.  Henry held her aloft and tossed the padded lure high in the air and followed by launching Maggie high toward the sky.  Maggie flew expertly towards the meat on the lure, grabbed the cloth of the lure bundle, and mantled her wings over the captured prey, a choice cut of mouse.

After repeated success kills of the lure.  Henry sent Maggie high to circle the sky.  He whistled to her and encouraged her to search for her own prey.  Maggie was a successful hunter about half the time.   When she didn’t bring any prey down herself, Henry would bring out a dead rat from the Raptor Center or a dead rabbit he had killed himself.  Each morning the routine was the same:  the drive to the cloverleaf, tossing the hawk into the air.  On clear cold days in winter, the air snapped as her wings opened out and she soared to the top of the sky.

Maggie would never look me in the eye.  If anything she looked through me treating me like a short tree.  She acknowledged Henry however, looking at him straight on, daring him to let her go into the air.   I didn’t merit much notice at all.  I had no food with me.  I never handled her on the fist.  Week after week this went on.  Finally, Henry and I became lovers.  He was a veterinary student at the Raptor Center where I volunteered and subsequently got a paid position as a receptionist.

I would complain and chide Henry for his continued reluctance to let me handle the hawk saying, “Come on, we are lovers.  Surely I can handle her on the fist.”  Henry would respond with, “You’re not peaceful enough.  Your energy is too agitated.  When she looks through you and draws her head back to notice you, then we will see.”         

You can start by cleaning out her mews.”  The mews was Maggie’s home: a large wood enclosure 20 feet cubed and covered one side with fine wire mesh. The other sides were wood. Maggie glared at me from a perch covered with sisal fiber that was slightly above me.  Finally Maggie was not alarmed by me and would sit with a foot tucked up in the plumage and nestled into her rib cage.  I moved slowly and carefully, sent a jet of water from the garden hose throughout the mews, but didn’t touch her body.

For weeks I cleaned the mews, went out hunting with Henry and Maggie in the early morning at the freeway cloverleaf and watched the interaction between Henry and Maggie.  He was seamless with her, sending her into the air with fluid grace, the cadence, flawless.  I watched the interaction with respect and awe as bird and man melded into one.  The bird responded to Henry’s handling, her bells ringing clear and loud.

One morning in late autumn, with most of the leaves gone from the trees, just dry brittle ones clinging tenaciously.  Henry handed me his falconer’s glove and said, “Send her up”.  My heart pounded.  There was a frog in my throat.   I feared that Maggie would sense my anxiety and lunge from my wrist.  I let go of her jesses and she lifted up and flew high.  She called her “scree” call three times and soared in circles above me.  I was nervous as I lifted the gloved hand towards her.  Would she come back or would she fly away?  I tossed the baited lure and she rammed her talons into the bag and grabbed the meat.

After the first time I was allowed equal time hunting with Maggie.  We hunted all over the metro area.  When we hunted in the State Parks we needed a permit.  Most of the time we stayed at 34th avenue and Hwy 62.  It was close to the Raptor Center and our work.  Maggie could stay in an enclosure outside and we brought her home at night.

One of my favorite spots was along north 35.  There was a tree stand bordering the highway and we would walk with Maggie on Henry’s fist.  He would let her go and she would fly from tree to tree doing a loop-to-loop motion, looking for mice.  She had better luck there and frequently found a meal.

Henry never worried about Maggie taking flight and leaving him.  I worried enough for the both of us.  One cold November I took Maggie alone to highway 62.  I let her go as usual and she saw a rabbit and bolted.  She was high and gone in an instant.  I got in the car keeping one eye on her fleeting shape.  I was terrified when I saw a hawk mantling something.  A dark morph. Maggie.  I stopped the car and walked slowed toward the hawk on the ground.  She let me come near, which a wild hawk wouldn’t.  She stepped up on my fist and I put her meal in the pouch I carried with me when I hunted.

I went back to basics with Maggie, flying her every day, tossing the lure.  I fed her with pieces of mouse from the Raptor Center.  I brought a perch upstairs by my desk and set Maggie on the perch to get used to being around me and other people.  I gave impromptu tours with her as the guest.  She got used to people all around her, in all directions and ceased to lunge off my fist.   I started to do tours faithfully and she mellowed out.  This made our hunting time special.  Maggie was able to fly further away and she always returned to the lure.  I had bells on the lure and she unfailingly returned to it.  Even when she took flight away from me, I swung the lure with the bells and every time she returned to the lure and mantled it and the mouse on it.

I moved into Henry’s clapboard house and cleaned the mews in his backyard every day, removing mouse and rat carcasses.  I also removed hawk pellets, the regurgitated clump of fur and bone.  Raptors of all kinds regurgitate pellets.  Owl pellets are larger and have more bones in them than hawk pellets which means that hawks are able to digest more than owls.

Living with Henry was easy.  He accepted me and my Italian Greyhound, Louie.  His veterinary skills were used to neuter Louie and anxious Louie benefitted from Henry’s serene treatment of him.  Louie became a different dog.  He stopped barking incessantly, ceased howling, and did his business outside in the fenced yard.  He had no accidents in the house. 

In the winter we would fly Maggie over farm fields filled with snow.  Maggie would make beautiful snow angels with her wings as she pounced and spread her wings to stop on the lure or prey.  The fields were part of the St. Paul campus agriculture fields and near the Raptor Center. When Henry and I were through for the day, we took Maggie to the field and flew her against the backdrop of the setting sun.

Four years we were together.  In the end we each decided to go to college, he to graduate school in Pennsylvania and I to a school in Minnesota.  I moved home with Louie.   The last week we were together, Henry and I took Maggie for one more, long trip south, back to her birthplace in south Minnesota by the river bluffs.  In a field adjacent to the river bluffs, Henry took Maggie out for the last time.  He removed her jesses and bells.  He lifted her high and tossed her into the air.  Henry and I went home alone.  He went to Pennsylvania and I went to school in Minnesota. We never saw each other again.   Maggie still flies in my dreams, her solid red tail glinting in the sun and a long “scree…scree…scree”. 

I was changed forever by the flight of Maggie and other birds I worked with at The Raptor Center.   I exercised other birds, including Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, Peregrine Falcons, Broad Wing hawks, Kestrels.  My falconry skills that I learned with Maggie suited me well with the patient birds.  Eventually I stopped all my work with raptors and went to University full time.  I write about the raptors in my head, watch the Red-Tail Hawks perched on freeway light poles, and dream. 

My name is Elana and I grew up in Minnesota seeing raptors seemingly everywhere. As soon as I could, I became a volunteer at the Raptor Center and began flying birds of prey. I became a falconer's apprentice and worked with him for many years. This is a memoir of my years flying one hawk named Maggie.

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