A few months ago, I read Helen MacDonald’s “H Is for Hawk,” her memoir about bonding with a goshawk, the most fractious (and one of the most lethal) of raptors.
McDonald describes her experience with Mabel, an independent bird who teaches the author about respect and trust while helping her heal from the death of her beloved father. Goshawks challenge their trainers, always capable of flying away forever. They only return to greedily take a snack from the glove that protects the human from razor-sharp and preternaturally strong talons.
As I read the book, I never imagined I would reach out a gloved hand and have a magnificent raptor gently land on it and delicately pluck a severed chicken foot from my grasp. I never thought I would cast a hawk into the ether and watch it rise into a faraway tree where it waited for a signal to return to grab another morsel.
Pamela and I were staying at an Irish castle that hosted a falconry academy, transmitting a skill taught since Babylonian times. People come from all over the world to train and control these birds that can track a rabbit from a mile in the air and descend on unwary prey at 150 miles an hour. We would have an hour to experience this art, guided by a certified, experienced and patient falconer.
We met our birds, Burren and Rua, male and female Harris hawks, native to the American Southwest. I received Burren, a pound and a half of barely contained energy, while Pamela was entrusted with Rua, the dominant female, half a pound heavier.
Leather straps (jesses), secured between our fist and thumb, and wrapped around the rest of our hand, prevented the birds from flying away. Hawks have two modes — attack and defense. If they see a small animal move, they want to eat it. Any unexpected stimuli, such as bicyclists, building corners or owls, trigger flight.
When faced with either prey or imagined peril, our hawks leapt off our hands, seeking to pursue or flee. The jesses held and they quickly settled down after each eruption. In a few minutes, we entered a clearing, where Burren and Rua could fly unencumbered, and we became partners rather than captors.
Our instructor undid the jesses, and Rua and Burren perched on our fists. We held our elbows to our sides to provide a stable platform. There was no petting or cooing, which would have upset and threatened them. We only looked, admiring their bark-brown and reddish feathers, their alert yellow eyes that afford them telescopic vision and their prominent, curved beaks that can rend fur, feathers or flesh.
We emulated an aircraft carrier catapult, straightening our arm before swinging it forward, providing the bird with momentum to ease its takeoff.
We launched Burren, then Rua, toward tree branches perhaps 30 yards away. They perched, scanning the ground and us, waiting for prey or our signal promising a reward for returning. Attached to their legs, tiny radio beacons hung, to track them if they fled.
When we turned our shoulder toward them, they swooped to us, gliding in on seemingly motionless wings to land on our outstretched fists with the lightness of a canary, except with a four-foot wing span and talons that could rip apart a jackrabbit.
For half an hour we walked, launched, awaited breathlessly for their decision to return, offered them bits of meat they avariciously accepted. In that short time, we understood the magic Helen MacDonald had experienced and the powerful bond between her and Mabel.
The hawk possesses total freedom, returning only if rewarded and feeling safe. Every time you cast your bird into the sky, it could disappear forever, leaving an unfillable void. Each time it returned, motivated by greed not love, the constriction in your heart eased. The hawk wouldn’t flee this time and would remain attached to you, not spurning your love.
You realize that accepting freedom in a being is the greatest test of your love.
Stuart Grover is a retired consultant residing in Tacoma. He likes dogs and books. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org