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Only a bird.

The black cloud is darker today. It’s August and the sun is shining but I can feel
the weight of a cloud hanging over me as I take her up in my hands. I know she
is gone as I hold her weakened body, her feathers perfect and her eyes once so
bright and menacing are fading fast as she looks at me.

I have kept birds all my life, birds of all kinds, from Appenzellars to Zebra
finches, but exactly ten years and ten weeks ago I climbed a spruce tree to
select a young Sparrowhawk, a couple of ounces of fluff and talons that was to
give me more pleasure, pain, fun and adventure than all the other birds put
together, and here she was dying in my hands. I gave her a broad base
anti-biotic knowing it was already too late, as some part of her body was giving
up and it could reasonably be put down to old age. I placed her back on her
nest ledge already knowing the outcome. I looked in a little while later and
she was dead, the musket sitting beside her, doing his high speed laps around
the aviary as I went in and lifted her body again.

I really felt miserable, and if someone had walked into my yard today and offered
to take the other birds away, the aviaries and freezers, my old weighing scales
and my scruffy hawking bag, I think I would gladly have walked away from the
lot. Alice was over a decade old it was obvious this day was drawing near, and
I know I let it affect me where I should have been stronger. But the thing is, I really liked
the old she-devil, and this is probably where I get laughed at, I know for a
fact she liked me. Each day she would come down to me, taking her food from my
fingers before flying back up to her nest ledge to consume her meal. Often
times she would call from her ledge and fly to the front bars for me to caress
her plumage.

Owning and working animals in the field can teach you so much. I grew up with terriers, lurchers and ferrets; I spent more time in a ditch than a disco. I
have sat up trees late into the night waiting for badgers to emerge from their setts, crawled out of bed at four in the morning to watch fox cubs play until the vixen returns with food. I’ve watched stoats hunting and pygmy shrews fight
over territories, I witnessed a wild merlin ring up after a winter lark, each
trying to outlast the other as the victor, one for its meal and one for its
life. But the very best insights into the world around us were, for me, those
days in the field with Alice. To see her hunting techniques in action, not just the
Sparrowhawk’s amazing speed and agility of the straightforward snatch and grab
flights, but the indirect pre-planned (this pre-planning took all of a second) flights that took
her away from the quarry to make the most of the wind or some hedgerow or
building or just about anything that could give her an advantage before the
lightning fast and fearless strike.

One flight that sticks in my memory was many years ago when out on the hill behind
my house. The dog had flushed and re-flushed a pheasant but Alice
had only acquired feathers in the strikes as it was an old strong bird and
after the second put-in there was no sign of it as the dog searched the area
under where Alice had taken stand in a large beech tree. As I was extricating myself
from the undergrowth I heard a blackbird cluck to my left and simultaneously the gentle
sound of a hawk bell high up the tree to my right. I looked up to see Alice in a direct glide
down to where see had spied the blackbird. This path took her right past my
face and just before her wingtip brushed my skin I stared into her eyes, literally
stared into her eyes as she came past, visually locked onto her prey. In those
seconds she was totally oblivious to me and the rest of the world around her,
seeing nothing but her prey and not wavering in her stare even as her yellow
eyes passed mine with only inches between. It was not until she had chased,
snatched and missed her intended prey that I remembered to breathe again.

My hawking dog is old and deaf now; I have to stamp my
boot on the ground to get his attention. His time will come too and I know I
will miss him about the place just as sure as I know I will start all over
again someday with another dog. Only this week I was offered a pup by a
well-bred bitch that I like the look of. She belongs to a friend that I would
never have even met if it were not for Alice.
The smallest thing can change the direction of a life and I can only wonder
where it might have led had that nest been empty all those years ago.

I dug a whole between two recently planted apple trees, their first fruit turning
red as I break through the dry earth. Her plumage is perfect after her moult, a
far cry from her early hunting seasons, catching crows, pheasants and magpies
and smashing up her tail in the process. I jokingly referred to her as the Raggety-Hawk
in those days as I endlessly imped and re-imped rook feathers to repair her
tail. I also remember the first time she encountered sheep-fencing. It was
stretched tight across the field ready and waiting to slice her up into a four
inch square. I put my hands to my face to block out her obvious doom, but as I
looked through my fingers I saw her fold back her wings and slip through to
catch her prey, I needn’t have worried even if I had time to. My heart forever
after skipped a beat when she performed this neat little trick.

She really was a tough old girl. I unfolded her feet as I laid her down in the
earth. These tiny feet had held fast to a herring gulls neck as the gull’s beak
had encircled her body. I have seen her turn upside down in full flight trying
to snatch at lapwings. I have seen her quickly grasp a swallow in mid-air. She
regularly took crows down to earth, crows over twice her weight that took to
the skies and thought they were safely away from the little menace.

I unfolded and extended each talon until I came to her
damaged right outside toe. I often likened flying a Spar to sea fishing. Fresh
water fly-fishing is like flying a falcon at a single prey, selecting your fly
to match the seasons insect hatch, intending your lure for only your
pre-selected trout or salmon and no other, specialised stuff indeed. When I was
younger I spent hours throwing a baited line into the sea not knowing what was
to come out, and this is what Sparrow-hawking is to me, you throw in your line,
you cast off your Sparrow-hawk and after that you really don’t know what’s
going to happen, all hell can break loose and you can forget your specialised
pre-planned hunting intentions. I once came home after a day’s crow hawking
with three pheasants that needed treatment for shock and a good feed! But Alice
did specialise and if she knew more about one prey than any other it was crows,
hundreds upon hundreds of rooks fell to her grasp, on the ground or from the air, if she was
on form she was nothing short of lethal. Local farmers used to ask me to swing
by if it was not too much trouble. She has caught hooded and carrion crows and
I have seen her give a raven a slap before wisely turning away. But it was a
magpie that cut her tendon. It was my fault and mine alone, as I removed her
from yet another magpie to carry on the hunt for more exciting prey.
When a Spar hits its victim the adrenalin rush must be enormous as the only thing
that exists is the flight, the capture and the killing of that prey, and only as she plucks
her quarry can you see the adrenalin subside and some kind of calm return.
This day I rushed things and slid her clenched talons off the magpie’s head and
along its open beak, and in the process a tendon was severed. It took me three
courses of different anti-biotics to kill that infection and left her with a useless toe, but as far
as I could make out it never affected her catching ability.

There is a very narrow lane near where I live, with a gate to a grassy field that
usually holds a flock of sheep and where I got many a flight over the years. On
one particular day I came to this gate and off she went after a magpie, (a
quarry she found irresistible). She closed the gap quickly as the magpie sought
refuge under the only cover available: a sheep. Now I don’t know about you but
some flights I can see and remember every detail in slow motion, and this is
one of them. The magpie closed the distance between itself and the sheep but
knew it was losing ground. Alice was locked on like a heat-seeking missile and the
magpie knew he was in trouble. He let out a final squawk as he looked over his
shoulder at his approaching doom. If he hadn’t taken that look and concentrated on
where he was going, he might have succeeded in diving under the sheep as he intended,
instead he hit the sheep right in the arse as Alice hit him. It was the combined force of
the two birds striking the sheep in such a tender area and the obvious fright causing it
to leave the ground all four feet at the same time that made me laugh that day,
and causes me to grin every time I pass that particular gate.

Another day, out in the car I passed her to a friend and
told him to fly her. We set up a flight at a flock of mixed crows and he rolled
the car window down as we approached. His face took on an unusual expression
and I asked him was he ok.

“Myheart is beating out of my chest” was his reply.

I knew exactly what he meant as I had experienced it so many times. Nine ounces
of calm brown feathers sitting relaxed but alert on your fist, and in a split
second of her choosing, she turns into nine ounces of muscle, spit and venom,
with a mission that lasts only seconds, knowing absolutely anything could
happen as soon as she leaves that glove.

I know from the many days out hunting with her, getting
her weight and condition just right, that even after all my planning we could
still have a blank day or something unforeseeable could go wrong. She was a
full imprint it was not uncommon for her to blame me when things didn’t go
exactly to plan. Either way it was always exciting, I used to always say that
it was these bad days that made the good days so good. But today as I laid her
down for the last time and covered her little body with soil I wonder was it
the good days that makes these bad days so unbearable.

Why do we do it to ourselves? Should we be hard as stone and just use creatures as
tools for our enjoyment? The trouble is I could never do that, if I could I
know the bad days would be easier but the good ones would not give me such a
high. Seeing a bird I reared and trained, learning to fly, learning to use the
air and wind, learning to strike and learning and improving with each miss,
this is what does it for me, as I feel I am part of all this. I get pleasure in
watching a falcon rouse in the sky. I get pleasure in seeing a hawk that last
week could not stand to be near me now bobbing its head in anticipation of my
company. Am I a foolish soft Git? Am I being overly sensitive or sentimental
about a bird? Most likely I am. But some things touch some folk more than others
and after a decade I find it hard not to be affected.

Alicewas just a normal Sparrowhawk. They are all
beautiful and fearless with an endless capacity to amaze, ounce for ounce,
there is no other falconry bird to rival them for bravery and excitement.

I filled back in the earth and rolled back the grass sod.

It was as if nothing had been touched

Tommy Byrne 2006