Training progressed into the final weeks of July. N-Z’s flights at the Overlook were now routine. With every flight he became stronger and faster. My timing at swinging the lure had to be just right since all our flights ended with N-Z coming down for a pass as I tossed it high into the air. He would hit and bind to it, riding it down to land and feed. Most days we were working in absolute synchronization . Some days, however, things did not go as planned. These were the days I learned lessons about falcons and the flying of falcons.
One such day I climbed the hill on a bright sunny morning, then turned to make the short walk down the pathway at the center of the field to the spot we normally began flying. I set N-Z on our accustomed boulder, stepped away as I pulled out the lure for one swing, and quickly tucked it under my armpit as the falcon rose and began ringing up in increasingly wide circles about me. At that moment a gust of cool, moist wind fanned the back of my neck. I turned to see an enormous black cloud had blown up behind my shoulder. There’s an inside joke shared by New Englanders: If you do not care for the weather here, wait five minutes, and it will change. I had been paying attention to N-Z, not to the sky. As I had walked to our spot, this storm had been quickly brewing and was now boiling over the ridge at my back. It was headed straight for us, and within moments the sun was blocked out. Big wet drops began to splash down.
My first reaction was to blow my whistle and swing the lure. I wanted to get N-Z down before the deluge hit. He immediately came back in a tighter circle around me and paused between wing beats to look at me, then took off to circle again. The spattering raindrops increased to a steady shower. He came back and seemed to hover over me fifty feet in the air before making a half-hearted stoop from which he immediately pulled out. On the third circle he cast me a look, then took off for the cover of the big pines, where I saw him land on a high branch sheltered by thickly needled limbs above it. By now I was already as soaked as if someone had emptied a barrel of water over me. I had no desire to become a human lightning rod in the open field so I decided to sit down. There was nothing to do but wait for the rainstorm to end. I could see N-Z’s silhouette perched in the pines. Obviously one of us had enough sense to come in out of the rain, and it wasn’t me.
Rather than contemplate how wet I was getting, I thought about what had just happened. N-Z had been responsive to the whistle and to the sight of the lure but had not come down. He had attempted to do so more than once, which indicated a frustration on his part that he could not accomplish what he wanted to do. It worked itself out in my brain as I sat; I realized N-Z had not been able to overcome his instinct not to land in a rainstorm. Of course, it was falcon common sense. If he had become soaked on the ground, how would he have been able to elude some predator or other danger?
The sun shone again, and all across the field and valley below, steam was rising in the summer’s heat. Despite the mist I could see N-Z plainly where he was perched in the pine, but now he was facing in the opposite direction. I saw him bob once or twice and then launch out over the valley. His flight took him past Hedgehog Mountain and out of my sight. I held my breath for a heartbeat or two, but he did not reappear. Well, I thought, N-Z was due to be released in a week or so. He just moved the timetable up a bit. I had hoped to have a small ceremony for the release, but N-Z had released himself and I wasn’t sorry. If he was ready to go, so be it.
I began climbing the hill along the farm road path, idly swinging the lure as I walked, thinking about the times N-Z and I had flown in this field. About halfway up, I was startled by a sudden noise behind my ear. Whap! As I turned, there at my eye level, with the lure firmly grasped in his talons, N-Z sailed past. He was riding the lure like a magic carpet as he hurtled sideways past my face, giving the situation a clownish air of high comedy. N-Z might as well have had a cartoon bubble over his head that said, Where’d you think you were going without me? His flight down the valley had not been a departure but had been a “drying out the feathers run”.
I knelt beside where he and the lure had landed and caught up his jesses. I must have worn a smile as wide as the field. In the written rules and unwritten contract of wildlife rehabilitation, the rehabber knows attachment to wild animals is not allowed. N-Z had his own contract, however. The precepts of falconry had built a bond I had not expected. I knew that N-Z, once I cut the bond, would return to his wild state with no difficulty. But in the deepest part of my heart, I realized that the bond I had with such a free and perfect creature was a rare privilege. Soaking wet, smiling like a lunatic, I left the field with the falcon I had brought there.
From Peregrine Spring by Nancy Cowan, protected by copyright and may not be reproduced.