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If we could watch our dogs fly

A sport in which one predator traps another then sends it off to hunt raises questions about humans' place in the natural order, Thomas Curwen reports. There is fatal grace in watching a raptor, talons out, swoop to conquer.

March 09, 2004|Thomas Curwen

Unhooded. The world explodes into light. Feathers rustle. Tree and cloud, perch and pond quiver with life and color.

The jesses are off. And the leash. A step, a leap and only the air remains, and that's all that's needed to swoop low and then rise over rooftops and power lines until the world is a circle, and everything within it is game.

Wings flick against the wind, pausing, kiting, hovering, steadily staircasing higher, widening this gyre and watching everything within it -- blades of grass, patterns across the water, errant sparrows, cottontails, solitary field mice -- but waiting for a cue from man and dog.

They trek slowly across the field. A familiar flutter stirs beside the man, streaking fast and everything stops. Wings jet back, and the world, instantaneously rising, blurs, except for the speckles on the back of the pigeon's nape. Feet and talons extend. Thump.

Only the air remains, now filled with torn feathers. A flutter in the grass, and another broad racking pass, then another, and the pigeon is on the ground, talons needling its mantle. It barely stirs. One shredding bite of feathers and one tearing bite of skin still it, and soon the skull is laid bare to the brains.

Dog circles. Man watches.

"She's like a bottle of fine wine," he says. "A nice piece of Spanish peregrine. No junky hybrid. This is the purest stuff."

Tom Stephan stands in the open field. His yellow Lab, Buckshot, noses and pokes his way through the weeds. Brooke will eat a while longer before she is jessed-up, hooded and the world goes dark.

Mysterious, barbaric and arcane, what more needs to be said about falconing? What more -- other than that it is also beautiful. And that like other pastimes that involve the pursuit and the killing of game for pleasure, it is rich with contradictions.

"A falconer needs to be both predator and St. Francis," says naturalist and sportsman Stephen Bodio, and between these extremes is the scope of a falconer's world.

Falconers can wring the neck of a rabbit or toss a pigeon to the mercy of their birds, while arguing for the protection of grassland habitats or the preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Theirs is the Ducks Unlimited brand of conservation -- save the pond in order to hunt it -- because hunting is, after all, at the heart of their sport.

Raptors flown from the fist are shotguns with talons. The kill-rate may not be especially high ("a lot of hunting and not much killing," Stephan says), but listen to a rabbit mew as it dies and those of a certain sensibility will hear Thumper pleading against sadism.

Dreams of falconing usually start early. "My Side of the Mountain," a 1937 National Geographic photo spread and The Hardy Boys' "The Hooded Hawk Mystery" contributed to the obsessions of the mostly 40-ish, male crowd back in their pre-adolescent days. But Elisa McCormick is different.

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Puncture wounds

Push aside stereotypes about who a falconer is -- a refugee from the Renaissance Pleasure Faire waiting for a casting call from "Dragon Slayer IV," a Saudi prince disaffected by his recent European tour, an idler from the Venice boardwalk whose tattoos and piercings have somehow lost their je ne sais quoi. If falconers seem less exotic than their sport warrants, don't be surprised.

Falconing is all about discipline and sacrifice. As one website asks prospective falconers: Are you willing to dedicate your waking hours to a creature that merely tolerates your presence, is as affectionate as a stone and will cause you heartache and puncture wounds?

McCormick, a 32-year-old one-time religious studies student from UC Santa Barbara, is not your typical candidate for this boys' club.

Falconers will tell you that the demographics of the sport are changing, that more women are getting involved, but they'll also tell you that female hawkers are driven more by maternal instincts than killing instincts.

Save it for Naia, McCormick says. Naia is McCormick's red-tailed hawk, now flying from telephone pole to billboard looking for game.

"Hohohohoho." McCormick is trying to draw Naia's attention to a rabbit. She's standing near the interchange of the 60 and the 15 freeways in what once was a vineyard and is now a debris-strewn lot with three abandoned and well-tagged buildings, fast collapsing, hard up against a junkyard, warehouses and the Caltrans easement.

McCormick, who lives in Altadena, began her 100-mile round-trip drive to this vacant lot well before dawn. Her two-door Nissan is rigged with a perch in the backseat that sits on top of an old blanket and shower curtain.

An apprentice falconer, McCormick is following a course set by the Department of Fish and Game for anyone who wants to handle one of these birds. She passed a multiple choice, true-and-false test. She bought a hunting license. She found a sponsor (every new falconer is apprenticed to a master falconer), built a coop, known in the sport's argot as a "mew," and purchased all the necessary equipment.

Then she had to set a trap.

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