If I’d been born in the Middle Ages, I would have been lucky to reach adulthood. If I had made it that far, I’d almost certainly have promptly died in childbirth, or from bubonic plague, or something of that nature. However, my younger self – a huge fan of T. H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone“, which I must have read over a dozen times – didn’t know this, and imagined days filled with the romantic pursuits of jousting, sword fighting, and falconry. I never pictured myself as a lady in a pointy hat with a flowing scarf attached, waving at her champion: oh no, in my imagination I was always the knight in shining armour, the brave and skillful fencer, or the rider in the forest, reins in one fist and a noble hawk perched atop the other.
We all know how my riding lessons worked out for me, and my short-lived university fencing club career didn’t go much better; I was also in the badminton squad that year (I never made the actual team), and all that lunging combined for a nasty knee injury that permanently ended my participation in fencing just as I finally felt like I was making progress, and severely curtailed my badminton playing for good measure.
The dream lay dormant… until my Mum asked if Mr E Man and I would like to visit a falconry centre in Harrogate as our birthday present this year. Naturally I jumped at the chance, despite my poor track record in Mediaeval pursuits, and asked her to book us in!
So, during the otherwise least geeky week of our recent visit to England, we all piled into the car and headed for the Harrogate Arms, where one of the owners, Tommy McNally, is also a falconer. We had a tasty lunch before my parents and Mr E Man’s mum headed for the adjacent Harlow Carr Gardens, while Mr E Man and I followed the bird sounds around the side of the pub to meet Tommy.
It is such a treat to meet someone who’s knowledgeable and passionate about their preferred subject, with an enthusiasm for sharing the passion with others, and Tommy has knowledge, passion, and enthusiasm in spades! He introduced us to his birds – hawks, falcons, and a golden eagle – and to the proper use of the big thick leather gloves before untethering Frankie, a young male Harris Hawk, and placing him on my fist.
Frankie was as light as a
whole bunch of feather s, and his fierce intelligence was immediately apparent. Tommy told us that Frankie’s a relatively newly trained hawk, and – like all Frankies, apparently – is “a bit nuts”, a wee bit pushy, and still learning to hunt. On the other hand, Tara – Mr E Man’s new companion – is older, calmer, and more experienced.
We headed into a more open piece of land, where Tommy taught us how to launch and receive the birds. I was slightly apprehensive about the latter activity, as Tommy placed a little snippet of meat in my hand and several pounds of beak and talon promptly came flying at me from a nearby tree, but the impact was very slight – they’re amazingly skillful fliers, and judge their landing just so. Tommy told us that he has to wear an arm and shoulder brace when he takes the eagle out, though, as the impact of a landing can knock you over if you’re not careful. (He also told us that they use golden eagles to hunt deer and wolves in Mongolia, a fact that we verified later on YouTube).
After a little more practice, we walked into the nearby woods, the two hawks flying ahead of us, returning to our fists from time to time. It was simply amazing to see them maneuver in and out of the trees – these are woodland hunters, not like falcons, who hunt in open air – and around our heads, which was slightly disconcerting! At least we were prepared for the feeling of feathers grazing our heads, though – a jogger running through the woods didn’t see Frankie until he’d already completely freaked her out as he swooped past her, just clearing her head.
We stopped above a small cliff to see the birds catch pieces of meat in mid-air, and again as Tommy enthusiastically told a couple of families and then a group of high school students and their teacher, out on a run, all about the hawks. We were rock star celebrities in those woods that day, but there was also plenty of time for us to ask Tommy all kinds of questions about the care of the hawks, what they do (he seemed to have multiple sources of income – hunting parties, school visits, clearing pigeons and seagulls from airfields and rubbish dumps, that kind of thing), how he got into falconry. And of course, to practice our launches and landings. It was a pure unmitigated joy, and I couldn’t believe how quickly the time passed!
Upon our return to the pub, Mr E Man was offered the chance to hold the golden eagle, to his great delight!
You’ll notice that Tommy kept a firm hold on that rope… this is one big bird (weighing in at around 15 pounds), all muscle, to be held at the very end of your upraised left arm, moving around, and prone to “freak out” if your hand wobbles! I wasn’t sure I’d be able to hold her, and as you can see from this iPhone video, I was right – I barely lasted a few seconds, wussy little wimp that I am!
Man, that eagle was LOUD! My left ear was ringing for a while!
I was disappointed, of course, but also glad that unlike my attempts at horse riding and fencing, my first foray into falconry hadn’t ended with a major injury. As compensation for my lack of eagle-holding competence, though, I got to help train a third Harris hawk who’s being trained to replace Tara, who will be entering her retirement / breeding years this summer. The new hawk was fully trained and accustomed to Tommy, but he needed to get her used to working with strangers before she could join the tour, as she was still nervous and aggressive around new people. I was extremely glad that Tommy held firmly onto her feet as she got all up in my face and screamed at me!
We then got to meet the owls. The eagle owl reminded me of a particularly dumb and goofy cat, much like our own dear Saba:
but the barn owl was a distinctly more noble beast, and so beautiful – we got to stroke his back, which was so soft it was almost just like stroking air.
We also got to play with the ferrets, which Tommy uses on hunting expeditions with the hawks to flush out hiding rabbits. The hawks were used to the ferrets and showed no aggression toward them at all, whereas they had to be hidden from the eagle at all times lest they become a light pre-dinner snack! They were great little beasties, albeit rather stinky – full of fun and play and character. I can see why people like to keep them as pets, despite the fact that the smell lingered even after I’d washed my hands twice! (Apparently you can have the musk glands removed!)
All in all it was an absolutely wonderful day, the real highlight of our trip, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. We had big grins all over our faces for at least an hour, when our parents returned from the gardens to find us in the pub, enjoying a tasty pint on a big comfy sofa in front of a cozy fire and uploading our smartphone photos to Twitter and Instagram.
It was great fun to relive the dreams of my childhood, but I do like me my modern comforts!
Bragging rights for the best bird of prey pun(s) in the comments 🙂