Recently we had Mark, a dear friend of mine from college and his wonderful long time partner, Don, come down and spend a weekend with us. Mark always finds something interesting to do and this time was no exception. He found a falconry class on Living Social. When Mark first told me about the chance to do this I thought it sounded fantastic but could they really deliver that great an experience to a group? I mean, come on! Handle the bird for real? But even if it was only to observe and learn I was on board so we booked it and the time had come to go see what it was all about.
I love critters. I am the one who hears a twig snap in the forest and goes to see what stepped on it. Someone makes the sign for shark while we’re diving and points in the direction they saw it and I will swim that way. Probably not too smart, but it’s the way I’m wired, so birds of prey seemed like a wonderful hobby to me. Obviously to all of us that attended because we came to learn about it. That was refreshing, because a lot of people I told about the class showed a distinct aversion to the idea of handling such a bird. There were 12 of us plus the 2 instructors/trainers/entrepreneurs and 3 of their birds. There were a couple of teenagers which was cool and they did great, the instructors worked with them perfectly so if you are considering it for a younger audience that worked out very well.
We got right to it standing in front of 3 stands with the 3 birds and getting a very good introduction to the sport, the tradition, how they got into it and the birds themselves. It was very interesting, some surprising information and it really gave us an appreciation for the bond that has to develop between the trainer and the birds. Meanwhile the Three Stooges are looking at us like the dumbest twelve monkeys they have seen all year! Bored, aloof, regal and just majestic, we have now learned that they are all Harris Hawks and we will be working one of them for the next hour. Clearly they are letting us know that we will, if one of them will allow it. Kirk has picked up a beautiful female, Shanti and is using her to demonstrate a few things and she is showing signs of grudging cooperation so he decides to use her for the class.
We each get a leather glove that comes up to our elbow for our left hand, along with some very strict instructions on what NOT to do with that arm for the rest of the session. The bird is very much keyed into that glove as a signal and as a cue that you may have food. We were instructed to leave it at our side unbent at all times. That is harder than it sounds! Taking pictures, gesturing in disbelief and awe, talking really fast and enthusiastically…none of these things lend itself to dead arm. We tried. They had us all form a large circle and began teaching us to call Shanti to our glove (with the added incentive of a little chicken meat). We had a glorious time having her land on us and take off for the first time from our gloves and realizing how light but powerful she is, less than 3 pounds and such a gentle grip for such a fierce hunter. Thrilling at the swoosh of her wings in our faces as she lands and her tail as she turns to face the wind. Seeing the sun light up her beautiful, golden brown eyes that look so far past you it makes you realize she has deigned to land upon you and take the chicken, but other than that, you do not exist for her. Up close and personal with something you usually see from afar and admire, if not envy, in flight.
OK. Expectations already exceeded. The four of us are thrilled so far with this activity and it has just begun. I don’t want to ruin it, if this interests you, you must go do it for yourselves. We had many more opportunities to handle Shanti, she was a perfect lady and the class was run exceedingly well by Kirk and Denise. It remained informative, interesting, hands-on and downright breathtaking. My favorite part was at the end. We lined up to get pictures with Shanti. Kirk held her behind the line, she flew to the subject facing the line (over our heads) landed, posed like a professional, and then Kirk called her back and she swooped right up in our faces to land behind us on Kirk’s stand. Oh, the thrill! Every time she flew right at me then adjusted and swooped up to the stand at the last second just took my breath away. I could have stood there all day and had her do that.
The class was held at a remote site in Alpine with a beautiful, sweeping view of valleys and mountains. The birds were clearly loved by their caregivers, had ample opportunity to leave and never return and were cared for exceedingly well, I was paying attention. If it weren’t for the whole “feeding them live and nearly live, cute little animals thing” I would be ever so tempted to take up this sport myself. Especially once you see how Kirk got hooked on it. He says he was in Nepal and saw them parahawking. Click here to see him doing this himself with his bird here in San Diego. No, really, check it out. Yup, if I could dispatch chicks and bunnies I would be all over this!
So, this is a rare treat. We were told there are only 4 schools in America at which you can have this experience. This is West Coast Sky Falconry. We are so lucky to have them right here. Go do it. Bring a camera. Bring a Go-Pro. Do not bring your cute little pets.