This piece first appeared in Broke-Ass Stuart's God Damn Website in January, 2016.
When I started this article I felt like it would write itself. After all, my time learning basic raptor handling met the literal criteria for the word “awesome”. But for some reason I have been staring at this screen trying to figure out the precise constellation of words to aptly describe the savage beauty of these animals. To explain how very big and yet impossibly light they are. Try as I might, in my search to describe this experience and these creatures, I keep finding myself coming back to the line from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Every angel is terrifying.”
The West Coast Falconry Center is located in Yuba County, deep in the country. When you pull into the Center the first thing one notices is the birds, as in there are a hell of a lot of them. A collection of falcons and hawks of different breeds share a large airy cage. Other cages play host to different species of stern-faced owls, and, my favorite, a hulking vulture with a face that looks like it was painted in pastels.
The introductory falconry class lasts an hour and runs small, as not to overwhelm the birds. The small class size also gives each of the students the ability to interact with the animals as much as possible. The trainers are fantastic: funny, kooky, deeply versed in the history and passionate about the art of falconry. Before handling the birds, we were walked through the history of falconry, conservation and the critical role birds of prey serve in our ecosystem.
Following this tutorial, it was time to work with the birds themselves. Now, I have been bitten by parrots both large and small, so I have a healthy appreciation of what kind of damage a bitey beak can inflict. It was during this part of the class I started experiencing a tiny degree of panic.
However, this was unnecessary as thankfully, Diego and Mariposa, the two Harris hawks we worked with behaved beautifully. We were taught how to call the birds to us and how to cast them out. The majesty of having what is feels a pterodactyl fly to your outstretched hand and perch on it lighter than, well, a feather, is utterly amazing. I was, and am, hooked.
The Center offers a variety of ways you can interact with their birds: owl encounters, hunting excursions, “hawk walks,” and finally, the mother of ‘em all- a three-day long apprentice course to help you on your way to become a licensed raptor handler- which I pray to Satan that I get to do in the near future.