I met a hunter recently, an interesting guy for sure, though I don’t know what to make of his eating habits. That’s because this particular hunter enjoys nothing more than catching a squirrel, slashing it open at the belly, and feasting on its innards.
His name is 49.
Forty-nine is a male hawk with a three-foot wingspan. His trainer, master falconer Chris Davis, calls him by the last two digits of the ID tag around the bird’s left leg. “I don’t give them names,” says Davis, who runs New England Falconry in Hadley, Massachusetts, one of a handful of outfits across the country where ordinary Joes can get up close and personal with one of nature’s fiercest predators—as well as getting a taste of the ancient sport of kings and princes. “They’re predators,” Davis tells me. “Not pets.”
As he speaks, I pull a heavy leather glove—a gauntlet—over my left hand. I am pleased to note that there are no puncture holes in it, maybe just a little flop sweat from the last beginner who tried this.
I raise my gauntleted hand. The bird swoops toward me from his perch about 20 yards away, low at first. Peregrine falcons can reach 200 mph in flight, while some hawks dive at 120 mph. (Falcons are smaller and quicker than their cousins the hawks, with pointy wings and a notched beak, but the sport is called falconry, either way.) Forty-nine tops out at about 60 with a tailwind but looks faster, skimming the grass of a meadow before rising to land on my wrist. I expected him to weigh more. With his hollow bones, he tips the scales at just 630 grams, a little less than a pound and a half, a tenth of the weight of a good-size house cat. His yellow talons give a squeeze I can feel through the glove. Those claws can exert up to 250 pounds per square inch, more than double what most men can muster—enough force to crush bone. But 49 is holding back. “He’s getting used to you,” Davis tells me. The bird is two years old and has been training to tolerate humans—the process is called “manning”—since shortly after he reached maturity at 10 weeks.
Hawks kill by squeezing and tearing the life out of their prey; their falcon cousins kill the way cats do—say, by severing a victim’s spinal cord with a bite to the back of the neck. If a raptor catches a duck, he’ll crack its skull with his beak to get at a favorite treat, the brain.
Forty-nine perches on my wrist, his black eyes deep as camera lenses. “His vision’s sharper than ours,” says Davis. “What we see, he sees five times bigger in three times more detail.” And he can detect ultraviolet light, so the urine trail of a small mammal looks to him like it’s glowing.
It’s not every day you commune with such an apex predator. You wouldn’t want a tiger or a great white shark jumping onto your wrist, but, like them, 49 kills in a style people have admired for at least 3,500 years. We spent part of our history as scavengers, watching raptors nab prey. “We probably followed them and stole their kill,” Davis says. Kleptoparasitism, he calls it—with us as the parasites.
Davis, 63, was the first falconer in America to be licensed to take civilians on hunts and training runs. It took the upstate New York native more than a decade of training to become a master falconer—the Jedi elite of the roughly 4,000 licensed falconers in America. He uses a Hindu word, darshan, meaning “in the presence,” to describe his time with birds like 49. “It’s a way into an experience that is ancient. And vast,” he says.
Darshan can also mean “meeting a deity,” and there’s something to the word that fits. The hawk’s onyx eye is a window into whatever it was that created his species and ours.
Looking at the bird on my arm, I wonder what he is thinking. Does he think at all? An animal’s mind is a black box to us. But whether 49 thinks or just acts, there’s a badass genius to him.
Want proof? Try this: In addition to mice, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, frogs, snails, worms, and just about anything else with blood, raptors prey on snakes, including poisonous snakes. When he goes after a rattlesnake, the hawk lands a few feet from the rattler. He steps closer and spreads his wings, giving the snake a target three feet wide. Unless the snake is really lucky, it bites feathers. The hawk then steps on its neck, pinning it to the ground. He eats part of the rattler alive, carefully avoiding the venom sacs in the head. He flies off with his squirming meal, the snake trailing behind him like the tail of a kite.