One chilly March morning, a few months after that first experience handling a hawk, I’m back at West Coast Falconry for the three-hour falconry experience class. The rolling country where Marden and her associates fly their birds lies where the upthrust of the Sierra Nevada begins to tilt away from the flat Central Valley. Trees, mainly live oak and black oak, have sprouted leaves in delicate, lacy chartreuse, and a brilliant emerald spring coat of grass blankets the ridge, along with rocky outcroppings and flashes of red dirt.
Much of the land immediately adjacent to West Coast Falconry’s 6-acre property—they have permission to fly on 1,100 nearby acres—is semi-wild, thanks to a neighbor and dedicated hunter, who took land once used to grow rice and restored it as wetlands.
Today’s class includes flying demonstrations with Cubbie, a peregrine falcon, and a “hawk walk” with Avalon, a Harris’ hawk. As my classmates and I check out the birds in the center’s mews, Marden, Barkley, Kelley, and their associate Kathie Miller fit our left hands with gloves and tell us about the birds. Peregrine falcons, for instance, are the fastest creatures on earth. In a dive, they’ve been clocked at 242 miles per hour, and the amount of G-force they can withstand is unknown, since meters break before the falcon does.
Indeed, peregrines are so fast that the adaptations in their anatomy inspired jet-plane design: Look in the falcons’ nostrils, and you’ll spot a bony protrusion in the middle of the yellow ring. This nose cone disrupts airflow, enabling the birds to breathe at high speed without the pressure damaging their lungs. Designers of inlet cones in jet engines borrowed this adaptation, solving a problem in which jets choked out when speeds got too high.
The women of West Coast Falconry point this out to us with so much enthusiasm they finish one another’s sentences, moving on to mention the silvery flicker of nictitating membranes that shield the birds’ sensitive eyes, preventing them from freezing in a fast dive; the tendons that make a hawk’s death grip extraordinarily tenacious (they act “like a zip tie,” Barkley says); and the stripes on falcons’ faces that function as an anti-glare device, similar to football players’ eye black.
Eyesight is everything to falcons: Up to 85 percent of their brain function is devoted to vision. Their sight is so powerful that they can spot a rabbit from a mile away.
The trainers have so much to impart about the wonders of these birds that you get the sense they could talk forever, but soon we’re trudging up and over a small ridge to a wide-open, boggy field. Before the birds can fly, the six of us in the class get a crucial reminder.
“If it looks like the falcon is flying right at you, whatever you do, don’t duck or move out of the way,” says Marden, adding that the falcon has plotted its path and may crash right into anyone who tries to evade it. “It’ll hurt you and it might kill the bird.”
After what we’ve heard about the birds’ speed, it seems almost impossible to resist the impulse to get out of the way, but once Cubbie is airborne, his control in flight is apparent. Cubbie was born wild, but humans illegally picked him up when he was young and he became too domesticated. He was rescued by a birds of prey program and placed with West Coast Falconry.
Over the ridge to the west, a bald eagle pair rises. Vultures circle frequently. We spot—or rather the staff spots—a wild American kestrel, the smallest of the raptors, flying high across the field, and wait for the wild birds to clear.
These birds, including Cubbie, are signs of the recovery of once-endangered populations. Peregrines can live in captivity for more than 20 years, hawks even longer. All but three of the center’s birds were bred in captivity.
After the wild birds are gone, Marden encourages a class member, who’s holding Cubbie on her glove, to launch him. It takes a bit of coaxing, but soon Cubbie circles up and out in what poet W.B. Yeats famously called a “widening gyre.”
“Go on, get that pitch,” Marden urges, exhorting the bird to climb higher, producing ever more dramatic stoops (vertical drops). None of the six of us duck, even as Cubbie veers down and flies just above the field, while Marden jerks the heavy lure out of his way.