Bittersweet: Falconry, behind the glove

Emma Randall, Health and Wellbeing, Keele University (2020 Cohort)

My love of birds of prey is unusually complex; I share a close bond with them. Resilience is the binding force we both share that connects me to them. It feels natural, then, that I am exploring animal, health and landscape geographies for my PhD: people’s encounters with birds of prey and the potential for eco-therapy. I was fortunate enough to experience falconry for the first time two months ago. NWSSDTP were very supportive preparing me for this visit, funding a piece of equipment and a specialist course, thus, I wanted to express my gratitude by writing a blog for their newsletter.

During the visit, I felt excited and fearless. What surprised me was my total lack of fear, despite such proximity to the birds’ sharp claws and beaks. I was in a haze and time flew by; the adrenalin was met by the joy and exhilaration of being so close and interacting with the birds. In the moment, I realised how individuals can be fascinated with falconry centres, handling wild animals is an obvious way to create everlasting connection with them. Falconry centres pose as an opportunity for individuals to meet birds of prey, which otherwise would have been denied, without owning expensive birdwatching equipment to see them on a reserve or in the wild. It was clear for all to see, staff and volunteers who work with these birds love their job and truly care. The young falconer confessed to me it was his lifelong ambition to work with animals. This was his dream job and, for now, the birds were his world.

It was noted that I looked pensive, but I did not take notice of this until after the visit, sifting through the photographs. My revelling in the falconry experience initially gave way to the reality of the situation for the birds held in captivity. The immediate joy and exhilaration was replaced by concern matched by an unsettling feeling. I am angry with myself for my selfish behaviour towards the captive birds and feel guilty for enjoying the experience. The wilfulness of Merlin, the barn owl, who disliked having his photo taken, reminded me that it was not just me but all other visitors who had attempted to take photos – searching for the perfect ‘trophy’ shot. Moreover, Merlin refused to fly and come on command, which frustrated the falconer. On reflection, I felt glad Merlin chose not to fly when he was instructed to, showing he has retained the spirit of the wild animal!

I have always believed that viewing birds from a distance isn’t necessarily as exciting but, ultimately, more life-affirming because they are free to go about their business: without human interference in their natural habitat. Nonetheless, it was obvious the birds are loyal to their trainer; there is a close relationship of mutual love and respect between human and non-human. A fond memory of mine was when Dave, the Harris hawk, followed the falconer instinctively, albeit somewhat unnaturally, flying between trees behind him – a true Kestrel for a Knave moment!

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