The raptor spreads its wings with a piercing cry, talons stretching for me, alighting perfectly on my fist. “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,” I whisper, quoting the poet Rilke. I’ve come to the Hawking Centre in Kent to try my hand at falconry because I think it might be very dignified. Something about soaring birds of prey inspires lofty thought. Unfortunately, I’ve been ruined by television: there’s another line running insistently through my head, from the Valentine’s Day episode of I’m Alan Partridge. “Do you like owls? I know a cracking owl sanctuary.”
I’m brought down to earth when I learn that I don’t even know what falconry is. True falconry is hunting wild quarry using a trained bird of prey. It’s not something you have a go at, any more than Formula 1 or bomb disposal. However, the Hawking Centre, at Eastwell Manor, near Ashford in Kent, offers a large bird experience, flying some of the most impressive airborne specimens in the world. Having spent a year encouraging wood pigeons into my flat for company, I might pass out from excitement.
Under the instruction of Ryan Shoebridge, who runs the centre, I hoist a leather-bound fist in the air. A barn owl lands on it with silent, eerie grace. It feels mythical. I fly Theo the eagle owl, a Chilean blue eagle called Moet and Kira, a Harris’s hawk. To encourage them, Shoebridge is popping dismembered baby chicken parts on to my fist, from some unspeakable pocket. I’m in raptures. The raptors are a class apart. Fidget, a Gyr x Saker falcon, rouses and stoops like a self-guided missile. That’s nothing compared with Enzo, a peregrine falcon. Peregrines are the fastest creature on the planet, able to hit 250mph – faster than an arrow can fly, twice as fast as a tornado. They are a killing wind. You can’t help but be awed.
The innocent and the grotesque exist here, too. In Shoebridge’s office, I’m introduced to Rex, a baby spectacled owl, just four weeks old. This Furby with a penchant for naps is the softest thing I’ve ever touched. We also meet Maggie, a 20-year-old hooded vulture, with a tight perm and plague-mask beak. I’m spellbound. Vultures can digest anthrax, you know. I can’t even digest milk. Flying her is unnerving: when she takes off, she smacks my head with her massive wingspan, nearly concussing me.
Falcons change hands for hundreds of thousands of pounds, particularly in the Middle Eastern racing market. Shoebridge works on commercials and music videos for clients that range from whisky brands to Albanian rappers, but the birds’ welfare is his priority, not the fetishisation they attract. Like him, I mistrust the way we tame wild creatures’ strangeness, trying to make them cute or cool. We miss the opportunity for a deeper encounter. “I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not,” wrote Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk.
Birds of prey are even stranger than I realised. Sandals are not advised – thanks to Bob, a Bengal eagle owl, who sees feet as a breeding partner. “He’ll do his business,” says Shoebridge darkly. Back at the aviary, I spy a Harris’s hawk glaring at me, shoulders bunched like a boxer. “What’s your name?” I ask. She doesn’t have one, I’m told. I take in her furrowed brow and fine bristles, the intelligence behind. Without warning, the bird launches itself toward my face, screaming, rattling the mesh. Have you ever looked into the eyes of an animal that wants to kill you? It’s … messed up. (Macdonald would put it better, but fine words disappear when chicken wire stands between you and doom.)
“She’s defending her boyfriend, Jaeger,” Shoebridge says. On a perch behind her, the male sits peaceably, blinking slowly. I have a flurry of thoughts: a) Girl boss; b) Jaeger?? c) what does she think the situation is? Does she think I, a human man, want to get off with her feathery husband? Why? I’ve never caught a pigeon staring at my girlfriend and got uppity. (Even when they puff themselves up, I let it go.) Yet all afternoon, the hawk hisses and stamps at anyone who looks at her bird, spoiling for a fight. She’s an idiot, I think to myself. Then I feel bad. I have to be the bigger man. Tangential fact: in birds of prey, the female is always larger.
It’s time to finish with a flourish. I don a longer, heavier glove and Xavier, the bald eagle, steps on to it. Dinosaur claws, digging into my forearm. The weight! It’s like trying to hold up a vacuum cleaner, and my limbs begin to wobble. I gaze into his flawless eye. It looks through me, scanning the horizon. A black hole inside a yellow sun, looking for victims at the edge of the Earth. It’s deep. Primal experiences are beyond words, but they do make you feel alive. I stand shaking in the chill of that terrible eye, grateful for the parts of me I do not see in there. Rationality, irrationality, heat, weakness. Humanity, in other words. It’s good to be reminded.
Is there a DIY alternative?
Eagles make a sound exactly like seagulls. Even the word seagull sounds like eagle. What I’m saying is, seagulls are eagles and no one’s talking about it. Get yourself a gardening glove and a bag of chips.
Do owls like you? Cracking, nonetheless. 5/5
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