The feathery bundle calmly perched on my hand seems far removed from the ferocious predator that our ancestors used when hunting. But this Harris hawk is not domesticated; he is merely tolerating me as his supplier of raw meat. His eyes, fierce and glassy, seem to take in the entire meadow at once, except when he directs his stare at me, our faces mere inches apart. The effect is mesmerizing.
At the British School of Falconry in Manchester Village, Vt., part of the Equinox resort’s Country Pursuits program, participants learn the rudiments of an ancient sport. Under the guidance of Rob Waite, the amiable Brit who manages the falconry program, we rediscover our primal connection to the food chain by learning how to hunt with the birds, much as our ancestors did thousands of years ago.
Lessons commence in the resort’s barn, where the birds–including eagles–reside in separate aviaries. The atmosphere is unabashedly Anglo country huntsman, with Brittany spaniels snoozing in the corners as we don oiled jackets and Wellingtons on this drizzly autumn day. Waite selects some hawks, and the novices warily creep out of the barn, birds on arms. We learn how to cast the birds from our fists, then silently gesture them back with a bit of raw meat on a raised glove. The next day, Waite and I pile into a Land Rover with two avian companions, Skye and Haggis, and we drive to a nearby trailhead, where we cast the birds toward the treetops. From this vantage point, flying from one tree to another, they will keep us in view as we walk along the trail. Skye and Haggis are sporting bells on their legs so that we can keep track of them, and they jingle as they follow along. The Hawk Walk, as the Equinox has dubbed this activity, is like hiking with flying dogs. “Hiking and playing with hawks–it’s a strange job, this is,” says Waite.
He elaborates on the role of falconers as stewards of a tradition and protectors of endangered birds of prey, as habitats and food supplies dwindle. Falconers such as Emma Ford in the United Kingdom, one of the founders of the Equinox’s program, are doing their part to bolster declining populations through captive breeding, a stringently regulated endeavor. “Falconry is the most regulated field sport in the world,” Waite says. In Vermont, where state law prohibits captive breeding, Waite promotes conservation through public relations–giving guests an appreciation for the sport in a natural setting, and offering educational programs to organizations during the off-season.
Often on the Hawk Walks, the predators will score a hit on a squirrel or other prey, but not today. Alarmingly, I find myself harboring bloodthirsty thoughts, hoping that the hungry hawks will spot a furry lunch scurrying through the fallen leaves. But we circle back without witnessing a single search-and-destroy mission. At first, I had questioned why anyone would undertake this pastime. The answer is both simple and complex. Superficially, it could be considered an unusual hobby that might add to your cachet at a cocktail party. But a tutorial here in a Vermont meadow reveals the sport’s intellectual appeal; it provides a lesson in history, conservation, and–as much as you would like to deny it–the blood lust that might be inherent in human nature.