Up Close with Birds of Prey
Excitement builds as I extend the leather glove and call “Enkidu! Enkidu!” From the far side of the circle, Enkidu, an Aplomado falcon, spreads his wings, takes flight and deftly lands on my glove. I’m in awe of this beautiful bird of prey. It is surreal, thinking about his ethereal abilities — speed, flight, keen eyesight — it is like having a small superhero perched on my hand. Enkidu’s beak grabs a tiny piece of ground quail off the glove, his reward for flying to me, and makes a happy chirping sound as he affectionately walks up my arm, rests on my shoulder and looks me in the eye. It is amazing!
I’m at Squaw Valley, California, for an introduction to falconry class, one of the many offerings at No Barriers Summit, an annual three-day adaptive event featuring speakers, workshops, outdoor sports and adventures aimed at “unleashing your potential.” The class was conducted by West Coast Falconry, one of only 13 falconry organizations in the U.S. that are licensed to allow non-falconers to have these birds land on their gloved hands. Although the sport is called falconry, it also employs hawks, eagles and owls, and originated as a means of hunting, with the earliest references to the practice dating back many millennia.
The class was taught by Jana Barkley, a master falconer, who explained West Coast Falconry carefully chooses birds that have a unique acceptance of people other than their own falconer — birds of prey usually imprint on their falconer alone and eschew other humans — and then socialize their birds to be even more comfortable with other people, including wheelchair users. The birds are also trained to work with people who do not have arm movement, by either perching on a gloved hand or a wheelchair arm rest. Enkidu is trained to land on a non-moving arm or a wheelchair arm rest.
During the class, Barkley introduced us to three birds of prey and explained the unique features and abilities of each one. While holding Enkidu, she explained that another type of falcon, the peregrine, has the superpower of speed and is the fastest animal on the planet — they have been clocked diving at 242 miles an hour. “I’ve always enjoyed watching raptors in the wild. To get that close to them and have the experience of calling them, receiving them and then flying them, it’s a once in a lifetime experience,” says Steve Dalton, 50, a T4 para from San Pablo, California.
After Enkidu made his rounds, we were introduced to Don Diego, a 12-year-old Harris’s hawk. Don Diego is so large that participants could feel the breeze as he flapped his wings to slow his landing and perch on their arm. “It’s a wonderful feeling,” says Shannon Coe, a former Miss Wheelchair California from Berkeley, California. “Today I learned that training raptors is similar to training service dogs — they are treat motivated, require consistency and it’s best to keep them a bit hungry.”
Barkley explained that birds of prey are known for their superior vision, hence the word “hawk-eye.” A hawk’s superpower is vision. They can spot prey the size of a rabbit from almost two miles away and can peer into the ultraviolet light spectrum to find warmer rising air for soaring or even urine trails of small critters like mice, which fortuitously can lead to dinner.
Last but not least we met Tigg’RR a great horned owl. “It was amazing holding the owl! A little intimidating looking at the long sharp beak, but amazing,” says Walter Delson, a T4 para from Berkeley. “It was a powerful experience.” Barkley explained that an owl’s eyes always look straight ahead, which is why they need to turn their head 270 degrees. Owls are able to do this because they have twice as many vertebrae in their necks as humans.
An owl’s superpower is hearing. They can move their ears like we move our eyes, and the front of an owl is shaped like a satellite dish to collect sound, which enables them to hunt at night by triangulating sound.
We all agreed this was an amazing experience and like many No Barriers experiences, one that provided cool information and rekindled a sense of awe and wonder. It is an experience I recommend if you have the chance.
West Coast Falconry offers a basic falconry class that is completely wheelchair accessible at their facility in Marysville, California.