“Would you like to hold Cody after the program?”
My answer to the question took about three-tenths of a second to formulate, plus that long again for it to come out of my mouth.
“Yes, please–I’d love to!”
Those who know me might not believe it, but I honestly wasn’t expecting to be asked. It would have been great if I was, but I certainly wasn’t anticipating it.
“It,” in this case, was being asked to stand and hold a red-tailed hawk for photographs after my friends from Wings to Soar gave a birds of prey presentation at Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, just outside of Decatur, Alabama. Would I like to be a part of what they were doing? There was no doubt about it.
A quick aside: John and Dale of Wings to Soar are a team of environmental educators who present wonderful birds of prey programs all over the country. Their presentations are chocked full of information, and are highlighted by a number of free-flying birds. If you ever get the chance, definitely check them out.
The program was nearly over, so I headed back to the room Dale and John were working out of to pick up Cody. Cody is a male red-tailed hawk that they’ve had for several years. He’s a non-releasable bird that was originally found in Wyoming (I’ll let you guess the city), and he’s one of their free-flyers.
Now, I’ve never worked with Cody before, but I did know a couple of things going into this situation. First, I have a few years of training and experience working with a number of different birds of prey, from the diminutive American kestrel to the Eurasian eagle owl, the largest of the owl species.
I also knew that Dale knows her birds. She knows their temperaments and their quirks. I know she wouldn’t put her birds–much less me–into a bad situation.
All that said, Cody is a red-tailed hawk, so I was more than respectful of him.
Things were going fast. I slipped on the falconry glove, with its three layers of leather constructed to protect my hand from the bird’s talons.
Talons: the business end of a bird of prey.
John took Cody from his travel enclosure and with a practiced move brought him quickly to my waiting fist. I took the offered leash, clipped it to the ring on my glove, and allowed Cody to step up to his new perch.
He looked at me from a range of about 12 inches, his dark eyes peering out from beneath the supraorbital ridges of his skull, his head canted slightly to the left. I looked back at him, trying my best to appear benign and non-threatening. As I placed the leather of his jesses between my middle and ring fingers, he stepped high with his left, and then his right, leg. He was settled, I was settled, and it was time to head out to the waiting guests.
I love doing presentations like this because they give people the opportunity to do something they rarely ever get to do: See these incredibly beautiful birds up close, with nothing between them and the raptors but the occasional camera lense. I’m in awe of these birds myself, and I love to share the experience.
The next 15 minutes were filled with questions, many photographs, and a large flying insect near one of the overhead can lights that seemed to beg for Cody’s attention. He was a champ, though, and a pleasure to work with.
As the crowd thinned to just a few who couldn’t bear to leave, I walked with John to get Cody back to his enclosure and waiting meal. The hand-off was smooth, Cody was safely tucked away, and my excitement level was starting to come down. Another few minutes of conversation, and my other bird-loving friends and I were headed out the door toward home.
I am thankful for the opportunity, and–while I won’t expect it–I hope to do it again some day.