Hanging with Dexter, a Harris Hawk.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of birds. Like a lot of fears, this one is irrational and hard to explain. I’ve never been attacked by a bird, though I have been “lucky” enough to have birds poop on me more than once. There’s just something about birds that makes me uncomfortable. Their aggressiveness. Their unpredictability. Whether it’s ravens, crows, pigeons, or seagulls (ok, and sometimes ducks and geese), I would rather just avoid them.
And avoid them I do. I’ve been known to walk in a wide arc through a pigeon-filled square rather than cut through the center of a kit of those rats with wings. My family will tell you that I spoiled many visits to the beach, hiding from the greedy seagulls under the umbrella or my towel.
With this bit of background, you’ll understand why it was a BIG DEAL when we signed up for a falconry “experience” during our recent trip to Malta. My dear husband was very excited about this element of our vacation. (I think he sees a falcon as the necessary first step to having a castle with a moat, and henchmen to do his bidding.) We booked the full 5-hour experience, which would let us handle the birds and fly them.
We arrived at the Falconry Center and were told that due to the high winds, it was not safe to fly the birds. They offered us the half-day experience, about 3 hours, which would still allow us to handle the birds. We got started right away and met Warren, our wonderful guide, who is himself a falconer. He walked us through the aviary, where some beautiful (but not for handling) birds are kept, including a Golden Eagle and a number of vultures. After that, he took us to the area where the smaller birds are tethered, historically referred to as the “mews”.
Dexter in the foreground, with his siblings, in the Mews
Equipped with our heavy leather gloves, we learned how to move the birds on to our hands. We were able to handle three owls, a hawk and a falcon over the course of the day. With each bird, Warren shared information about both the species and the individual animal. Some had been “imprinted”, raised by the Center’s staff, often for the animal’s own protection. We learned about how and what the birds hunt, and how their physical features – feather shape, coloring, and face shape – give them advantages as predators.
I had confessed to Warren early on that I was afraid of birds. His somewhat puzzled response was, “Why would you be afraid of birds? Be afraid of people.” By the end of the day, Warren admitted that if I hadn’t told him of my fear, he wouldn’t have known I was afraid at all. This is in part a credit to Warren, who was so calm, confident, and knowledgeable that he made the day a delight, and made the animals so interesting that I forgot to be afraid. Most fears are, one way or another, based in ignorance. A little information (no, the birds aren’t going to peck your eyes out) can go a long way towards reducing fear.
My husband also gets credit, since this is something I would NEVER have done on my own. His love of animals and his excitement for the falconry experience were encouraging. I wanted him to enjoy the day, and not have to deal with me whimpering or freaking out.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to race into Trafalgar Square with a handful of bread and let pigeons land on me. They are dirty, dirty birds. And I’m probably not going to become a full time falconer. Still, I’m proud of myself for using the opportunity as well and as fully as I could. It’s not every day you face a fear head-on. I was able to literally take my fear into my hands, and examine it up close, and maybe come to understand it – and myself – a little more deeply.