Every now and then someone asks me how I like keeping a hawk or falcon as a pet. I appreciate the sentiment. Pets are popular, and with good reason. They can be loyal. They provide comfort and companionship, even love for many of us. The dictionary defines a pet as “any domesticated or tamed animal that is kept as a companion and cared for affectionately.”
I care for my hawk. We develop a close bond. Some might even call it love. But falconers are not pet-keepers. A falconry bird is not a toy or a pastime, or even a constant companion, and the bond I form with my hawk looks entirely different from the bond I form, say, with my pet dogs.
In the wild, birds of prey hunt to survive. The falcon kills, not for pleasure, but to eat. The kill doesn’t stem from avarice or malice. The bird doesn’t exploit a natural resource on some mercurial whim. Falconry has been defined as the taking of wild game with a bird of prey. Falconry is a hunting sport because it seeks to protect the wild nature of a hawk while working to preserve the species.
The successful falconer earns the trust of his or her bird, helping to further develop the hawk’s natural capabilities. Like working with a boxer facing the element of danger in the ring, the falconer walks the razor’s edge of regularly allowing a captive bird to fly free and hunt. The hawk may just decide to fly away. Or worse—in the wild death can sometimes come as suddenly and unexpectedly to the predator as it does to the prey. The magic and allure of falconry rests on this precarious balance. Every time the falconer allows a bird to slip free of the glove, he or she understands it might be the last.
Why do we do it? Why do falconers accept such a risk, especially when they devote so much time, energy, and even obsession to their birds?
For me, the answer is simple. Because the wild spirit of a falcon or a hawk is precious beyond words. Something no one can ever truly possess. Even the hawk herself seems only its temporary vessel. She is not a tame falcon.
Maybe all of us can learn a lesson from the hawk and the falconer.
Are we to be merely pets in this life? Kept dependent and well fed by our keepers, whatever and whomever they may be? Or are we, like the hawk, created for something greater—reaching out to a higher, wilder power, that calls us to our better selves?
We all want the hawk has: freedom. But freedom is not coercion in the guise of protection from some outside force, be it a company, government, or religion—being bound, as it were, to the falconer’s glove. Nor is freedom to be found in a politician’s promises, a good pension, and a long, fat life. True freedom comes only from inspired self-control.
Will the choices you make this day lead you plodding onward, accepting safety and mediocrity as your fate? Or will they lead you, tethered only by faith, somewhere into the wild?
Knowing the buoyant release of uncertainty. Braving the cold wind.
Believing you’d rather die really learning to live than fading into the ashen emptiness of the absence of flight.
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