Finding hawk parallax at Ontario’s Falconry Centre.
Every week or so during the summer months, I drive my nine-year-old son Joseph to a woodlot an hour away, near a conservation trail in Newcastle, Ontario. There, Sam Trentadue, his falconry mentor and the force behind the Ontario Falconry Centre (OFC), shows him how to offer a Harris Hawk her first live kill: a pigeon.
Joseph stands resolute and alert as the hawk swoops toward him from her high ring perch about 20 feet away, her four-foot wingspan materializing miraculously from her 780-gram body. As Trentadue has instructed, Joseph gives a sharp tug on the lure holding the pigeon, which has been lying still near Joseph’s feet. The tug excites movement from the bird and keeps the hawk focused.
This isn’t the first time I’ve stared on in breathless amazement as my son engages with birds of prey with respectful, cautious confidence. Is this the same kid who seldom speaks up in class, doubting his academic intelligence to the quick?
The same kid who had an existential crisis playing baseball, standing in the middle of the outfield, a ball hurtling toward him, screaming, “What’s the point of any of this?”
“Mom, look!” Joseph shouts over his shoulder as he watches the hawk mantle around his kill. Mantling, Trentadue had explained to us during our first workshop with him, is how these birds protect their meal.
They spread their wings wide, encircling the food to guard it against possible poachers.
Joseph is a falconry apprentice. After seeing a falconer during a Medieval Times show in Toronto, he was enraptured. While falconers do not abound in Ontario, I found Trentadue easily enough and set up an OFC workshop for our family in mid-April.
Two of my four children–the youngest two–were so frightened by the birds they spent the workshop in the van with my husband.
She’d probably try to tear my face off.-Sam Trentadue, Ontario’s Falconry Centre
Joseph, who was eight-years-old at the time, and my eldest daughter stayed the course, feeding hawks, eagles and owls meaty chunks of quail from their gloved hands.
But while my daughter meandered back to the van to listen to a Taylor Swift CD after the workshop, Joseph stayed, following Trentadue around as he packed up the birds, asking dozens of questions.
“What were those small, yellow balloon-like balls that the birds didn’t eat?”
“Eggs,” Trentadue explained, picking up a massive golden eagle who had fallen off her perch.
“We feed the birds spent hens, so they have multiple eggs still in them.”
“And what would happen if you took off her hood right now?” Joseph probed, nodding to the eagle Sam had just sat back on the rail.
The hoods are fastened over the birds’ heads, covering their eyes when they aren’t flying. This gear helps calm the birds and protects the handlers.
“She’d probably try to tear my face off,” Trentadue answered.
“Again,” he added, pointing to a blood-crusted scab running from his lip to about an inch up his cheek.
He had told us of how he’d put his face too close to the eagle and she’d made a grab for his mouth, ripping through his skin with her sharp, powerful beak.
It was a stupid mistake, Trentadue said. He’d known better. The same eagle had taken down a coyote a few weeks before, and another had put her talons right through Sam’s forearm.
There are a few birds Trentadue admits he won’t fly alone; they’re that dangerous.
He reassured me and Joseph: just follow the rules, stay vigilant and there’s little chance of getting hurt.
During that first workshop, Trentadue also explained that movies like Harry Potter had made owning owls and other birds of prey trendy but most of the new bird owners were in over their heads.
Eagles, hawks and owls are demanding, temperamental and highly aggressive animals–the closest living relatives to coelurosaurian dinosaurs. A few of his roughly 100 birds have been surrendered by people who could not care for them. Trentadue works with these birds toward their readjustment and eventual return to their owners or release.
Many of his other birds have been brought in by wildlife officials when they’ve been hit by vehicles. Some can be released with time and others are not fit to roam free again, whether it be because of their age and circumstances when they were brought in or because of the nature of their injuries.
Young male Harris hawks are particularly prone to injury. Like most young males, they’re stupid, he joked.
These are deadly animals and they’d kill you given the chance.-Sam Trentadue, Ontario’s Falconry Centre
It’s easy to laugh with Trentadue. He has an unpretentious, rough charm that helps you feel comfortable around these prehistoric-looking raptors.
“But remember these aren’t pets,” he told Joseph again. “These are deadly animals and they’d kill you given the chance.”
The eagle he’d sat back on her perch screamed.
“This one acts like I’m the bane of her existence,” Trentadue said, stroking her breast feathers. “She’s probably right.”
I have mixed feelings about keeping these terrifying, beautiful creatures bonded and contained. From an education and conservation standpoint, I can see how the practice of falconry has merit, but I’m also left with the same feeling I had after swimming with dolphins in Cuba: just let them go.
Suffice it to say I haven’t made any peace with the ethical implications of falconry.
My son, on the other hand, addressed my concern frankly.
“Mom,” he said, sounding a little exasperated.
“I don’t know how to explain it but the world feels better after being with the birds.”
Letting my son handle birds of prey is hardly a decision I take lightly. However, Trentadue is a diligent teacher and this activity, in one summer, caused less physical harm than most kids experience in a week of playing rec hockey or football.
And by less injury I mean none. Joseph has left each session with nary a scratch.
That doesn’t mean that injury won’t happen, only that there’s an element of risk to everything and Joseph is learning how to manage that risk by forming respectful relationships within the natural world.
Of course, I still worry. But as I see my son come into his own under Trentadue’s careful tutelage, I see there is far more to gain than to lose.
After that initial workshop, I’d emailed Sam and asked to set up another, just for Joseph. He replied, “How about he just comes and helps me with the next workshop?”
By the end of that session, Trentadue had given Joseph his own falconer’s glove.
When I asked if I could pay for lessons, he offered to take Joseph on as an apprentice–an honour considering many falconers don’t take apprentices and Trentadue hadn’t had one in years. Joseph would help him prepare the workshops and clean up afterwards. While doing so, he would learn about falconry.
“Are you sure?” I’d asked, elated but also feeling that the opportunity was too good to be true. My son, who often felt so out of place in much of his day-to-day world, would have a place to feel confident and more like himself–more like the person he wants to be.
“Sure,” Trentadue said, unleashing another easy smile. “He’s got the passion. Reminds me a lot of myself at his age.”
“Sam had a sparrow hawk at my age!” Joseph interjected, beaming.
I think of how kids at his school have called his smile creepy. It’s not his real smile they’re referring to. It’s a facial tic he’s had since he was a toddler.
While his real smile is unrestrained and breathtaking, his tic smile is anguished and strained–an unconscious muscular reaction to feelings of discomfort or stress.
I think of how much I see him smile, really smile, when he’s training with Trentadue.
American climber and noted outdoor educator, Willi Unsoeld once said, “You go to nature for your metaphysical fix–your reassurance that the world makes sense. It’s reassurance that there’s something behind it all and it’s good, you come back to where people are, to where people are messing things up, because people tend to, and you come back with new ability to relate to your fellow [people] and to help your fellow [people] relate to each other.”
I looked at Joseph standing there smiling in the sun-washed clearing, gently petting the great horned owl he was returning to her carrier.
“Huh, Mom? Whaddya say? A sparrow hawk?” He raised his eyebrows at me in a teasing, expectant wiggle. “They’re so small, you won’t even notice one.”
I beamed right back at him. “I say don’t get ahead of yourself, kid.”
Learn more about Sam Trentadue and the Ontario Falconry Centre. Visit the OFC website here for details about their workshops and events. You can also like and follow along at the Ontario Falconry Centre Facebook page.
/// Hollay Ghadery is a writer and mother of four young children, living in small-town Ontario. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in various literary journals, including the Malahat Review, Room, Grain, and The Fiddlehead. Look for her upcoming book of non-fiction coming out with Guernica Editions’ MiroLand imprint in 2021. Follow Hollay on Instagram: @hollayghadery or Facebook @hollayghaderywriter. ///