Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Seasons change

My young Harris, Ernie, has been gaining weight on a steady diet of thawed cotton rats, the by-product of six months' field work on birds and rabbits---His first season of falconry ended two weeks ago.

Today Ernie is almost 200 grams over hunting weight (which, he being such a tame hawk, was never very low); and yesterday he dropped his first wing feather of the molt, a rough-edged and faded secondary.

A Harris hawk's transformation over its first summer is profound. Ernie will morph from mottled brown to mostly black, with a white tail tip and the ochre epaulettes that give his kind its other common name, the Baywinged hawk. His adult feathers will also be shorter and stiffer, boosting his acceleration and maneuverability.

And Ernie's voice will change, growing deeper in a funny parallel to human adolescence.

What he will think about over the molt is anyone's guess. Many falconers believe hawks spend this time re-evaluating the past season like armchair quarterbacks, thinking up ways to better their game. The often improved performance of adult birds seems to bear out this theory.

I'm not sure. I think full bellies and warm sunshine make the molt sort of a spa experience for off duty hawks, and that little crosses their mind but preening, bathing and sleeping.

But there is a lot to look at in the antics of breeding red-shouldered hawks, who copulate in the limbs above my hawk's weathering pen. There is the coming fullness of spring foliage and the curious fast-growing plants (tomatoes) that will soon climb up from their beds nearby. Always there will be more food---birds, rats, medallions of squirrel, rabbit heads and turkey necks. There will be a cool bath drawn about every other day and plenty of time to soak his feet in it and sip from its edge.

After the heat of summer peaks in early August, the rations will be reduced by a few grams each day until Ernie returns to his former proportions. He will think then more keenly about food. He will watch the young House sparrows closely in hopes one will stumble through the wire and fall beside him---at least one does every year, although they continue to nest in the roof vent above the weathering yard and feather their nests with Ernie's molted down.

My friend Buddy Ethridge just sent a few pictures from one of the season's last hunts. I think Buddy captured something special about Harris hawks that day, their intelligent and expressive faces, all of them similar in that way, and all of them different.