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Monday, February 7, 2011

Entrapment in the Valley…

Cloud Art

A couple days ago Gladys and I were creeping (and creaking) along the Loop Road, had just passed Sargent Road, when I noticed a silver pickup parked next to the calf pens at the Werkhoven Dairy. A young fellow was unloading wooden framework from the truck bed and appeared to be constructing some sort of poultry coop. One wobbly U-turn brings us to a stop behind a silver Toyota. Although I haven’t seen one since I left the orchards of Eastern Washington, I immediately recognize the project under construction. “Is that a starling trap?” I asked, interrupting the man at work. “Yes,” the young man replies. “You know, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen one of those,” I say. “If there’s one thing the Werkhovens have more of than dairy cattle, it’s starlings,”I joke, thinking of the swarms of birds that daily circle the dairy like greedy thunderclouds.

This spot next to the calf pens seems to be a hotbed for avian news. It was here I met the birder Marv Breece last April (see post 4/18 “Four and Twenty Blackbirds”). Marv was sorting out the rare Rusty Blackbird from among the throngs of Redwings,  Brewer’s, crows and starlings foraging around the calf pens. Today I meet Toby Cantwell, falconer. He and his three young daughters have come to the Valley for entrapment. Starlings are the target bird; these bothersome immigrants will provide both food and training material for Toby’s hawks.

“So, got hawks, do you?” I ask. Toby has two presently, a Red-Tailed hawk and a little kestrel, he tells me. He hopes to train the kestrel to hunt starlings. The kestrel had suffered a broken leg, and Toby nursed the little hawk back to hunting health. He has friends in Eastern Washington who run a Raptor Rehab clinic for injured hawks and owls. Toby gets some of his hawks from the rehab center. He trains and hunts them for a few years, then returns the birds to the wild.

Falconry has always interested me. I’ve read about and studied it some over the years. In medieval times hawking was the sport of kings, aristocrats, and men of means and leisure. Toby is proof the sport is still practiced today, but because raptors are protected, I’m sure the pastime is strictly regulated.

Shakespeare, in Elizabethan times, referenced the sport in several of his plays. One such allusion immediately comes to mind: Lady Capulet says of her daughter who is grieving Romeo’s banishment: “Tonight she is mewed up to her heaviness (R & J, III, iv, l.11. “Mews” is an enclosure or coop where hawks were kept). I either read about or heard it said somewhere that the character Petruchio used the same technique as falconers employed to train their hawks to “tame” the shrewish Katherine in the Bard’s play Taming of the Shrew. 

Falconry was among my dad’s many interests. Although Dad tried to capture hawks, the closest he came to becoming a falconer was to craft a couple small deerskin hoods to shroud a hawk’s head should he ever capture one. I even built a hawk trap, baited it with a live pigeon, fashioned a sagebrush blind out in a wheat field and waited for some Red-tailed or Northern harrier to swoop down and entangle itself in my snare. I knew raptors were keen of sight and thought I was well-hidden underneath that pile of brush, but I’m sure I was found out. Even though the near-white pigeon was a sitting duck, all I got for my troubles was a few scratches from the sagebrush and a bout of sneezing when my allergies protested the sage.

But I did catch a hawk here on the place a few years back, a Cooper’s hawk, and by accident, of course. Mr. Cooper chased a spring robin into the netting tent I had erected to protect my blueberry crop, so there’s a bit of irony in this story. I had removed one section of tent to access the berries, and it was through this opening the hawk pursued the robin. I discovered Mr. Cooper crouched down in a nest of redbreast feathers. He’d finished his feast but couldn’t locate the exit and for the moment was trapped. I ran to the house for the camera, returned and snapped the attached photo of one very unhappy hawk. When I tried for a close-up shot, Mr. C  would have none of it, turned tail to put some distance between us and found the exit he’d been looking for. He fled to a nearby tree where he caught his breath and then having had his feast --but not without adventure-- hastily fled.Mr. Cooper, robin slayerToby and I exchange hawk tales. The Valley, I tell him, is a haven for raptors. Nothing new to Toby as he makes frequent forays here on hawk business. His owning an American kestrel prompts me to tell him of the little hawks I see perched on the power lines out in the Valley. He knows about them, most likely has seen the same ones as I. Just the day before, I tell him I noted one on the wires between the Broers’ places (they frequently patrol the berry fields along that stretch). This little raptor appeared to have an unusually long tail, as if it somehow had acquired tail feather extensions. As I rode by, I noticed the extra feathers had the tail markings of a junco. The kestrel had just caught his lunch and was about to serve it up.

Toby shares more of his experiences with hawks. He uses special traps to catch them, baits the traps with mice.The falcons swoop down on their prey and become enmeshed in a special net that covers the bait enclosure. Toby tells me one time he was called out to trap a Cooper’s hawk feasting on a flock of hatchery California quail that had escaped their pens, taken up residence in the neighborhood, had propagated and thrived there. Mr.Cooper had devised an ingenious way of catching a meal. He would make his presence known to the covey which would immediately seek cover in the bushes. The hawk would then alight, walk into the bushes, and flush the quail, who would take flight in panic and fly into the windowpanes of the adjacent house. Mr. Cooper would saunter over, scoop up the nearest stunned victim in his talons and make off with it. “That’s one smart hawk,” I say. Toby laughs and nods in agreement.

I relate the story of the gyrfalcon, escapee from the Woodland Park Zoo, and how the keepers used a tracking device to locate the fugitive. Toby responds with his own story about a peregrine falcon he once owned. Peregrine falcons are the world’s fastest bird. They hunt on high and dive on their prey, knocking it out of the air, sending it plummeting to earth. A peregrine falcon in its “stoop,” a falconer’s term for a hawk’s dive, achieves speeds of nearly 200 mph. Being struck by any object traveling that speed would raise quite a bump on anything, don’t you think? Toby was hunting the peregrine one day when the hawk, flying high overhead, disappeared from sight. He was able to locate the bird days later using a monitoring device much like the one used to recover the zoo’s gyrfalcon from the Valley. The hawk had killed a duck on a farm miles away and had stayed over for two days while it finished the leftovers.

I can see Toby is anxious to finish constructing his project, a homemade one that consisted of collapsible panels of wood and chicken wire for easy assembly and knock down, a portable trap easily transported to starling country. He agrees to a brief work stoppage to pose for a Ripple photograph along with his oldest daughter Cadence, but only after an apology for the statement on his sweat shirt. I tell him journalists by trade are impartial gatherers of news, and if he’s bold enough to flaunt his allegiances on enemy turf, he’d have no grief from me.   Toby Cantwell, falconerToby was an interesting fellow and I enjoyed our hawk talk. Toby, may your traps never be empty and your hawks never grow hungry. And the next time I see a cloud of starlings circling the dairy barns, I hope to see them flying the “missing man (men…) formation!”

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1 comment:

  1. 'Tis a small world! Toby is married to a friend of mine from high school. :) Sounds like a fun job to do!!