Tethered by Respect

Braelei Hardt with her red-tailed hawk Inanna

It was a chill December day in Eugene. I was with my falconry sponsor, Christian Fox, who was there in the park with me to observe a training session. I had been training Inanna, my 3-pound red-tailed hawk for about three weeks. Chris was evaluating whether she was ready to come off the creance (a fancy term for a training leash) and fly free. Once the bird is off the creance, there is no way to retrieve her if she should refuse to come to my call.

Our bond, essentially, would be the only tether between us.

The initial test was a disappointment. She came to my whistle with extreme latency when she should have come instantly. I felt ashamed — like a failure. Chris, however, saw potential where I had not. Without notice, he unhooked Inanna from the creance, grabbed her by the ankles, and flung her into the sky.

My heart leapt into my throat. I watched her, baffled, as she faltered in the air then soared to the top of a 50-foot tree. I began to panic. It was as if Chris had taken the training wheels off my bike before I could ride. Alarming thoughts raced through my head. What if she didn’t come back? What if she flew off, never to be seen again? All of my work, all of my devotion, would be wasted.

“Give it a try,” Chris encouraged, a sly grin plastered across his lips. Tentatively, I lifted my gloved fist and swallowed hard. I blew the whistle.

The park was instantly filled with the sound of tinkling bells (secured to her ankles as a type of locator) as Inanna took wing and then dropped like a stone toward me, pulling up at the last second and landing gently, as if she were no heavier than a hummingbird.

She plucked her reward — a bit of rabbit meat — from between my fingers and swallowed it whole. Then she sat. She just sat, perfectly content.

I stared on, the whistle still hanging between my lips. Here was this beautiful, powerful creature, a wild hunter no more than three weeks ago, coming on command. She could have just as easily left me standing there, dumbfounded, and returned to the wild.

The bond forged that day was of a rare breed. One, I would say, that could only be formed between a falconer and her bird. One that can rarely be found between two people, or even two animals. A partnership. Mutually beneficial and boiling over with respect.

Braelei Hardt is a freshman in the University Honors College majoring in zoology.