Published: Saturday, May 19, 2012, 9:00 AM Updated: Saturday, May 19, 2012, 9:21 AM
BY: BECKIE ELGIN
Orion, a golden eagle, steps onto my daughter’s gloved fist. Years ago, his shoulder was damaged after he was buffeted by the wind created by a speeding truck. Now he sweeps the air with his dark wings. Hannah, a volunteer at Cascades Raptor Center in Eugene, tightens her hold on his jesses, the leather straps attached to his feet.
Watching my daughter with these birds triggers recollections that come like snapshots, as if I’ve opened a dusty box filled with black and whites. In a memory that’s more image than thought, I see my father, a longtime falconer, holding his golden eagle, a magnificent female named Morticia, at our home in Iowa.
I’m about 6. My parents had left us with a baby sitter for a rare night out. I took a disliking to the sitter, escaped from the house and ran into my dad’s “hawk yard,” where I planted myself beside Morticia. The sitter, intimidated by the imposing golden eagle, stood outside the gate, begging me to come inside. But I stayed there, cross-legged on the grass, until my folks returned a few hours later.
My dad strode into the hawk yard, dressed in suit jacket, tie and pressed pants. He was the one who delivered punishment in our family, although never severe, and I knew I stood to be in a world of trouble for my rude behavior. But when I looked up at him he smiled, picked me up and carried me inside.
My dad understood why one would seek refuge in the venerable presence of a golden eagle.
It is Saturday afternoon at the raptor center and time for a handler talk. Kali, one of two turkey vultures at the center, stands on a perch beneath the podium while Hannah tells the audience about these carrion-eating raptors. The opening on Kali’s beak (resembling a tribal piercing without the jewelry), serves to enhance her sense of smell, we are told.
We also learn that vultures urinate down their legs to wash off bacteria and to cool off on hot days.
And if flying away on a moment’s notice is necessary, turkey vultures vomit so the meal doesn’t weigh them down.
Lethe, the other turkey vulture, was released in a state park when he was a young bird but had to be returned to captivity because he persisted in flying down and playing with the shoelaces of very surprised people.
My father fed his falcon while patiently explaining to me, tearful over the death of a pigeon, that some animals must eat other animals to survive.
The peregrine falcon was my dad’s favorite bird. I recall him training her in a large Iowa cornfield, the corn long gone. He circled the long line of his lure over his head like a lasso as the falcon flew above him, sometimes so far she could barely be seen. Then he let the end of the lure drop to the ground, and the falcon dived for it.
Swooping peregrines have been clocked at 242 mph. She looked like a missile descending from the heavens as her dark form, wings tucked, catapulted downward. Just before hitting the lure, she slowed, raised her feet, and landed with talons outstretched. My dad, thrilled by her performance, hurried to reward the falcon with bits of meat.
On a perch beneath the podium is Freyja, a stunning peregrine. Once she was a falconer’s bird, but the Cascades Raptor Center has been her home since 2009. Suddenly, Freyja shakes like a dog and fluffs out her feathers, softening her sleek, compact form. Hannah explains to visitors that she is “rousing,” an indication that she is calm and comfortable, a well-cared-for bird at the raptor center.
And no wonder. Hannah pulls a dead quail out of the small black box belted to her side and hands it to Freyja. Holding the bird in her sharp talons, Freyja plucks away with her beak, removing feathers, then choice bits of flesh and other body parts. Some visitors (myself included) turn away when she extracts a long strand of intestine and it dangles from her beak. With Hannah’s help, Freyja manages to get the guts into her mouth, then she swallows them.
My father spared nothing in the care of his birds, and he became deeply attached to them. Once, sitting perched in a tree like a bird myself, I observed a training session with a young prairie falcon. The falcon circled above while my dad swung the lure, but suddenly the bird left the gyre of the circle and flew in a beeline toward a stand of trees at the field’s edge. My dad ran in pursuit, whistling and twirling the lure. The prairie falcon paused at the top of a tall tree, then flew off, disappearing from sight. The bird was eventually retrieved, but in falconry, there is a fine line between freedom and captivity.
When visiting Iowa, Hannah sat with my dad around the round oak table at my parents’ home and they talked about raptors and the sport of falconry.
Hannah and her grandfather had plans to make falcon hoods together. I’d watched him make hoods when I was a child. He’d cut the leather and mold it over cast-iron forms, a different form for each type of raptor. Then he sewed the sections of leather together with a large needle. The final touch was a plume of decorative feathers on the top. My dad died in September 2010 after suffering a stroke, never having the chance to make hoods with Hannah or to come to Oregon to see his granddaughter with the birds they both revered.
Cascades Raptor Center
Hannah Hartsell and the other 80-some volunteers plus a paid staff of three care for more than 60 resident birds, most of them injured. Open to visitors year-round, CRC is a great place to learn about raptors — birds of prey that hunt using their feet.
Last year, the center treated a record 248 raptors after the birds flew into windows, were hit by vehicles, fell out of nests or were illegally shot. Local veterinarians volunteer their services but most treatments are performed by the staff, under the guidance of Louise Shimmel, a raptor authority who opened the center in 1987.
The three-acre facility relies on admission fees, donations, memberships and fundraising to meet expenses, including an annual food budget for the birds of nearly $40,000.
Info: 541-485-1320; www.eraptors.org