My day with the queens of the skies
There’s a large black box that’s emitting high piercing calls. It’s the eerie noise you normally associate with wildlife films, or the bit in a western when all hope is lost. But, rather incongruously, we’re in a field near Nottingham, next to a caravan park.
Chris Miller, a falconer with more than 40 years’ experience with birds of prey, has brought a couple of his birds for me to meet and learn to handle, before we take one hunting in local woods for the afternoon.
Chris is a big man, but even he seems dwarfed by the feathered monster that emerges from the box. Skye is a 12-year-old golden eagle, 14lb of precision-engineered killing machine. She looks around her, spots me in my pink jacket and flaps her enormous wings with horror. I am not the colour of the countryside. Chris turns away, crooning into her ear as he pops a leather hood over her head, covering her eyes. It’s the traditional way to keep hunting birds quiet before they’re released to fly. Skye immediately settles on to his gloved arm, and he kisses her on the beak. It’s like watching someone kiss a lion on the teeth.
I’m no expert in bird body language, but clearly these two have an extraordinary bond. “She’s not imprinted, but she is bonded to me. She trusts me, and will listen out for where I am.” Now that Skye is calm, Chris hands me an elk-hide gauntlet and shows me how to safely bring the bird on to my left arm, and thread her leather ankle straps, known as jesses, through my fingers so she’s secure. I realise that I missed a trick not doing preparatory weight training.
With my elbow tucked into my waist to support her weight, her head is centimetres from my nose and when she opens her 6ft 6in wings, they sweep behind my head and extend way beyond my shoulder. I’m surrounded.
I’ve never felt nervous near birds before, but having such a long, curving beak attached to such a powerful creature in striking distance of my face is unsettling. Chris laughs. “It’s not her beak you need to watch out for, it’s her talons. She’s a raptor – they hunt and kill with their feet.”
Female eagles as big as Skye are capable of taking down prey species that are up to 10 times their body weight. Doesn’t that mean she’s a risk to people? “Not unless you’re covered in fur and running around on all fours!” Chris reassures me. Birds of prey aren’t “trained” in the usual sense, it’s more that we exploit their natural instincts. “The only thing you can train a bird of prey to do is to come to your fist for food. You can’t teach it to hunt – that’s pure instinct. They won’t ever go for quarry that isn’t a natural food source.”
It’s illegal to take birds of prey from the wild, so all birds used for falconry in the UK have been captive-reared. These are not quirky pets, though, and as I learn about feeding regimes, the space required for pens, the need to secure permission to fly your birds over suitable land for exercise, it’s clear that falconry is not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle choice.
Suddenly Chris calls for me to put my elbow down. Without realising, my arm has started to flag, my hand has dropped and Skye is sidestepping up the gauntlet towards my elbow, manoeuvring to the high point of her “perch”.
Her talons can exert a pressure of more than 400psi. And, like other birds of prey, eagles’ leg bones and tendons have an inbuilt ratchet, so once they lock their grip, it can be maintained, or tightened, with little effort. It means that if her talons go into my arm, she can keep them in there indefinitely.
Before she walks off the leather and on to (or, more specifically, into) my flesh, Chris is correcting my position to the safe, horizontal grip that settles her.
It’s a magical, if slightly hair-raising introduction to handson falconry. Hunting with the eagles is normally on extended trips to much bigger country, particularly for hares and foxes during the winter in Scotland. With an aching arm and a racing heart, I swap Skye for the bird we’re going to hunt with today.
Banshee, a Harris hawk, has beautiful, burnished conkercoloured wings, and bright, intelligent eyes. She’s also not a fan of my coat, but under Chris’s watchful eye we get acquainted safely. These hawks’ compact, rounded wings give them great agility in flight, making them perfectly designed to hunt in woodland for smaller quarry like rabbits and pheasants.
Banshee was bred and reared by Chris, and as we walk towards the beech wood she keeps pace with him, swooping from the rooftop of a barn to a telegraph pole, to the branch of a tree ahead. She has a small bell attached to her jesses, so we can keep track of where she is. At one point she lags behind and Chris whistles and calls her name. She launches herself towards us, swooping straight to his glove, taking the offered piece of raw chicken, then soaring up again to scout ahead.
Banshee is at her ideal flying weight, close to what she would maintain if she were in the wild – lean and hungry enough to hunt. There are only a few ounces between a bird’s flying weight and them being either under- or overweight – it’s experience and training that gives a good falconer the skill to judge it.
As we walk into the wood, the hawk’s bell tinkles ahead of us. “Ah, she’s on to something,” Chris whispers, and we hear the rattle of pheasant wings. Chris sets off through the undergrowth – it’s essential we keep up with Banshee
Chris Miller offers hunting days and Birds of Prey experience days, as well as multi-day hunting trips to Scotland and on the continent. A half-day hunting costs from £60, a walk with hawks costs £75 for five people. Chris is also an approved training provider for the industry-recognised Lantra Falconry Award. chrismillerfalconry.co.uk so that if she catches the pheasant we can get to it quickly, dispatch it if necessary, then swap her quarry for a food reward.
But this time the pheasant gains enough height to escape the hawk’s talons. Harris hawks catch their prey low to the ground so once the pheasant is up in the air, it’s safe.
Chris is philosophical. “Hunting with hawks is quality not quantity. If you want to kill lots of pheasants, go to a shoot. If the appeal is working the birds, maintaining the heritage and sport of falconry, and getting something for the pot, then you can’t beat a day hawking.”
We have a couple more nearmisses with pheasants, and I get to practise my falconer’s skills, letting Banshee fly off my glove (known as “casting off”, or “slipping”), and beckoning her back from the canopy of trees with a meaty morsel.
As the afternoon light fades, we call her back for the last time. Banshee happily lets me secure her jesses around my fingers in exchange for a delicious raw chicken wing.
I’m not disappointed that we didn’t get a pheasant. This is an exercise in sustainable, local food gathering, not gratuitous bloodlust. If the quarry doesn’t end up in the cooking pot, it goes to the birds. Nothing gets wasted. It’s clear that Chris operates in the best tradition of countryside stewardship.
In 2010, falconry was recognised by UNESCO as cultural heritage that must be protected. The skills of this ancient and challenging art have been taught for at least 200 generations, and it’s a sport that has shaped the English language (putting a feather in your cap, being fed up, crying havoc and being hoodwinked are all falconry expressions) and landscape and even international politics. Hawking may not be the easiest thing I’ve tried, but it’s one of the most enthralling.
Britain’s got talons: falconer Chris Miller
introduces MaryAnn to Skye, above; hunting for pheasants with Banshee, below