Nancy Cowan and Elsa Lichman with falcon
Elsa Lichman learns falconry with Nancy Cowan at her school in New Hampshire. (Courtesy of Nancy Cowan, New Hampshire School of Falconry)

“Oh, the Falcon was a Pretty Bird”: This is the title of a haunting song by Richard and Mimi Farina, about the nature of falcons in partnership with humans, in the ancient art and sport of falconry. I had the great pleasure of taking a beginner class with Nancy Cowan at her school in New Hampshire. It turns out that I was the only student that day!

We entered a small greenhouse where the falcon was tied and perched. Nancy proceeded to lecture on all aspects of falcons, birds of prey, and falconry. But I was smitten by this exquisite bird, with its dark head, black patches of facial markings, striated white and black breast, enormous yellow-rimmed eyes, neon yellow feet, and  black-tipped hooked beak. It was love at first sight. I could not concentrate, and soon discovered there was a quiz at the end. By some twist of fate, I answered correctly, as my teacher was a force. 

We moved on to my kneeling down, left hand gloved, and encouraging the bird to sit on the glove. But it bated, a dreaded yanking away on the leash and landing on the floor. Finally I got the hang of it, and the three of us formed a peaceful tableau. 

We then went out to view her large collection of raptors, each ensconced in its own small aviary/house. There was an enormous variety of species from all over. And I met Scout, my field partner, a Harris’ hawk in shades of rusty brown with pure white at the tips of its tail feathers. I had my glove, the bird was loose in a tree, and I was instructed to turn my back to the bird, hold out my arm, and signal that the prey in my glove was ready for the taking. I could not see the bird take off or approach, and it was terrifying not to know when or how that “whap” of a landing would occur. It landed, and as I looked, I held my hand as far away from me as possible. I am so glad that I learned much later, in her magnificent book “Peregrine Spring,” that this stance was protective, as raptors in the wild kill prey by thrusting their steely talons into the eye sockets!  

Sadly, I recently learned that during the height of the pandemic Nancy contracted COVID-19 and passed four days later. It was even more shocking as she was so powerful and brave, choosing a difficult life path. Her husband is still keeping the school alive. 

I have also seen falcons in the wild, or in the city, where they roost and nest on tall buildings, or outcrops, or even stand on the small copper ball at the top of a turret at the Waltham Watch Factory. I have seen them nesting on a tall cliff, at a former local quarry, in a niche in the rock face. And was able to watch as fluffy white chicks explored the area around the nest before fledging, ie, leaving the nest. 

MassWildlife has a falconry section which bands falcon chicks, as these birds are labeled “of special concern.” One bander told me he was on a flat rooftop carrying out his function when he was dive-bombed by the mother so many times he had to bag her,” i.e., put her in a safe bag for the duration. Banded birds can then be spotted, and possibly photographed, as a way of tracking their movements. If the nest is high on a rock face, some banders have utilized rock climbing gear to rappel down to the nest to band the chicks.  

David Allen Sibley, artist, writer, and ornithologist, describes the falcon as the fastest animal on the planet, reaching speeds of at least 242 mph, as they tuck in their wings and dive from great heights to knock their prey out of the sky. This is called a stoop. They have special features enabling them to do this, such as very stiff and sleek feathers and a modified nostril which makes it possible to breathe at top speed. Despite their light weight, they can kill a much larger bird due to the ferocious speed, then go to the ground to feast. One source reports that they are successful 20 percent of the time when hunting. 

One gray day, I see a falcon, almost in silhouette, at the top of a branch of a dead tree by the river. It looks sated, as its crop appears full, and when departing hours later, I see that it is still there, probably digesting. I also have the timely opportunity to observe a falcon dive fast to the ground to hit a small junco, then fly up with it, in an instant. 

There is so much to learn about the birds right around us; we need to be alert to climate change, and manmade dangers which have greatly reduced the numbers of birds on the planet. Preserving and protecting habitat, dimming city lights at night during migration, planting native species, avoiding pesticides, and protecting our planet from plastics are all key to preserving what we have left. 

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  1. Very interesting column, Elsa. My husband learned Falconry in New Hampshire, where he attended a private high school. I don’t think I have ever seen one close-up. I appreciated the photo and your descriptions. We also get Junkos here in the winter. I know that we all need to eat, but the image of the falcon swooping down for the Junko made me sad. Thanks for this column!

  2. What a wonderful experience Elsa. Such joy to behold in our surroundings. The falcon is a fascinating bird. I so look forward to your columns. We are lucky to have you.

  3. So poignant and interesting, Elsa not only writes lovely poetry, etc., but incorporates lots of very important information about the subject matter, little did I know several facts about the species. Thank you, Elsa I enjoy your writing’s immensely!

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