My wife and I recently had the pleasure of meeting a really sweet young lady by the name of Saylor Ferguson. We first came to meet her when she attended one of our 2hr. falconry experiences. I was told by her mother that she was infatuated with birds of prey and she was really excited about coming to see our program. I had no idea at the time just how interested she was, and is, and what a fascinating young lady she is. We were contacted shortly after she had attended the program with a request for a guided hunting experience.
Saylor and her father attended and my wife and I fell in love with them both immediately.
I cannot say enough about how refreshing it is to meet a sixteen year old girl who has respect, drive, motivation, and an understanding of where she wants to go in life and the diligence to get there. This is all evident with Saylor because it is obvious of where she comes from. It becomes very clear when you meet or speak to her parents that she has been, and is being, raised the way children should be.
Saylor has made it evident that she one day aspires to become a falconer herself, (after college, her dad and I have agreed) and I have no dought she will be a great one.
Saylor wishes to become a writer one day and after her first hunt she went home and wrote a story about the days events and what she witnessed. My wife Sommer and I were BLOWN AWAY! Her skills as a writer are amazing. The language she uses and the attention to detail made Sommer and I gasp.
After her second hunt, Saylor wrote another story. This one, Payton's Kill, was written from the bird's point of view and again we were astonished. Saylor's talent is incredible and I look forward to Sommer, Saylor, Saylor's family, and I getting to know each other better and spending many more days in the woods with these amazing birds.
I encourage you all to take the time to read these beautiful stories and then remember, they were written by a sixteen year old, if you can believe it!
Hawking, by Saylor Ferguson
I have never seen so many thorn bushes in my life, I thought as I shoved yet another sharp branch away. I wandered through the woods, loosely following the group, making sure to make as much noise as possible. I heard bells and glanced up as a large bird soared overhead and landed in a nearby tree. I continued on my way.
Minutes earlier, the two harris hawks, Eli and Wheezy, had been released from their hawk boxes to go hunting. I was lucky enough to be going with them. There were a few, brief minutes of confusion as the hawks wanted to stay back at the truck, but soon they were gathered back up and put up above the group.
Wheezy’s bells rang again as she changed trees. Eli was about ten feet to my right, standing on the ground. Without a sound, he jumped up to a shoulder-height tree further ahead. The group and I had all been trying to get some squirrels moving for some time, with no luck. No matter how many vines we pulled on, or trees we hit, the squirrels were not moving.
My boots squished through a swampy part of the woods as I trotted over to a tree with vines hanging down. Far above, a squirrel nest was situated in such a way that I could pull on the vines and hope to dislodge some squirrels. I tugged the vine sharply downward many times, dead leaves and pieces of bark falling all around me. But no squirrels moved. I gave up on that tree and continued walking, carefully navigating through the woods. There wasn’t a trail in sight; everyone had to make their own trail. These trails usually involved a good bit of thorns. After some time, I stopped noticing the thorns scraping my legs and arms.
As I walked, I kept my eyes on the birds. If anything was to happen, I didn’t want to miss it. This went on for over an hour, the walking with the birds switching locations from time to time, keeping up with the group. Some people may think that walking through the woods nonstop sounds boring. I would say those people are wrong. The woods were beautiful. The day was sunny and just cool enough. The forest around me had an untamed beauty to it, from the winding vines and dense thickets to the tall trees that towered majestically above me, thirty feet tall at least.
While the woods may have been gorgeous, they could hardly compare to the birds. As they soared above, their rusty red shoulders seemed to glow in the sunlight. They didn’t care how close we got; at one point I walked by Eli as he was no more than three feet away. It was incredible to be cooperating with these amazing birds. It was everything I could have ever hoped for.
It was undeniable that just being with the birds was completely worth the entire trip, but I really wanted to see them kill something. In my head were all the falconry videos I had ever seen, the hunt ending with an impressive catch.
We had looped through the woods and I was beginning my trek up the final hill when the hunting cry went up. Suddenly, everyone was screaming, “ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!” I took off, racing up the hill. Up ahead, I heard the sound of the birds crashing through the trees, chasing the squirrel. I arrived just in time to see the final few seconds of the fight, with Wheezy chasing the squirrel out of thick vines while getting hung up herself. As the squirrel made a final, desperate leap, Eli dove down from the top of the tree and latched onto the squirrel, falling to the ground. I ran even closer to Eli, pressing myself against a thorn bush just to get to see him with his prize.
The whole chase couldn’t have lasted any more than ten seconds, but it sent a buzz through my veins unlike any other. I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh, faint, cry, or throw up. But all I did was sit, shaking in excitement, as the squirrel was dispatched and Eli began tearing into it. Wheezy shook herself free from the vines but stayed in the tree, watching the scene from above.
When everything was said and done for, we all headed on our way back to the cars. Eli made a swipe at some huge flying bug but ended up getting hung up in a tree with a confused look on his face, as if he didn’t understand where his prey had just gone.
We all headed to the next hunting site and the red tailed hawk, Peyton, was released. She immediately began flying deeper into the woods, and the group scrambled to keep up.
This portion of woods wasn’t as thick as the last, with fewer thorns. It was much easier to navigate, with a small creek meandering back and forth across our path. Occasionally, an unhappy red shouldered hawk soared above the trees, calling out Peyton. She ignored him and he soon left.
I had hardly entered into the woods when Peyton took off after a rabbit that I didn’t see. She missed and went to sulk under a bush until she cooled off. A good bit of time was spent at this one place, trying to get the rabbit moving again. Although someone did manage to find it, Peyton’s attempt was again unsuccessful. However, in the process a squirrel was dislodged.
Peyton took off after it but it found a hole in a nearby tree to hide in. I heard it growling from inside the hole. With a bit of poking, the squirrel raced out of the hole and up the tree. Peyton moved into position and then waited. She waited for about fifteen minutes, preening and rousing, trying to unsettle the squirrel, which was pressed against one of the tree branches.
When the squirrel finally moved again, Peyton blazed after it, just to slam to a halt when two more squirrels dislodged. Peyton glanced at each one, then chose her prey. The unfortunate squirrel seemed to sense this and it leapt out of the tree from thirty feet up, feet splayed and Peyton right on its heels. The squirrel hit the ground just ahead of Peyton and took off into a thicket, not to be seen again.
After that, we moved deeper into the woods. Peyton followed along but was much more reserved than the harris hawks. She didn’t want to be particularly close to anyone, and clearly was leading the hunt.
We had reached the edge of a field when things got exciting again. One of the trees ringing the field had several squirrels in it, and they took off when they saw Peyton. The chase led back and forth between many trees, Peyton switching targets several times. When she finally locked onto a single squirrel, the chase was on. He led her up into a tall tree and then sprinted out onto a long, horizontal branch. Peyton made a grab at him and he ducked to the underside. Just as he was coming back around, Peyton turned around and sunk her talons deep into the squirrel’s hide. Together they fell and slammed into the ground with a loud thump.
Once the squirrel was dispatched, everyone sat back and stared at the hawk with her kill. Her nape feathers stood on end, and overall she looked eerily beautiful.
After Peyton was sent back up into the trees, we all headed back to the cars to put her away and head home. I got the opportunity to hold both Eli and Peyton, and it was incredible!
When I did get back in the car, I was still shaking from the rush of the day. In my mind, I could still see the hawks soaring overhead, plunging to the ground with a squirrel locked in their talons, and I could still hear the bells. The experience solidified the decision for me: I know now that I really want to be a falconer. I will do whatever it takes to someday be able to hunt a red-tail of my own.
For now, all I really want to do is go hunting again.
Peyton’s Kill, by Saylor Ferguson
It is a balmy thirty degrees when I am put up into the trees. Shaking my red tail, I begin to peer deep into the woods. No living thing moves, which is expected. Shifting my feet on the branch, I turn to the group of humans gathered on the ground. I’m ready to go.
When they begin to walk into the woods, I follow. Although I’ve never hunted here before, I can tell that it’s rich with squirrels. Their nests line the trees, a dead giveaway of where to find them. Luckily, the humans seem to know this, shaking vines attached to the nests. I will have to give the squirrels this one thing: they can endure a lot of shaking before they come out into the open.
Because they already know I’m here.
I have never figured out if the squirrels see me somehow, or if they just instinctively know when a predator is near. To stay in their nests, regardless of shaking, is to live. They step one foot outside of the nests, however, and I will kill them.
If the desire to kill wasn’t so strong in me right now, I might go so far as to say that the woods are lovely. A slight hill overlooking a swamp. But I have no time to focus on that. Instead, every beat of my heart, every breath brings me that much closer to a kill. I’m hungry, and my hunger must be satisfied.
The group of humans has moved a bit ahead, so I soar behind them to land in a closer tree. The sound of my bells doesn’t have any effect on me, but it draws the gaze of several humans upwards. I jump to another tree. This is a hunt, not some kind of show.
I glance down at the glove, to see if it has any prizes for me. At the moment, it’s empty. But when I kill something, the glove will have a reward. And that is what I strive for every single time I hunt. The chase is fine. The kill is good. The prize is great.
The humans have been working the trees in this area for some time, so I tuck my leg up in my chest feathers and fluff them out. The frigid wind bites at any exposed skin, so I must speed up my metabolism to keep warm.
I start from my reverie when I hear a nest being shaken. I glide over to a nearby tree and watch intently, hoping that my prey will emerge.
I am not disappointed. Two squirrels rocket out of the nest and up the tree. One of them leaps into a nearby nest and escapes. The other one sprints to the top of the tree and wedges itself in a fork. I pump my wings hard, gaining altitude so I can catch the remaining squirrel.
The humans ring around the tree, speaking excitedly amongst themselves. I ignore them. This part of the hunt is mine alone. It is only me and the squirrel. We will have to see who comes out on top.
I have reached a branch above the squirrel when I freeze and crouch, feeding off of the squirrel’s fear. Tucking in my wings, I make a strike at the squirrel. I feel fur, but my opponent dodges my talons and darts to the other side of the branch. I glide to land in another nearby branch.
This goes on for some time, and the squirrel and I are both wearing the other out. I decide to get a bit more desperate in my next swipe. I dive at the squirrel and it barely escapes my claws. Before I glide to the next branch, I foot at it one more time. Its hide is enticingly close, but not close enough. The motion sends me careening backwards with my wings flailing until I hit a branch squarely with my back. Somehow I right myself and land on a nearby branch, but by making such a foolish move I’ve lost height.
I rest only for a moment before I begin laddering up. I leap from branch to branch, each a little higher than the last. I make my way to my perch above the squirrel and take a short breather. My prey is still pressed in the fork, just out of talon-reach.
I make a final swipe at the squirrel. It bunches its hindquarters and leaps to the neighboring tree. This is exactly what I wanted it to do. I dive after it, and just as the squirrel’s feet touch the bark, my talons wrap around it in a death grip. Until the squirrel is dead, nothing will convince me to release.
I carefully glide to the ground with the squirrel still gripped tightly in my feet. It nips at my toe but I hardly feel it. I mantle over my prey and puff my feathers. Excitement buzzes through my veins as the squirrel struggles below me. I slowly tighten my grip around it, my nape feathers lifting more and more as its struggle begins to slow.
The glove is there in a second, wrapping around the squirrel’s ribs. The teeth that the squirrel had fastened to my anklet slowly release their grip. Beneath me, the squirrel’s pulse stops.
My prey becomes my kill.
I bite at it a few times, plucking tufts of fur from its hide. But what I’m really looking for is my reward. A fresh, already-plucked hunk of dark meat.
Then it is there, resting on the glove. I release my grip from my kill and fly up to eat my prize.
The chase is fine. The kill is good. The prize is great.
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