Wing in the Door: Life with a Red-Tailed Hawk


Illegally plucked from her nest when only a month old to be trained for falconry, Merak is two when finally released. She isn't used to foraging for herself, however, and wanders into a nearby town. As Peri McQuay quickly learns, this human-imprinted hawk is not quite ready for the wild. As Merak's caretakers, the McQuays try to coax the bird to independence. In journal form, Peri McQuay writes about her life with Merak, relating the hawk's antics - chasing a garden hose that looks like a snake, rearing up to ...
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Illegally plucked from her nest when only a month old to be trained for falconry, Merak is two when finally released. She isn't used to foraging for herself, however, and wanders into a nearby town. As Peri McQuay quickly learns, this human-imprinted hawk is not quite ready for the wild. As Merak's caretakers, the McQuays try to coax the bird to independence. In journal form, Peri McQuay writes about her life with Merak, relating the hawk's antics - chasing a garden hose that looks like a snake, rearing up to magnificent size to threaten a house cat - and her difficulties. McQuay becomes increasingly attached even as she hopes that Merak will become fully wild again. This unusual book about a little-known topic testifies to the powerful connections between humans and animals.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1998, a two-year-old red-tailed hawk, taken illegally as a nestling by a falconer, was released back into the wild on the 800-acre protected wildlife area in eastern Ontario where McQuay and her family lived. Because the hawk, whom they called Merak, was human-imprinted, it took the McQuays four years to shepherd her transition more or less successfully back into her natural environment. In this engrossing memoir, McQuay (The View from Foley Mountain, 1995) relates how Merak became a part of her family's daily life, and, despite the bird's hunting ability, depended on them for sustenance, particularly during the molting season. Her clean, careful prose sometimes yields lovely imagery, as in this description of Merak's acclimation: "she practices teetering hops from branch to branch" with "a sober elation.... She seems to be holding up her feathers like a little girl hampered by long skirts." McQuay unsentimentally evokes the bird's harsh beauty, and the frequent anguish inherent in harboring a wild creature; the hawk harassed the family's dogs and would have attacked their cats without human intervention. Meanwhile, McQuay constantly worried that Merak was undernourished, and supplemented her food with skinned muskrats from a neighboring trapper. Merak built nests and laid eggs every spring, but they were never fertilized. Although Merak eventually undertook an almost completely independent existence, she still visits the McQuays when she is in need. B&w photos not seen by PW. (Mar. 20) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Freelance writer McQuay (The View from Foley Mountain), who lives on an 800-acre Ontario conservation area, tells the story of her life there with a semi-wild red-tailed hawk. The hawk was released, when already human-imprinted, after its confiscation, from a falconer who had obtained it illegally. Neither author nor bird ever completely reconcile with each other. Long on anecdotes, this work is most successful when McQuay writes knowledgeably about bird behavior, physiology, and the natural life on her preserve, less so when she details the lives of her family and menagerie of pets. Still, in describing at length the joys, sorrows, and heavy investment required in trying to rehabilitate an impaired wild animal, she provides useful information for concerned readers everywhere. Henry T. Armistead, Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781571312396
  • Publisher: Milkweed Editions
  • Publication date: 2/28/2001
  • Series: The World As Home Series
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 206
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Merak's Story

—Aug. 5, 1987 Red-tailed Hawk 1000g seized by Ministry of Natural Resources in Kingston area from man trying to raise for falconry. Beautifully cared for, can hunt, sweetly tame and very responsive to humans. In flying trim—could fatten up. Here to untame. Transferred to Maberly in December.
—Note from Kit Chubb's Avian Care and Research Foundation Records

On a bright, windy day in late April 1988, six of us are walking over the winter-bleached grass to the field behind our barn. We are following a seventh, who is carrying a large box. The previous night, Kit Chubb, of the Avian Care Foundation, had phoned Barry and me with a request.

    Earlier that spring Kit had used our conservation area home as a safe release spot for a bewitching pair of newly rehabilitated short-eared owls. Gently, we had opened their rustling box and tipped the small birds into our garden. Then we had watched as they sat for more than an hour getting their bearings. Their intense owlishness, and the beautiful gray, black, and silver mottling of their feathers had been captivating. Apparently fearless, but more likely shocked by their release into completely unfamiliar territory, their only motion had been the swivelling of their heads, which enabled their eyes to reconnoiter their foreign surroundings. As soon as dusk had fallen, the charming pair had swiftly disappeared, heading for the distant oak woods, and had never been seen nor heard from by us again. Which was just as Kit had hoped it would be.

    This time, with a slight hesitation in her voice, which should have prepared me, she had asked if we would be willing to accept for release an immature, two-year-old female red-tailed hawk. She had explained that the hawk had been taken from the nest as a baby by a would-be falconer. Although the captor apparently had treated the chick well, it is against provincial law to hold wild creatures captive, so a representative from the Ministry of Natural Resources had removed the young, partially trained hawk and had given her to the Avian Care Foundation to be checked and released. Because this had happened late in the previous season, it was unlikely that the hawk would have been able to establish a territory successfully at that time, so Kit had placed the bird in a volunteer's aviary to overwinter and become untame.

    This morning, seven of us are crossing the field: Kit and her husband, Robin; John, the hawk's winter keeper; our thirteen-year-old son Jeremy; Jeremy's friend Nathan; and Barry and I. John tells us how he had carefully restricted his contact with the hawk so it would be prepared to return to the wild. Nevertheless, the as-yet-unseen bird is talking sweetly from within the box with a quality of voice I have never heard before from a fierce bird of prey. And I find myself wondering how tame the hawk might be. "She should just go wild again," Kit had said on the phone the night before. "I'm sure she can hunt for herself and she should do fine. Probably it will be as it was with the owls; we'll just let her go and you'll never see her again."

    "But," she added thoughtfully, "she may well make her territory near you. You should keep a lookout. She may find a mate and nest nearby."

    This morning, however, Kit is a little doubtful. "You never know. She might be human imprinted. The falconer might have taken her from the nest too early, causing her to identify with humans, not hawks. It's pretty hard to tell. It could be that some day you'll find her swooping down to help you in your garden. You wouldn't mind that, would you?"

    Mind! Although I had had no previous experience caring for even small birds, let alone a large hawk, the thought of living closely with this wild creature is exhilarating. We might be falconers, gaily striding through the field in the freshening breeze, preparing for a morning's sport. Instead, in the language of falconers, we are hoping to "hack" this red-tail: return her to complete liberty. As we walk, we are agreeing on how important it is for the hawk to have a chance of living a wild life, to be free of human contact. And yet a lurking something makes me half wish that the young hawk would at least remain nearby. I have never known a bird intimately.

    Considering further, Kit offers reflectively, "Human-imprinted hawks can be an awful nuisance. They're so babyish and insistent. I hope you won't mind if ... but I really don't think she is human imprinted...." Mostly, though, we all talk with assurance about how fine it will be to return this hawk to wildness. Meanwhile, as we approach our designated release point, from within the box there is a flouncing of feathers.

    When we tip her out of the box and into the field, I can see from the way the young hawk watches John that, in spite of his good intentions, she feels intimately toward him. Without appearing to watch, she knows where he is at every moment. Her infantile chatter to him pronounces that all is well so long as he is there. This is our first familiarity with her, and is supposed to be the last. We surround her in the long, dead grass, seeing a fierce eye and rapier talons, but hearing the soft talk.

    At last, after twenty minutes of our admiration, John is impatient to see how she will do, and he nudges her with a piece of straw. Awkwardly, the great bird beats off across the field to the tall cottonwood trees in front of our house. But as she brushes past me, the powerful sweep of her wings rowing the air brings me to tears. In this brief passage I understand that the air is richer for her presence.

    Safe in the trees, she practices teetering hops from branch to branch, as would a child hopping on and off a step. There is a sober elation to her accomplishments. She seems to be holding up her feathers like a little girl hampered by long skirts.

    Between hops she is looking and looking, searching the winds and a vastness of sky we never can imagine. On this first day, as I watch her, she becomes "Merak," a word of Arabian derivation, which is also the name for the second bowl star of the Big Dipper. The Arabian meaning of "Al Marakk," the original of "Merak," is "loin of the bear," a fitting name for this savage predator who yet will let us see her intimate, tender side.

    When she arrived, Kit gave us a bag of frozen mice to get us started. While we are waiting to see what the hawk will do next, and at John's suggestion, we build a feeding platform. We find a place back in the field, away from people and pets, where food can be laid out for the hawk if she should be slow in starting to hunt for herself. After we finish the platform, realizing that it will take time for the hawk to become oriented to her new surroundings, Kit, Robin, and John leave.

    For the next two hours Barry and the boys and I watch the hawk through the bare branches of her tree. Never having seen a red-tail closer than a distant tree or soaring in the sky, I am amazed by the size of this buzzard. After Kit had phoned the previous night, I had looked up the hawk's measurements in a field guide: "Buteo jamaicensis: length 45-55 cm and wingspread 110-132 cm."

    But only at the kind of close range we now have can I appreciate what a very grand bird this is. Because she is only two years old, her coloring and silhouette differ from what they will be when she matures this summer. Her tail is longer than it will be later this year, and her body is longer in proportion to her width. Most noticeable is that she has yet to develop the mature hawk's splendid rufous tail; hers is light brown, with narrow dark bands of equal width.

    Eventually, convinced that she is there for the afternoon, Barry and I leave for a walk, charging Jeremy and Nathan to keep an eye on her. But when we return an hour later, the hawk is gone. Jeremy reports that they had watched her swoop down to the field and catch a mouse. He says she let them approach and watch her eat it, talking to them sideways out of her beak. Then she had flown off, leaving the tree exceedingly empty. Apparently the release has been successful; Merak is independent.

    She does not return for a week, long enough that I abandon my dreams of having a hawk for a gardening companion. When we do see a hawk, it is flying so high that we can't identify it. Then, surprisingly, on May 4, I see one banded hawk hovering low over our house, followed by the usual resident pair that inhabit the fields beyond the distant treeline behind the house. It is uncommon for hawks to fly together in spring, but all three dip and swoop in amity around our fields. I am astonished by my joy at seeing her again.

    Two days later, Barry sees the hawk, on her own once more, calling uncertainly in woods. This is the week that Evan, Barry's summer biology student assistant, has come to work at the park. While he is rehearsing flower identification on the wildflower trail, Evan is pulled up short by coming face-to-face with Merak, perched in a bush. He is taken aback by how familiar the wild bird is with him. He comes to get us, but she has vanished before he can show us where she was.

    Then two weeks of silence follow. Well, we have seen enough to believe she can fend for herself, and we know that hawks and owls do come and go from our area, depending on the supply of mice. Moreover, we know from our own experience with empty mousetraps that mice have been in short supply this spring. It is likely that she has moved on to better hunting grounds.

* * *

Almost a month after Merak's release, Ruth, a birdwatcher and conservationist who lives in the village nestled just beneath the ridge of our park, phones Barry to complain of a nuisance red-tailed hawk. It is banded, she tells him, and so tame it has approached people and even has hectored cats through screen doors. People are afraid for their children, she says, and there is even talk of one of the fathers doing the bird in with a baseball bat. Knowing exactly to which hawk Ruth is referring, Barry rounds up Evan for backup and hastens into town. Just as Ruth had described it, he finds the hawk crouching beneath a porch. Wary of gleaming eye, savage beak, and talons, Barry secures the wretched fowl's confidence with a mouse, and he and Evan swathe her in the indignity of a butterfly net and bring her back to the park in disgrace.

    Once home, they cautiously untangle her and let her go at the feeding platform we built in the field on the day when she first had been released. While the rescue was taking place, I had hastily thawed a few mice from Kit's bag and laid them on the platform. Now Barry, Evan, and I stand by Merak while she eats, her wings draped and huddled over her sodden mice. Why has she become so desperately tame? What will she do now? What will we do if she returns to town? Kit had thought the park would be an ideal release point for her, being about two miles from the town. But it seems the hawk is prepared to go further afield. Perhaps tormenting the villagers amuses her. More likely, an urgent need for food has driven her to it. After her feed, the hawk flaps stolidly out of sight, leaving us with no answers.

    All weekend she remains absent and once again we are worried for her. But on Monday, at first light, the shrieks we hear coming from the orioles nesting in our trees alert us. "That hawk's back," announces Morgan, when he rises half an hour later to get ready for school. Gingerly, Barry plucks several thawed mice from a bag in the refrigerator and dodges the hunger-crazed bird through the field to give her the sodden bodies at her feeding platform. After stuffing the mice into her crop, Merak flies to, and awkwardly scrambles up, the metal barn roof, with a sound reminiscent of fingernails scraping on a blackboard. Untroubled by her noisy, clumsy ascent, she perches like a Russian icon at the barn's front peak. It would appear that at last Merak has made up her mind that she will live with us.

    Red-tails are one of the largest of our hawks and, as such, are slow to mature. Although the young can feed themselves at five weeks, birds of prey are dependent on their parents for several months after they have fledged. The parents do not teach the young; rather they lead them to fruitful hunting sites, where the fledglings must learn by experience. Considerable skill is needed to catch food. Even for adults, the failure rate of hunting is high. Now, and over the next month, the great raptor shows us a pitiful, urgent hunger for food and attention. I begin to wonder if she had caught much at all during her first month out of captivity. Since her return to us, we have only seen her catch a dragonfly.

    And there is a new worry: A few days after Merak's return, Kit calls to tell me that someone from Westport has reported that a "crazed hawk" bashed into a house at the foot of the ridge, and then for two hours had been too stunned to leave. Surely that hawk is Merak. Could she have sustained brain damage? What will we do if she has?

    If Merak is to live with us, I will need to understand as much as I can about the ways of hawks and the difficulties of this particular one. The first books I can locate are those written by falconers. Falconers have a long history of exceptional partnerships with their birds, and a wealth of lore from that experience. For at least four thousand years, falcons and other birds of prey have been used in hunting, first in Asia, then in Persia, and then, by A.D. 600-800, in central Europe. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, monarchs had falconers in their courts and kept stables of birds, which they used for sport.

    While highly unhelpful, early manuals of falconry prove fascinating to read. For example: to fly a goshawk, one advises,

at the hour of vespers hold her on your fist until you go to bed; then put her on her perch, covered ... and put a lighted candle in a lamp before her and leave it there all night. At daybreak, sprinkle her with wine and dry her before a bright and smokeless fire. When it is light, fly her.

    From these, I turn to more recent works.

    Many modern falconers believe that a "passager" red-tail (one that is captured at less than a year old but independent) is ideal for their sport. The difficulty is that passager birds are more challenging because of their inherited wildness. For instance, they are much more likely to soar when they are released after prey, so the risk of losing such a bird is greater. Since Merak's captor was almost certainly a novice, he may have believed that training an eyas, or nestling, would be easier because of its tameness. Moreover, I learn from author Frank Beebe that, since the 1960s, red-tails like Merak, unfamiliar to medieval falconers, have become the most widely used in North America. The species is common, easy to obtain, and has a steady, even temperament that makes it easy to train.

* * *

Meanwhile, for all our worries about her future, we are experiencing an extraordinary intimacy with a magnificent wild bird.

    All too quickly, there comes an afternoon when Barry has to be away and I am confronted with having to make, on my own, the long, vulnerable walk across the open field to give Merak her mice. And I have no way of knowing whether the unpredictable young female will accept me as a substitute for Barry. I am mindful of thirteenth-century King Dancus of Armenia, who cautioned:

When she is angry or enraged, the falconer must be patient and treat her gently. Sometimes when her quarry escapes she becomes so enraged that she attacks her falconer and strikes his face or his horse's head, or sometimes one of his dogs. A good falconer must be patient and hide his anger, taking care not to call the falcon until her anger has calmed down.

    Uncomforted by the high, clear light of a late afternoon in June, or the wind sweeping the grasses around my knees, I proceed warily, hoping with an improbable hope to reach the feeding platform before Merak notices what I am about. Alas, all too quickly I am assaulted by the infantile bird's hungry screams, and I see her lunging, rather than flying, toward me. Until this horrifying moment, when I come face-to-face with them, I have not appreciated just what devastatingly effective weapons her rapier talons are. Worst of all, in past encounters the hawk has shown herself to be wildly temperamental and unpredictable. Shall I drop to the ground, covering my face? At the last heart-stopping moment, she veers aside and strikes out for the platform, where she makes a heavy landing. She screams lustily as I approach, and the screams escalate as, with a shaking hand, I pitch the soggy, gray mouse bodies onto the platform in front of her. Pinning them with her talons, she pivots so that her back is to me, flares her tail, and shrouds the platform with her outspread wings. (Later I will learn that falconers call this defensive sheltering of prey "mantling.")

    Shaken by the difficult passage to the feeder, I stand by her while she gulps her mice. My reward for the harrowing trip across the field is stroking her after she has finished. I know all there is to know about the favorite stroking spots of cats and dogs, but nothing about how one should approach a hawk. Warily, I stretch out my hand to the top of her small head. I can cup it in the curve of my hand. Then I mantle the hawk with both my hands, just as she mantled her food. Like a camera shutter, her milky, bluish third eyelid shoots across to protect her startled eye. Where proper eyelids are closed only in sleep, the third, or "nictitating eyelid," removes dirt and spreads tears but, because it is transparent, doesn't impair vision.

    But today Merak merely allows, rather than relishes my petting. Standing there with the wind rushing around us, I take in the pattern of her feathers—dapples, stipples, "eyes" like those on peacock plumage. I discover that there are slight whiskers around her beak. I examine her yellow legs, which medieval kings described as "covered with scales like those on a snake's belly," and her eyes "bright as a flame." Then, without warning, and with a parrotlike squawk, the red-tail launches herself off the platform, flapping raggedly across the field toward the west-lying oak woods.

    I begin to appreciate the hollowness of an airborne creature, which begins with many hollow bones, but even more so consists of a curving of feathers and rounded body, all of which buoy air inward, stirring it to her center, as if she herself were only slightly more than air. Now I know that the hawk looks large, but in reality is little more than the sum of her feathers, held together by an indelible personality.

    Standing beside the feeding hawk, I was amazed by the swivel of her head. Even over the course of the twenty minutes she stayed with me, she displayed a vast variety of positions, each changing her aspect substantially. Indeed, she is immensely faceted. I am beginning to see that the combination of wildness and domestication results in an overlay that makes her highly complex. Where I might say ten or fifteen things in description of a cat or dog, I could easily find fifty for her.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2001

    Praise for a Wing in the Door

    Toronto Globe and Mail, June 23, 2001: 'A rare and enlightened witness to the truths of non-human nature.' Washington Post Book World, April 22, 2001: McQuay knows her land, knows its inhabitants, both plant and the animal, like a first language. Because of this she has written a compelling tale about wild places and wild and half-wild creatures and what it feels like to be around them that rings with authenticity.'

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