On Saturday, we headed up to Wye Marsh in Midland, Ontario (a two-hour drive from Toronto) for what’s known as a Raptor Experience (a.k.a. Walk the Hawk, or Bird Nerd’s Obsession). For months, I’ve wanted to get up close to a Red-Tailed Hawk — to feel the softness of their feathers, the power of their wings, the weight of one of these beautiful creatures on my arm.
With this in mind, and accompanied by a helpful guide, my husband and I enjoyed two hours of intensive learning, including a chance to feed hawks and owls some tasty takeout (i.e., delicate quail and white rats with the shape and consistency of white chocolate). Best of all was the hawk-walk — a half-hour stroll through the woods, which involved learning the proper way to adjust your arm to accomodate the movements of the bird (which wears jesses – soft leather straps around its legs, attached to a leash), how to hold the tethers, and most of all, how to enjoy the silence, the unknowable mind of this creature who now and again would rise for a big stretch, thumping the air with his enormous wings.
My companion was Rusty the Red-Tail, a small tiercel (male) hawk of less than two kilograms. Brian walked Casper, the ghostly Barn Owl, a quiet little guy who never “winged out” as Rusty often did.
Rusty felt light on my arm, and after a while, he seemed like an extension of it — or perhaps I was becoming an extension of him — it’s impossible to say. His bones are light and hollow (to aid flight); his streaked and ruddy chest feathers soft to the touch, his bright eyes alert. His impervious look gives no hint of response.
No problem; Red-Tailed Hawks are not designed to be deep thinkers. Look at their far-seeing eyes (more a stare than a gaze), hooked beak, curved talons, and you see that nature selected them for the basics of survival: hunting, mating, nesting, self-defence. Your arm is a safe perch, a place to rest. In captivity, Rusty and his kind know from experience that good food comes to him from good folks like us. That, to them, is the extent of our relationship.
In truth, my tethered companion was a simple soul, a wild one with a grave look that belied his physical lightness, a creature living to the fullest his place in evolution’s wisdom. It’s left to us — bird nerds, hawk-obsessives and amateur theologians — to untangle his skein of delicacy and ferocity, beauty and power, to grasp what his existence has to say to us.
At the end of that beautiful walk — and time spent flying little Alice, a delightful Tawny Owl — all I know is that the Raptor Experience was one of profound mystery. As fascinated as I am by hawks, I don’t know what to make of them. In fact, most days, I don’t know what to make of our precious natural world, as fragile and threatened as it is.
There’s so much variety in nature — size and shape, colours and incredible adaptations to earth and air and water. Study a field guide to birds and it’s overwhelming. We live inside a swarm of extraordinary vitality, energy and life. How can we not get lost in puzzling out the fact of existence? How? Why? What? How do mere humans finish those sentences?
Yet as our walk progressed, I realized that I loved Rusty. It was nothing he did; it was just his presence, the simple gift of his energy and beauty. The warmth of it left me feeling at peace, more calm and reflective than I’d felt before we came. I felt rich with understanding of a strong, intuitive kind.
So I don’t have to know what to make of it all.
Love is enough.