After a short walk past perfectly manicured grounds of Ashford Castle we arrive at the Ireland’s School of Falconry where an elderly gentleman, looking like a character out of Harry Potter, is working with an owl who thinks he is a human. All hawks think this way too, “but they believe they are the superior one in the “relationship,” explains theowner of the school Deborah Knight. While Knight would not part with one of her birds the hawks would unceremoniously dump her for a half a plump chicken leg. For chicken legs are to the hawk like diamonds are to the gold digger and both can never get enough of them. And so this is the most important thing we discover about hawks; they have no sense of loyalty. They do not wish to please nor do they perform out of any sense of affection for the falconer. They only fly and return because they associate the falconer with food. It truly is an one-sided “affair”.
Deborah has been a falconer for over 25 years and is an expert on hawks. Her passion and enthusiasm about “her birds” and the sport of falconry is contagious. Throughout our stay Knight peppers us with tidbits of information. From Knight we learn:
Hawks see in iridescent colors meaning that the world is much more colorful for them than for us
Hawks are the fastest creatures on earth reaching speeds of 234 miles per hour
Hawks pupils are independent of one another which means that they can scope in on one an object while still scanning in the distance with the other eye
Hawks don’t fly unless they are looking for something to eat
After being introduced all the birds it is time to go on our Hawk Walk. I put on the thick leather glove while Deborah fetches, Uisce, a magnificent Harris hawk. He is a young,handsome and commanding with stout talons and dark feathers which dance in the sunlight. His eyes are dark and twitch constantly as he scans the landscape in a hyper-vigilant sort-of-way .
As we walk to the hawking grounds I remove Uisce’s jesses which are the leather straps attached to his talons. The bells attached to his leg jingle in anticipation of the hunt. I predict that when Uisce leaves the glove it will feel like a gun recoil. Instead, he pushes away gently, disappearing from sight almost immediately. I place a scrawny chicken leg between my fingers in the glove and wait. The bells give away Uisce’s position as he suddenly appears out of nowhere soaring straight towards me. But its not the way-high-up-in-the-sky kind of soaring but a very low to the ground glide which makes this hawk fly with little effort. Keeping my arm outstretched and steady, Uisce swings upward and alights heavily on my arm. In a split second he grabs his treat and wraps his wings around it (called mantling) to protect it from any creature who thinks they may want it…me included.
We repeat this flight pattern numerous times as we fly through the vast castle grounds learning more with each takeoff and return about how a hawk hunts and maneuvers. How he does it is fascinating and it makes us somewhat jealous wishing that we too could skim the clouds.
We also barnstorm through the dense forest with Uisce appearing like a ghost out of nowhere, hidden by the trees, until swooping down upon us. Suddenly the bird refuses to return. He has spotted some bicycles nearby and they make him wary of leaving his perch. Finally with the cyclists gone Uisce returns to us feathers ruffled. It is time for him to rest and time for us to take our leave.
If you ever get a chance to participate in some aspect of falconry it is worth your time. You’ll learn so much about the sport and you will never look at these magnificent creatures without a sense of awe.
The School Of Falconry, Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland