The Falcon’s Cry

Nonfiction / Kelly Gray

 

:: The Falcon’s Cry ::

There is a moment when you find your­self in a small enclo­sure with a fal­con scream­ing in your face, her wings extend­ed, your hands shak­ing, that you think, We are the same.   

I have his­to­ry with birds. They were my first intro­duc­tion to death when, as a child, I found our chick­ens’ bod­ies strewn about the coop after a fox raid, although I don’t recall them alive pri­or to that. They were so vul­ner­a­ble in the after­math, a curled yel­low foot by a head, the body too far away with exposed entrails. It made my stom­ach turn. I did not want to be torn to pieces like that. As I grew old­er, I began to under­stand the dif­fer­ence between vio­lence and death, and that death and dis­tur­bance work as a use­ful tool for change in per­son­al as well as eco­log­i­cal land­scapes. I began to wel­come death in as sym­bol and spring­board, even seek­ing out its tokens. I would find offer­ings from the sky: small rib cages, ster­nums still con­nect­ed to wings, some­times a bird skull so del­i­cate it looked to be made of paper. I start­ed to devel­op com­pan­ion­ship with live birds; I would dri­ve west to the reserve to sit with a male North­ern Har­ri­er among the blos­som­ing lupine and wind-pressed grass. Ravens would bring me garbage and steal my trin­kets. As I walked home, owls would descend from the black night like falling moons, white faces with black eyes, and lat­er they would return in my dreams.   

Dur­ing this time of friend­ship with the birds, my hus­band left. Or, rather, I left him when he wouldn’t leave, although he was sure­ly gone despite his warm body appear­ing next to mine, ask­ing me to stay. I used to wake up in the mid­dle of the night and check for my child’s breath, and then my husband’s, think­ing that I would be ashamed if he died in our bed with our child between us. I found a new home, with­in dri­ving dis­tance of his absence. In my new home, my dog died. My child grew into her own bed, the dis­tance between her room and mine would weigh on me in the night. I would see my ex-hus­band every day because, some­how, we had had a child togeth­er. I would walk through the day with my eyes sky­bound, think­ing about places I’d nev­er been, imag­ing a new home that was far away, nest-like, one that I could build with branch­es not yet col­lect­ed. Often I would won­der if I would end up break­ing those nests too. Method­i­cal­ly or in a rage. There was a heat ris­ing in my chest that I had pre­vi­ous­ly been able to escape from, but now it felt like burn­ing hands around my throat. In past breakups, I would be able to pack my books and my mir­rors and all the wool blan­kets, using more tape than nec­es­sary. When I arrived in my new home, there were no ghosts or dis­ap­point­ments, just box­es to stab my knife into. I would reach in and pull out my belong­ings and con­sid­er myself intact. But this time my belong­ings seemed heavy and use­less and I was unable to move, root­ed in an unrea­son­able way by the con­tract of moth­er­hood and divorce­hood.  

If I told you about my divorce, it wouldn’t sound like it felt. I was so impa­tient. He was ill. He wouldn’t take care of him­self. He would drink too much. I think I became impa­tient for him to get com­plete­ly sick, if only because my wait­ing for it felt unbear­able. He stopped tak­ing his med­i­cine, which I use to help admin­is­ter before there was a dis­tance between us. I only dis­cov­ered this six months after the fact, and it felt akin to betray­al. We don’t know if the con­di­tion is hered­i­tary.  

I thought about my own desire and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a lover. I no longer felt capa­ble of form­ing the begin­ning of a con­ver­sa­tion, of using my voice to flirt, to lean for­ward in mock inter­est.   

Instead of human touch, I decid­ed to take a job work­ing at a rap­tor reha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter. The train­ing would be six months long: one part rap­tor han­dling and one part nat­ur­al his­to­ry. At the end of six months, I would be com­pe­tent enough to do pub­lic events with a bird on my fist. On my first day, we signed waivers and showed proof of insur­ance. We were shown where the hard­hats, gloves, and pro­tec­tive eye gear is kept, as well as the first aid kits. We were shown the ancient fal­con­ry tech­nique of jess­ing, which is how to use a leash with a rap­tor. We prac­ticed bal­anc­ing tin cans on our wrists, won­der­ing who would com­plete the pro­gram and who would not.  

These fal­cons were once wild. They had been res­cued but could not be reha­bil­i­tat­ed. They were dan­ger­ous, but will­ing. They could not fly for long dis­tances.  

I want­ed to work with the birds because I sus­pect­ed that they might scare me. I had become so numb that it seemed like some sort of cathar­tic exer­cise in an attempt to rat­tle myself back into being. That’s not what I would tell peo­ple when they asked why I did the work. I knew enough not to say, I can’t feel my body any­more. I don’t know who I am. I’m hop­ing the birds will fly at me until I can see my future again. Instead I would say, Birds of prey are indi­ca­tors of an ecosystem’s health, and if we can get peo­ple to care about the birds, then we can get them to care about native habi­tats. And that is true. That is why I was there. But I also want­ed to care about myself again.  

The female pere­grine fal­con is 25% larg­er than her male coun­ter­part, and the­o­ries (some whis­pered and some in writ­ing) abound as to why this is, as if it can’t exist as sim­ple fact. When she’s tend­ing to her chicks, the male pere­grine, called a tier­cel, will hunt and bring his fam­i­ly food. As the chicks grow, they become more fren­zied, more com­mit­ted to sur­viv­ing. They thrash the tier­cel with their long talons, cry­ing out from their scrape. Per­haps it is not safe for the tier­cel to pro­vide any­more. The moth­er will take to the sky to hunt for her grow­ing fledg­lings. She will have to fly far­ther and far­ther away and catch much larg­er prey than was ever required of the tier­cel. Per­haps he has always been too small to stay around. 

Learn­ing to jess the pere­grine often made me feel fool­ish. She is fast, faster than I am. She tends to scream in antic­i­pa­tion and has beau­ti­ful­ly yel­low, long dig­its that she throws at you, mak­ing it near impos­si­ble to get the leather jess­es into her ankle bracelets. My hands would trem­ble and I would hes­i­tate before enter­ing her enclo­sure. I would force my breath back in my body. I would start to see myself with her, and I would drop into the world of fal­cons. I learned to duck and move with inten­tion.   

Now, I don’t hes­i­tate for her, and rarely for myself. I enter her enclo­sure and she makes the loud sound of the ocean at me—as though the mem­o­ry of waves and seag­ulls is pour­ing out of her beak at break­neck speed—and in response I mur­mur to her. I make sounds like a dying song­bird, which she likes. I tell her that I can hear her, and I ask her if I can tell her sto­ry for her. With leather leash­es and a heavy glove, we become one. We walk out to the area where the audi­ence waits.  

This is what I tell them:  

This bird is a pere­grine fal­con, found eight years ago in the curve of the high­way, her right wing fold­ed in all the wrong ways. It was her break­ing point, and she could not be reha­bil­i­tat­ed to the point of sur­viv­ing in the wild.  

Pere­grine means “to wan­der” in Latin, and that they do, across con­ti­nents on mas­sive migra­tions. Every­thing about this bird has evolved for sky pre­da­tion; she’s the fastest crea­ture on the plan­et, reach­ing speeds of over 250mph in a stoop dive. She eats birds on the wing, mean­ing she takes her meals while fly­ing, and her diet con­sists of birds: from song­birds to cranes, and even oth­er rap­tors. She has this long mid­dle toe and tomi­al tooth on her beak designed to dis­perse her prey and break through pro­tec­tive feath­ers. When she’s div­ing on her prey, she makes a fist with her talons and knocks the bird so hard they hit the ground, and some­times the force is so hard it knocks the prey’s head off.  

You’re look­ing at a rap­tor that was called a duck hawk because they hunt fly­ing ducks. A ground­ed chick­en would be no fun for her. Her eyes are huge with a third eye­lid to pro­tect her from prey and wind, and dark malar stripes to reflect the sun back into the sky. She’s impa­tient; I love that about her. She’s a fierce moth­er, big­ger than her male coun­ter­part, tak­ing in the larg­er prey for her babes. DDT almost took these birds out, broke down their eggshells so that they were crushed by mom. Through wild con­ser­va­tion efforts, they are now back, trac­ing lines across maps that humans cling to, rebuk­ing human con­struct with the loud cry of the fal­con.

 

 

From the writer

 

:: Account ::

My work­ing with birds was held against the back­drop of the Me Too Move­ment and Black Lives Mat­ter, as well as many Indige­nous upris­ings. Body auton­o­my and land rights were com­ing to the col­lec­tive fore­front. As a long­time com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er, sex­u­al assault sur­vivor, and full spec­trum birth work­er, I am inter­est­ed in how sto­ry­telling strength­ens effec­tive move­ments and per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion. As a nat­u­ral­ist, I find that one tool I have for pre­serv­ing what is left of the nat­ur­al world is by invit­ing peo­ple to de-cen­ter their own human sto­ry. I want to ask peo­ple to imag­ine that nature is not “oth­er,” that our own nar­ra­tive can be found in rocks and birds and forests. This is not a new tool; it’s cur­rent­ly being used by Indige­nous peo­ple the world over and has been since the begin­ning of human sto­ry­telling. Some­times it can be very lit­er­al, like in this sto­ry, and oth­er times infused with mag­i­cal real­ism, or open­ing a third eye to ways of being that a col­o­niz­er mind­set has blind­ed us to.  

I often grap­ple with imposter syn­drome, com­pound­ed by a his­to­ry of peo­ple telling me that my sto­ries are shame­ful and should be kept secret, espe­cial­ly when they inter­sect with oth­er people’s sto­ries. In work­ing with the birds, I knew I had to rebuke this con­fine­ment. Folk sto­ry as a tool for social change is a huge inspi­ra­tion for what I write about and how I write about it. Under­stand­ing the pow­er of folk sto­ry meant that I need­ed to start writ­ing my sto­ries just as I saw them, even when they feel incon­se­quen­tial.  

At the bird reha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter, I was espe­cial­ly tak­en with one pere­grine fal­con, and I want­ed to learn as much about her sto­ry as pos­si­ble, not only her wild coun­ter­parts but who she was as a reha­bil­i­tat­ed bird who could no longer hunt. I began to see the par­al­lels to my own life in the sto­ry of the fal­con, start­ing with my desire to fly away, which felt shame­ful. The role of preda­tor can­not be ignored when work­ing with fal­cons and since then, much of my writ­ing has begun to flip the role of the preda­tor to suit my own sur­vival and carve out new space for how our col­lec­tive sto­ry may end or con­tin­ue on. 

 

Kel­ly Gray is a writer, nat­u­ral­ist, and edu­ca­tor liv­ing among the red­wood trees on occu­pied Coast Miwok land in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She is moth­er to a fiery daugh­ter, two per­fect cats, and one untam­able dog. Her writ­ing digs into the ten­sion between loss and sur­vival and what it means to decen­ter the human nar­ra­tive dur­ing cycles of grief. Most recent­ly, Kel­ly has been pub­lished in Qui­et Light­ning, Burn­ing House Press, and write, bitch, write!, and has work forth­com­ing in Dime Show Review and Brack­en Mag­a­zine. On her day off, Kel­ly is a rap­tor han­dler who brings birds of prey into schools and pub­lic events, telling sto­ries of fal­cons, owls, and vul­tures to all who will lis­ten.