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.