Props: proper respect, recognition – Urban Dictionary

I’ve never given the opossum a second thought unless it happened to scurry across my path in the approaching dusk. Ghostly, ghastly, pallid and grotesque, there were so many more colorful things in life to give my attention to.

Until now.
If Gracie hadn’t caught one, I’d still think that way.
Of course, after seeing one close up… close enough to take a photograph, I was intrigued.
What an interesting looking creature.
My, what big teeth it has.
What does it eat?

Thank you Google – all my questions were answered and I have to share my new-found knowledge about and “props” for the heretofore unknown and unappreciated ‘possum.

Before I reveal what I’ve learned, I must first elaborate a little more on Gracie’s successful hunt. This was the other evening. The days are getting a little longer and my husband took her out to hunt just before dark.  She flew up from his glove, immediately spotted the unlucky opossum and dove for it. As soon as my H saw her go for it, his heart sank as he knew there could be a fight – either one could die. He ran over to her as she tried to subdue her prey and reached her in time to help her dispatch the creature.  It was twice her weight (2200 grams). The opossum punctured Gracie’s foot with its teeth, but she’s o.k.

The Opossum

Close-up of Opossum Teeth

Here’s where we put on our big girl pants and look beyond the grisly photos above. The opossum is beautifully and intelligently designed, the same as something pretty like a butterfly, baby deer or canary. Maybe they’re not cuddly or cute, but I’ve realized that they do deserve some air time.

Here’s what I found:

  • The opossum is the only marsupial in North America. It carries its babies in a pouch (now that’s kind of cute)
  • They have about 50 teeth; the most teeth of any N American mammal. (not so cute, but interesting!)
  • Adults are the size of an average house cat and weigh six to 15 lbs (the one Gracie caught was 5 pounds)
  • Because their ears and tails lack fur they often suffer frostbite on these body parts during cold winters. (this was kind of sad)
  • They have five toes on each foot. (hmmm)
  • They have a resistance to rabies but may still be carriers of the disease.
  • They eat mostly dead things, insects, frogs and like apples, clementines and persimmons (what variety!)
  • When playing possum, the lips are drawn back, teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands (Wikipedia) (now that’s cool and gross at the same time)
  • Sometimes, they actually look cute (take the baby photo above for example)

Hopefully, I’ve given the ‘possum a proper nod and that if you ever see one, you’ll look past their long snouts, sharp teeth, beady black eyes, oily skin, coarse fur, parasite-carrying, rabies resistant bodies and appreciate what’s good about them.

What do you think? Cute or gross?

You may have been one of those people who excelled at sports (and if you were, I really do admire you), however, I was never among that elite group of fit, perky, energetic individuals that could kick &@!$% in their chosen field. For me, it was a series of painful, embarrassing, awkward moments and Sysyphean tasks. Phys Ed was my nemesis. No happy-happy, no joy-joy. Which leads me to the point of this post.

I glimpsed P.E. joy this weekend.
Would you believe that a local college actually had falconry as a credit for P.E.?
How cool is that?!?

Last Sunday, the N. Georgia college offered a class presented by a falconer/raptor rehabilitator. A master falconer (who is also a coach at the college), organized the presentation and invited some other falconers to attend (my hubs included).  I tagged along and took a few photos.

As I sat in the classroom (reminiscing about the horrors of P.E.), I looked around at the students and wondered why they took this class.  Did they want to become falconers or did they hate P.E. as much as I did? Whatever the reason, not only did they escape the wrath of sweaty athletics, the door of a fascinating sport was opened to them. Only time will tell if any of them will walk through it and join the select group of those who have embraced the pursuit of falconry.

Here are a few photos taken from (at present) the only college level falconry course in the country.

Anatomy and Physiology

Raptor Anatomy and Physiology

Feathers and Flight

Discussing Feathers and Flight

The Cast

Presenting the Cast (An egg-shaped ball, consisting of feathers, bones, etc., which all hawks throw up after the nutritious part of their food has been digested.)

Raptor Rehabilitation

Raptor rehabilitaton tools - tube to feed or provide electrolytes for a raptor

Classroom filled with students and falconers

Classroom filled with students and falconers

Falconry class

An outside demonstration after the class

After the class for college students and demonstration for children was over, the students and falconers split up into different groups and went hunting.

Maddie captures a squirrel

Maddie, a Red-Tailed Hawk, captures a squirrel

I now have a new, albeit grudging respect for P.E.

What about you, did you like P.E.? (wait – before you say anything, take a moment to reminisce on the fetid stench of muggy locker rooms, heinous polyester shorts, bad hair days, being 13, cruel temperature extremes, archaic equipment and the fascist attitudes that often go with the teaching of team sports – sorry coaches. ) Ok, now you can answer.

It’s well-known in historical texts and artifacts that falconry has been practiced for over 3,000 years and possibly even longer as it pre-dates written records.  Places such as Arabia, China, Mongolia, Japan, Germany and Europe (to name a few), are rich in tales of falconry for sport and hunting.  Even during the time of Marco Polo, there were more than 10,000 falconers (at one time) and their associates participating in this ancient activity.

Here we are circa 2011.  Ages have passed, people have come and gone, the landscape of the world has changed and yet not only is falconry still present, it seems to be resurfacing among the tattered pages of history. Many of the customs have stayed intact and many I am sure have changed.

This autumn/winter, falconry will hit the fashion world. Hermès, the classic French luxury brand has added a new creative director to its team – Christophe Lemaire.  Lemaire (who seems to have had a penchant for sporty-chic and evidently proved that with last year’s Lacoste line) is boldly bringing the sport of falconry to the luxury label. Magazine ads will portray beautiful models dressed in creams, winter whites, tans, cashmere, wrap-jackets, leather, tassels, suede, tunics, boots, fringe and of course, a wild falcon on their forearm. They’re going “back to the basics,” and I guess if you’re really going to go back, falconry certainly has the clout.

The origins of Hermès as a saddle-maker and obvious connection to the equestrian world seems to go hand and hand with falconry. Other lines will most likely follow suit and  incorporate falconry into their designs – I guess we’ll see!  Anyway, I’m not usually this much into fashion, but I couldn’t resist this topic and the sublime thought of riding a medieval looking Friesian horse with a bird of prey on one arm and making a fashion statement at the same time!

Ok, imagine you on this…

Friesian Galloping (photo by LarissaAllen)

With this on your arm…

European Kestrel -a beautifully colored falcon. (photo by quaddie)

Wearing the garb of your choice – leather, suede…whatever suits you (you’ll have to use your imagination here and I’d love to hear your thoughts!)

Bellatrix Red-tail Hawk We picked up a beautiful passage hawk 12 days ago. A falconer and his wife who live south of us had trapped her and put out an alert in the falconry community to see if anyone was looking for a Red-tailed Hawk. My husband was! He had been trapping all month (with help from my brother and I) and had a few close calls, but none would stay on the trap. So, needless to say, we were all very excited, relieved and thankful to hear that she was trapped and available as it was getting late in the season.

To capture a bit of history and chronicle the manning of a hawk, I’ll be keeping track of the daily progress that my husband makes with Bellatrix (Bell).

Day 1: Prepare room (drop cloths on the floor, plastic on the walls, dark curtains, comfy chair and table), giant hood (a crate for transporting hawks). We picked up the hawk, drove  home and he sat with her on his arm in the dark for 3 hours. He tried to feed her, but knew that she would not be comfortable enough to accept food yet.

Day 2-10: Wash, rinse, repeat – morning, afternoon and night. During this period, the hawk is not only reluctant to accept food, but will not bend down to eat it as they are vulnerable and unsure if you are trustworthy. Also, the prey is not alive, which could be different than what they’re used to. My H offered food from a stick close to her beak until she accepted it. It took a few days, but she finally ate the mice if it was placed right next to her beak.

Day 11: Today was the day – we had a breakthrough! This morning, Bell finally leaned over to eat a tiny rodent from my husband’s glove. This was a huge step in her progress and the result of 10 days of extreme patience to earn her trust.

Beautiful colors and angles

My husband recently decided to let Gracie, his first red-tailed hawk, fly free. Only 20% of most hawks in the wild make it to maturity (due to many reasons including disease and poisoning from eating tainted rodents). A hawk that has an opportunity to be with a falconer has a greater chance of surviving when it is released, as it will be stronger and healthier than if it were in the wild.  I had a chance to take a few photos before he released her:

Gracie about to eat her last easy meal.

Gracie after eating that mouse.

She has such beautiful color and angles.

Argos waiting patiently.

Gracie (her beautiful red tail) and Theo

A Profile of Gracie

Just about to be released.

Gracie sits in the tree, unsure of her new found freedom.

My husband, saying a final farewell to Gracie.

Gracie finally flies away after about 15 minutes. Can you find her flying in the trees?

My husband has a new hawk now, a male, whose name is Oz. Stay tuned for photos and news about this new addition to our family!

European Kestrel (a small falcon). Photo by quaddie

The Kestrel (photo by deoroller)

I came across this beautiful poem about the Kestrel, which is a small falcon only a little bigger than a Robin. It’s distinctly colorful and when it hunts, it “hovers” in the currents of the wind.

It was written by Gerard Hopkins and published in 1918. He admires this remarkable bird of prey alluding that it controls the wind as a man might control a horse. The kestrel then suddenly swoops downwards and “rebuffs the big wind”.

The Windhover

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin,
dapple-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! Then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend; the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird–the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it; sheer plod makes plow down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Now that you’ve felt his immense delight for this bird’s prowess and design, watch this video of the kestrel floating on the currents of the wind with its eye to the ground for a tasty morsel.

I loved how Hopkin’s described the Kestrel as “daylight’s dauphin, dapple-drawn Falcon.” You can see in this video the beautiful dapple coloring in its wings. The Kestrel is also known as the “Windhover” as it requires a slight headwind in order to hover.

Enjoying a beautiful moment on a cool yet sunny spring day with my husband, two dogs and Gracie. I took a bunch of photos and here are the best of the bunch.

Pretty Girl

Pretty Girl

Gracie has such an intense stare with those golden eyes.

Beautiful Profile

I thought this shot had interesting angles and colors.

More intensity from a few steps back!

I'm continually in awe of her - just stunning!

This was a defensive stance to make herself look larger as our Golden Retriever approached.

A stately pose!

The sky is so blue here. I love the shadow under her wings and sun on her breast feathers

There's a turkey vulture (top right) that kept circling above us

Again - pooch coming a little too close!

Do you ever feel like you're being watched?

Yikes! It's more than a feeling!

Ok, think exit strategy...that tree looks good up there.

The film on her eyes is the nictitating membrane which protects their eyes when hunting, flying at fast speeds or feeding their chicks, keeping their most precious asset clean.

Can you feel any mice or squirrels in there? Falconers regularly check the keel feeling the musculature and level of fat on the bird.

On a recent hunting trip in South Georgia, these falconers and their hawks hunted together for squirrels, a common prey for the Red-tailed Hawk. The photos illustrate three different hawks (Gracie, an immature female, Scout, an immature male and Heath). If you look closely at the photos, you will be able to tell a difference in the appearance  – their size and coloring (you also might see a squirrel, racoon and armadillo!).

Click on the “expand” button on the bottom right corner to view larger images, then sit back, watch, relax and imagine  you were there…

Many thanks go out to Bart, the photographer who braved the forests and took these photos.

 South Georgia Hunting Trip
I couldn’t resist adding this one by itself – my Husband (above) running after Gracie who has a squirrel in her talons…

Last Saturday, January 15th, 2011

3:50 a.m. – the alarm squawked, or was that my husband? He had been up since 2:30 in anticipation of a state annual falconry “Field Meet”  where falconers convene to hunt, share stories, styles, tips and tricks. Included is a banquet (I imagined roast squirrel with pine nuts, a mouse cheese plate, possum stew and rabbit jerky), but it was actually much less sensational… steak, shrimp, and salmon (rabies-free!).

4:45 a.m. – My H, brother and cousin and hawks departed (or so I later found out, as my own self wasn’t up yet)

7:30 a.m. – they arrived at the meet, just in time for a photo shoot and then off to prepare for their first hunt.  Gracie was dressed in her jesses and bells, ready to roll. A woman had graciously offered her property (almost 300 acres) for the falconers to fly their birds.  My H, brother and a falconer family trio headed to the woods and my husband volunteered to fly Gracie first as she seemed to be at a good flight weight.

She was anxious to fly and when released into the trees initially followed well. Eying a squirrel, she chased it into a nest and jumped on it, but the little creature was stubborn and refused to come out (poor sport!). The hunters waited a few minutes to see if the squirrel would budge, but to no avail. It evidently knew what its fate could be (banquet fare?). They decided to walk on to another area, but unfortunately, Gracie’s mood changed and she didn’t follow.

Before I continue with what happened after this point, I should note that my H asked if I’d write this story in the hopes that it may help another falconer. He was concerned that he may not retrieve Gracie, but luckily with team work, perseverance and advice from a master falconer, this story has a happy ending.

10:00 a.m. – He called Gracie, but she flew further away in an ever expanding circle.  Pulling out the lure, which should be a falconer’s most reliable recall (for the women reading this, think new Prada bag), he tried to attract her, but she was indifferent. This wasn’t a good sign and he knew he was in for some trouble (think lost Prada bag).

She continued to “bump” around (flying from one spot to another) and crossed a major road to a neighboring property. They were hesitant to enter someone else’s land (as you should always have permission before doing this), but the neighbor was notified and they jumped the fence. Losing sight of her at this point would almost eliminate the possibility of her retrieval. My brother tried to nudge her back towards them and they worked at this for over an hour.  She was now out of sight, but still within earshot. The situation was getting worse and my H decided to contact his sponsor who connected him with a master falconer who was also on the hunt close by.

tfw-free-flight001

"Bumping" from tree to tree

He offered a few tips for retrieving a reluctant hawk (here is my translation):

  1. Chick-on-a-rope: Hang chick (deceased baby chicken – let’s be clear now) on a rope from tree and dangle it about 2 feet off ground in her sight
  2. The Roman: Drag chick across the ground on a rope behind you (looks better if you’re on a horse)
  3. Military-Style: Establish a search perimeter, one person walks in the dirction of the hawk while the others circle around (remember the “The Fugitive”) and stalks the hawk
  4. Ole’ Faithful: Try the lure again

I guess begging wasn’t an option.

12:00 – Good News! The master falconer found Gracie by the road and alerted my husband.  My H ran to her location and followed her until she led him to the original tree where the squirrel had hidden. He blew his whistle – no response.  He tried “Ole-Faithful” and whipped the lure around with a jolly Ho Ho Ho.  Bingo.  Baby got his bird back.

P.S. When my husband returned home, he found this helpful quote in a recent falconry newsletter: “I have heard many stories of apprentice’s birds being lost.  I can say with confidence that if a good foundation is laid and the bird is at initial flight weight, it would be hard to lose her under even the most difficult of circumstances.  There is a litany of traditional excuses as to why a bird is acting up in the field or why she cannot be flown; “she’s not used to this many people”, “she doesn’t like your hat”, “thermal conditions are bad”, “it’s too windy”, and so on down the list.  But the truth is, she is not at the right weight.  A bird maintained and if flown at the right weight can be flown at any time of day, in any weather conditions and over any size crowd of strangers without the need for excuses.”  – excerpted from an article on weight management by Gary Brewer, author of Buteo and Bushytails.

P.S. I realize this was a longer post than usual and if you’re tired of reading (as I was after I re-read this), get a cup of coffee, clear your mind and look at some hawk photos or alternatively watch hawk tv below:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PS2YozkWbTM