Switzerland is for vultures (and also bald eagles, peregrine falcons, snowy owls, and assorted other birds of prey)

Until a few weeks ago, what little I knew about hawks is that one of Robert F. Kennedy’s sons trained one when he was a teenager. Such are the sort of useless facts that one accumulates after spending too much time reading Kennedy family biographies.

 

vulture needs a pedi

Who do you think has nicer toenails? The Kennedys, or this vulture?

However, knowing that a Kennedy offspring had a hawk did nothing to inspire me to learn more about the animals (though at the time it did inspire me to learn more about the Kennedys). What did make me want to know more about birds of prey was Helen MacDonald’s richly descriptive memoir, “H is for Hawk.”

book cover

Read this book!

I first heard about the book when someone pointed out on Facebook that the review in the New York Times had referenced a college pal, the naturalist and writer Sy Montgomery. About a year after the book came out, another writer friend/nature lover, Elizabeth Graver, announced on Facebook that she’d read it. She praised it lavishly.

bird doing tricks part 2

I am sure that if Elizabeth Graver had seen this critter (I believe it is from the raven family), she would have praised it lavishly, as well. It sure did know how to do entertaining tricks.

I must read “H is for Hawk,” I thought to myself, but even though I’ve long since abandoned my obsession with Kennedy bios, I had too much else on my reading list and didn’t get around to it. Then, last month, my writer friend/massage therapist Laurel Deedrick Mayne loaned it to me. I was barely halfway through it when I realized I needed my own copy, so I could circle the beautiful parts, loan it to friends, and also read it to my neighbor, who shares my taste in literature and can no longer hold a book, as he has advanced ALS. But that’s another story.

vulture head

If you looked like this, you, too, might be reduced to eating dead animals off the road, because really, who would invite you to dinner?

I brought “H is for Hawk” with me to Ascona, Switzerland the last week in May. My husband had a conference there, and I was going to spend the week with a friend, Silvia Mari, who lives in the alpine lakefront town with her husband and two children. One day Silvia and I went into Milan (where she grew up, about two hours south of Ascona). On the way there and back, as she worked, I read.

more incoming

Incoming… I think this is a white-headed vulture

“We have a Falconeria in Locarno,” she said when she noticed my book. Locarno is the town next to Ascona. I thought she said “falcon area,” as in, a place where falcons congregate. By the time we pulled into the Falconeria parking lot on Saturday morning, I understood that it is a wildlife sanctuary for birds of prey and an education center for visitors.

silvia sets up dave

Silvia encourages a falconer to plant a caracara on Dave’s head. Dave thinks she is joking.

wearing a hat pays off for dave

Silvia was not joking.

Silvia had promised that there would be a show featuring the owls, hawks, falcons and eagles at the Falconeria, but she hadn’t said anything about falconers dressed in authentic 19th-century falconer garb, or that the birds would perform, as it were, to a background of classical and movie soundtrack music (Harry Potter figured prominently, especially during the snowy owl segment), or that at one point there would be more than a half dozen massive birds swooping past our heads, creating breezes that ruffled our hair. Sometimes their talons grazed the tops of our heads (as happened to Silvia). Sometimes they stood on our heads (see above).

incoming hawk

There was a beautiful choreography to the show: the birds sailed back and forth between the four handlers, gliding through the air from one corner of the open-air “theater” to the other. The lines of communication were plainly visible: you could see the human watching the animal and the animal watching the human, one giving the cue, the other receiving and reacting to it.

faclconer says oh no you don't

Watching the expressions on both sets of faces made me think differently about the sections of “H is for Hawk” where MacDonald writes about her goshawk, Mabel, as if Mabel were human (all the while making it very clear that Mabel is very much a wild animal). After  watching the show at the Falconeria, I felt I had a greater understanding of what she meant.

About fifteen years ago, Dave, my mom, Elizabeth, Noah, and I drove from Edmonton to Alaska. Somewhere in Alaska we were privileged to observe bald eagles in the wild. They were far enough away that we could not see their faces, nor did I wonder much about them as individuals at the time. But I know now that if I ever have that chance again, I won’t take it for granted.

me looking at owl

When I was a kid, I had an owl puppet that looked something like this. However, the puppet never flew off my hand (as this real one did, moments before this photo was taken. Also, it didn’t weigh nearly as much, and I was never worried that it might peck my face off. 

Dave and I spent a little more than an hour at the Falconeria with Silvia and her nine-year-old daughter, Emma, who is a big fan of the place. I could have stayed all day. I look forward to the next time I get to visit, either the Locarno location or another sanctuary for birds of prey

In the meantime, if you get a chance to go, don’t miss out on the opportunity; it’s unforgettable.

Here’s a link: http://falconeria.ch/?lang=en

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