For the past few years, I’ve been giving demonstrations at the Patuxent Research Refuge, located on more than 1,200 acres of land situated between Baltimore and Washington, DC. Established more than 80 years ago, the refuge surrounds the Patuxent and Little Patuxent rivers and is pulsing with wildlife, from minuscule insects to deer and eagles. Its mission is to conserve and protect the natural habitats through research, teaching, and wildlife management techniques.
The refuge is home to more than 60 species of water- and shorebirds, more than a hundred species of land birds, almost countless mammals from the little brown bat to the long-tailed weasel, as well as all kinds of amphibians, fish, reptiles, butterflies, and assorted insects. And of course, numerous native plants and trees. It’s like this huge outdoor research laboratory.
When I wander the grounds of the refuge, I feel like I am in my own natural habitat. I breathe the clean air and let the sights and sounds nourish my soul. Sometimes, I inhale deeply, and in that small space right before the exhale, I imagine part of this wildlife air stays inside of me, circulating in my blood.
THE DAY BEFORE, I HAD SHOWED MR. HOOTS to Shondra and her classmates, and today I’m on my way to Patuxent. One of the missions of the refuge center is to educate people young and old and help them engage directly with wildlife. That’s where I come in. Patuxent is holding a Visitor’s Day, where staff members and researchers give demonstrations and point out wildlife habitats. Mr. Hoots and Agnes are in carriers in the back of my van. They are my best-behaved raptors, so I often use them to teach.
I enter the property off Powder Mill Road and drive down the winding, one-lane road toward the visitor center. The parking guard sees me approaching and waves.
“Birdman, how are you?”
“Good, I’m good,” I say. Lots of people at Patuxent and other places call me “the birdman”; some don’t even know my real name.
“Lots of people at Patuxent and other places call me “the birdman”; some don’t even know my real name.”
I grab the carriers and my glove and head around behind the building, where it’s a little quieter, and the birds won’t get nervous. It’s a sunny October day, and unusually warm — the kind of autumn day that has the last taste of summer on its lips. It feels good, but I’m also looking forward to the colder days when I can hunt with my birds.
Falconers in the US identify and trap immature birds, care for them, and eventually release them back into the wild. Ninety percent of wild hawks and falcons don’t make it through their first winter, according to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. They crash into buildings or fences, or get hit by trucks or cars, so keeping them safe through that first winter gives them a greater chance to survive and reproduce.
I trap a new juvenile every winter. Once I trap one, I take them home, put the anklets and jesses on them, and start working with that particular bird. Then, usually that spring, I will take that bird out on a hunt. Once the bird makes its kill, I go get in the car and leave.
I keep Agnes in her carrier and put her in a room in the visitor center. I don my glove and take Mr. Hoots out of his carrier. We sit out in the sun on a low wall that surrounds a patio. From here I look out over the Patuxent River and watch a flock of low-flying Canada geese, honking to one another, which always sounds sad to me. Canada geese mate for life. Whenever I see them flying over in their V-formation, I count how many are there. If it’s an even number, chances are they are all with their mates. An odd number means someone’s flying solo, like me.
I’m scheduled to be here at the refuge for three hours, giving 20-minute presentations with 10-minute breaks in between.
One of the refuge volunteer guides comes around the corner with the first group, made up of about a dozen Asian-American children and adults. I don’t know if they are all one family or friends, but it doesn’t matter. They want to be here. And, like clockwork, when the kids see Mr. Hoots they start pointing and jumping up and down.
They sit in a semi-circle around me, and the guide introduces me. The children look to be between the ages of six and ten. I introduce them to Mr. Hoots.
“How old is he?” one child calls out.
“Mr. Hoots here is 26,” I say, moving my arm up and down a little, which prompts the owl to spread his wings. “He’s what we call a Eurasian eagle-owl, and he’s waving to you. In the wild, this kind of owl can survive up to about 30 years, but in captivity they live longer. The oldest one in captivity that I’ve heard about lived 65 years.”
“Why is his name Mr. Hoots?” asks another.
“Because that’s what he does all night long,” I say, making a hooting sound. Then Mr. Hoots replies, and the children laugh. “If he lived with you, you’d have to put cotton in your ears every night because his hooting would keep you awake.”
The 20 minutes pass by quickly, and the guide returns with another group of about four small families, two who are African American and two who are White. That’s one of the amazing things about nature and wildlife: It’s always colorblind. It’s here for all of us, no matter what color, age, or background. Somewhere along the way, humans started to think that we were better than the animals and the birds, better than the land, and we got high thinking we could control it. Power and control are just as addictive as heroin and cocaine. That led to destruction of habitats and over-developed areas. We have already destroyed so much of this planet. Sometimes I feel like the role I play is too little, that I need to do more, but I haven’t figured out yet what more is.
The families settle down, and I run through my demonstration with Mr. Hoots.
“Do you all want to see another bird?” I ask. Of course, the kids cheer, and the adults clap. I take Mr. Hoots inside, put him in his carrier, and bring out Agnes.
“That’s one of the amazing things about nature and wildlife. It’s always colorblind.”
As docile as Agnes is, with her large shoulders and sharp beak, she looks intimidating to those who don’t know her.
“Does anyone know what kind of bird this is?” I ask. The children in this group are older than those in the last group.
“A falcon,” one boy says.
“That is a great guess,” I say, “but Agnes here is a Harris’s hawk.”
“How do you know that’s what she is?”
I turn Agnes around and show them her coppery tail feathers.
“There are other ways to tell, too,” I say. “See how her chest is kind of big? That’s another way to tell. Most hawks aren’t so beefy. And the feathers on their shoulders usually form the shape of a white letter V.”
One of the mothers now raises her hand. “Yes, ma’am,” I say.
“So there are different kinds of hawks?”
“Oh yes,” I answer. “And they all have different traits and identifying marks. Take the Harris’s hawk, for instance. It learns fast and has a great memory — probably better than yours or mine. They have long legs and sometimes, if there aren’t a lot of trees around, they’ll stand on top of one another to better spot their prey; they work as a group.”
I explain how the more they research and look for large raptors, the easier it becomes to tell them apart.
When the day comes to an end, I pack up Mr. Hoots and Agnes, put them in the van, and visit for a little while with some of the Patuxent employees. Everyone who works or volunteers at Patuxent wants to be here, just like me. The ebb and flow of nature runs through our blood.
I drive back to Laurel, get Mr. Hoots and Agnes settled, let my dog Munna out, feed the horses, and watch the sun set.
I’ve been a general falconer for about five years now. In a few short months, I will attain my status as master falconer. The final step in my falconry journey. What is going to come next for me? I’ve started to feel restless because I’m ready for the next big thing in my life, the next puzzle piece to fall into place. I just don’t know what it is yet. I do know what it will include: raptors, animals, wide open spaces, and helping kids. Of course, that’s what I’m doing now. Is it possible to do all of that on a more vast and immense level? And what would that even look like? I’m determined to find out.