Falconry As Art? Birds To 'Perform' At Wilco Fest

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This weekend the Chicago band Wilco returns to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams to curate the second Solid Sound Music & Arts Festival. On the bill? Levon Helm, Thurston Moore, Wilco, of course, and birds of prey. No, that’s not a band. We mean real birds of prey — like an 11-year-old Harris’s hawk.

So why are raptors, and the 4,000-year-old art of falconry, part of the Solid Sound lineup?

It was Wilco manager Tony Margherita’s idea. His office is in Easthampton, about 60 miles away from MASS MoCA. As he tells it, about six months ago Margherita, the members of Wilco and Solid Sound organizers were brainstorming “wacky ideas” to include in their art and music festival.

”If you see that window behind you, there are a lot of birds of prey out there that circle around by the river,” Margherita recalled, “and at some point I was driving through Hadley, Mass., and saw this sign — just an old beat-up sign — with an arrow that said New England Falconry."

I drove to find that same beat-up sign and talk to master falconer Chris Davis about being invited to “perform” at Solid Sound. His falconry is tucked away on 13 acres of leased land, down a grassy driveway, behind a handful of dilapidated buildings.

Master falconer Chris Davis (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Master falconer Chris Davis (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

”I was quite surprised,” Davis admitted. "You know I’ve been a fan of Wilco for some time.”

Davis is 56 years old and one of about 30 falconers in Massachusetts. But he’s the only one is the state licensed to offer hands on falconry education. Davis has been doing this since 1979.

On the day I visited he took me over to his raptors. They were perched on metal bars staked into the ground under shady trees. He works with Harris’s hawks, a type of bird native to the Southwest. They're smaller than red-tailed hawks, the common birds of prey here in New England.

All three of Davis’ hawks are male, weigh about 1.5 pounds and have a wing span of 3.5 feet.

“So big, but not huge,” he said.

Although they were huge enough for this reporter to feel mildly freaked out in their presence.

Harris’s hawks have reddish-brown feathers, long tails and long legs. They do not wear hoods, like in the movies. I saw clearly their piercing eyes, pointy beaks and needle-sharp talons. Essentially they are perfect hunting machines. And they’re social, which is rare for raptors, according to Davis. In fact they work together in packs to take down prey much larger than themselves.


In the wild Harris's hawks hunt rabbits, snakes, mice, rats, squirrels and the occasional pheasant or duck. I wondered if the red-winged black birds flying around the adjacent field were safe.

“These small birds that are around have nothing to worry about with these Harris’s hawks,” Davis assured me. “They just simply aren’t quick enough or maneuverable enough to catch them.”

“But what about reporters?” I asked.

A Harris’s hawk, with a wing span of about 3.5 feet (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A Harris’s hawk, with a wing span of about 3.5 feet (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Davis laughed and said reporters are pretty safe, but added, “as far as I’m aware.”

He went on to explain that the feet are formidable — the “business end” of the birds, Davis said, which did very little to calm my nerves. Harris’s hawks use their talons to capture and clamp down on their victims before squeezing them to death with pulsing motions.

It seems the falconer-hawk relationship is all-business as well.

They are not pets. Davis made that very clear. They are hunters and they want meat. Davis gives them small chunks of raw beef. That’s how he conditions them, from a young age, to return to his glove.

I find it curious that Davis doesn’t name his birds, but again, they aren’t pets. When they’re about 10 days old he slips a numbered band around their ankles and uses the last two digits to identify them.

One of his hawks, the 11-year-old dominant male known as No. 95, was extremely vocal.

"He’s food-begging,” Davis translated. “He’s saying, 'Feed me.' And when we get geared up and get ready to fly a bird ... he’ll be food-begging because he knows the routine.”

I have to admit I did not expect to actually handle a hawk on this assignment, but Davis was respectfully persuasive. He assured me no one has ever been hurt by one of his birds during his many educational sessions.

And so I watched as Davis put on a meat-filled vest, untethered No. 95 from his perch, and transferred the hawk to his arm before leading me out to the open field. As we walked I could see the bird’s lethal talons clinging to the falconer’s yellow leather arm-glove. No. 95 also wore jingling bells attached to little leg straps called jesses.

Davis removed the leash to fly the bird, but kept the jesses and bells on. Then he raised his arm to slightly above shoulder height and No. 95 took off, gliding silently to a wooden post in the tall grass. The feathery hunter immediately started scanning the ground for lunch. Davis lifted his glove again, and the bird returned. Lovely.

Andrea Shea, and No. 95 (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Andrea Shea, and No. 95 (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When it was my turn, Davis released 95 again. I mimicked his previous motion. The 1.5-pound raptor floated to my gloved hand and landed gently. He was so light I could barely feel the weight of his strong but delicate body.

It really was quite something to be that close to such a powerful predator. Breathtaking is one way to describe it. I felt a sturdy but completely manageable rush of adrenaline zip through my body as No. 95 took off for one last lap around the field.

Then, with a whistle, Davis called his bird back. It was time to wrap up the session.

No. 95 allowed Davis to secure his leash. The raptor made a noise that sounded a little like a hawk's version of a cat purring. "He's transitioning," Davis explained.

Before we left the field I had to ask a question: since live falconry will be part of the Solid Sound Festival, I wondered, is it art? Davis said yes.

”It’s actually called the art and practice. The practice being like anything you’re practicing, you’re never reaching the end, you’re always learning. And the birds are teaching me far more than I’m teaching them.”

That's where the art comes in, he said. Then Davis admitted he’s a little nervous about bringing his hawks to a crowded music festival this weekend. It's a first for all of them. He's very excited, though, to share his knowledge and passion with as many people as possible. As of this writing the master falconer had yet to decide if the public will be able to handle the birds themselves, or if he’ll focus on demonstrations and answering questions. But Davis already had a game plan for conditioning his birds of prey for the Solid Sound experience.

“I’m going to give these birds some pretty intense exposure with me in the house this week,” he said with a laugh. “I’m going to crank up the rock and roll!"

This program aired on June 24, 2011.

Headshot of Andrea Shea

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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