As a self-described ‘odd ball’, I have always known that I wanted to do something different to everyone else. Who knew that a feathered friend like no other would be just that! I spent most of my life interested in animals, I found it comforting being surrounded by feathered and furry creatures. My interest veered off towards birds and at the age of 10, Birds of Prey became my main focus. I spent lots of time reading, researching & bird watching trying to gain as much knowledge as I could. It was clear after a few years that I needed a more hands on approach to develop my interest.
My dad bought me Keye when I was 12 and he was just, 14 weeks old. He was reared by his parents so I could train him from scratch, something I believe to be very influential in the bond we built over the years. Even that early on, I knew this was going to be one of the best things I ever did, not realising exactly how important he’d be for my future career path.
It was fate, we’d been looking for a Harris Hawk for sale, far and wide, only to discover Keye was literally ready and waiting 15 minutes up the road from home. He had the most beautiful big brown eyes, the brightest yellow feet and legs and a slightly flatter head than I was expecting. He was perfect, although at this point he had no intention of coming anywhere near me, in fact I was the first human being he had ever seen, poor bird!
My infatuation with him had begun and I’d spend hours each day with him, talking, sitting together and learning about each other. I needed to get into his world and I wanted him to allow me to do so. This process is called manning, something that’s believed to be the most important part of the training method, this is the foundation for all good things to come, not to be rushed or taken lightly.
I spent months on this process, much longer than what is considered ‘normal’ but I enjoyed being around him, I loved the connection that we’d developed. He took his first flight with me in the fields behind our house. It wasn’t long before he was ready to take his first free flight, the scariest and most intense moment! Holding my breath as he took off to a tree, made a perfect landing and spun round to check where I was, he took off without hesitation and landed back on my glove. At that moment I knew that getting him was the best decision I had ever made.
There were, of course, bad habits picked up along the way too, I was so young training him that we literally learnt together. He’d land on my shoulder, probably not ideal, but I loved it. I trusted everything about him, I was never in danger of being injured and in fact the entire time we flew together I never even considered it. He’d pull my hair and tug on the collar of my coat for attention, he was so cheeky and I loved his blossoming personality.
In 2012 I became a Falconer at Leeds Castle “the loveliest Castle in the world”. It was such, an amazing achievement and role, something I dreamt of for so many years and to get this far on experience alone was completely down to Keye. I’m so glad and so lucky to have had him with me every step of the way. I owe him so much, I genuinely believe that he taught me everything I now know about Falconry and gave me all the tools I need to do the job I love.
For the next 6 years he spent his days flying in the Castle’s demonstrations and flying to guests on our experience days, both of which meant he could show off his amazing flying talent and educate people on how birds live and survive in the wild.
By the season of 2018, after many wonderful years it was clear he was getting older, this bird, who once spent all day with me out in the field, was now needing to nap in the afternoon just to get through the day. It would have been selfish of me to allow him to continue, when it was obvious age had started to get to him. The decision was made to retire him at the ripe age of 18, it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do knowing we’d never fly together again.
Keye has been my best friend since I was twelve years old, no judgements and no issues just care free days spent out in the fields together. Some of the best memories I have include him, from laying in the garden with him perched on my leg whilst I do my homework to taking him to school to raise money for charity.
This bird has been with me for more than half my lifetime!
The plan was to retire Keye with Texas; she’s the female Harris Hawk that he had flown with for many years. They have a wonderful bond and she is perfectly suited to him. By retiring the both of them together we’d leave them in an environment where they’d be comfortable enough to breed and hopefully I’d be able to fly one of their babies once they’d had some.
Both hawks retired in the November and in March 2019 the first clutch of eggs had been laid! Such an exciting time watching them use their natural instincts to nest build, lay eggs and incubate, I could hardly contain my excitement, feeling hopeful I’d have another Harris Hawk to fly within a few months! Unfortunately this turned out not to be the case, all the signs were there but the eggs were infertile. This continued, breeding season after breeding season, clutch after clutch, each time it got harder getting closer to the reality that I may not ever have a connection to my Keye again.
I never wanted just another Harris Hawk, I knew I could never replace Keye but having one of his babies would mean that I was close to him again and carrying on his bloodline and legacy.
After three years of waiting and hoping, I’d finally come to the point where I had to accept it wasn’t going to happen. Maybe I’d left it too late to retire him? Maybe something wasn’t right for them? Either way it was something I needed to accept, as long as he was happy then that’s all I wanted. He should be happy and live the rest of his years like that, that’s the retirement he deserves after everything he’s done for me.
On 21st April 2021 we had the surprise of our lives when there was movement in the nest. Texas had got up to feed revealing a tiny little ball of fluff!
There it was trying to sit up in the nest, no control over his/her little head, wobbling around trying to see what’s going on. With everything that’s been happening in the world lately this was the absolute best news I could have heard.
Having to name a bird is one of the hardest tasks, this name the bird will have for the next 20 years or more. Having had a list of names I liked I decided on “Gallo”, it just seems to fit his/her cute little face.
Words cannot describe the feeling I had at that point watching this little bird in the nest, for me it was a miracle, a way to carry on all the wonderful memories his dad had started so many years ago.
Gallo has no idea how important he is already, this little bird is the reason I get to keep my best friend close to me for years to come.
Blog by Hannah James, Head Falconer at Leeds Castle