Saying Good-Bye to Rusty

Early in July, Rusty died. Rusty was our female Harris’ hawk (HH), on either Diane’s or my permit since late 1991, when Diane trapped her in south Texas. She was 29 years old. While that age was likely far longer than what one would expect for a HH in the wild, we knew of other HHs who had lived into their thirties with falconers.

Rusty doing what she loved, being outside with her pack.

Rusty changed our lives. We had our falconry licenses for about eight years before Rusty came into our lives. I was living in Washington state, having taken a job at Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories in Richland in October 1991. Diane remained in the Dallas-Forth Worth area to complete her master’s degree in biomedical engineering. Diane stayed with our friends, Marc and Anna Nowell, who provided a bedroom and even rigged networking into it (remember, this was 1991, well before those neat Linksys routers turned up). Diane finished up her requirements and completed her defense in mid-December, 1991, and as her graduation present to herself, went to south Texas to trap a Harris’ hawk. She caught Rusty on December 23rd, which was also her parents’ anniversary date.

To that point, our falconry birds had mostly been kestrels. We had a male red-shouldered hawk, Quilli, who had been caught when he was a brancher. None of those birds had what we would call a strong prey drive, and we didn’t really have the experience to instill one. Rusty was different. Rusty came ready to hunt, and really to a large extent taught us what falconry ought to be. It took some time for us together to work out what our pack would be and how we would operate in the field. One of the first things we discovered is that Rusty’s likely role in her pack in south Texas likely had been ‘flusher’, because that’s what she tended to do when we went into the field in our first hunts. Rusty would flush something, pop up to where she could see us, realize we hadn’t caught whatever it was that had been flushed, nor even made a move toward catching it, and then chased it herself. She quickly figured out that she could let us “beat the bush” and simply do the pursuit role.

Rusty’s fondness for chasing (and occasionally catching) upland birds led us to getting a hunting dog. And Rusty’s aversion to coyotes and dogs who reminded her of coyotes led us to getting a Vizsla, Farli, in the fall of 1993. While Rusty never showed a fondness for any of our dogs, she accepted them in the field as her hunting partners, so long as they gave her the respect she felt she was due. Sometimes it took some specific action to communicate that. When we began adding Beka, our mini-dachshund, to our hunting forays, Beka did not have a clear idea of what Rusty expected. Once, as Rusty had a rabbit in her talons, Beka just followed her nose right up to Rusty and her catch. Rusty punched Beka with closed talons, which, considering the likely options Rusty had, was a pretty measured response.

Rusty was with us through our doctoral studies, and twelve of the times we shifted the location of all of our belongings. She met an array of our friends and acquaintances, and actually could be coaxed into coming to the glove with most of them. When we had multiple hawks, Rusty kept the other Harris’ hawks in line, with a definite attitude that she was the boss, of course. Rusty was a vast and positive influence on us, and we miss her deeply. This post has been long delayed because it has been hard to put down even this small batch of words when her loss is this fresh.

While there is no likelihood that Rusty could be replaced, any more than any unique human character in one’s personal dramatis personae might be, we have gotten a new Harris’ hawk. Niko is a one-year-old male Harris’ hawk, captive-bred and reared, and we are finding that Niko’s particular background makes him vastly different to handle than Rusty. For one thing, I’ve bled more in the short time I’ve known Niko than probably the whole time Rusty was my hunting companion. He’s so much more likely to grab and hold things, like hands, coming anywhere near him. I need to remember to chitter when these incidents happen. I feel a burgeoning kinship to Pterry’s Hodgesargggh, the falconer to the fearsome raptors of mountainous Lancre on the Discworld, something that I had only a muted humorous response to before. Despite the differences, it is good to have a hawk for the hunting pack.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

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