In late February eight years ago I decided to take my son hunting with my Red Tailed Hawk, Shihan, and myself. My son, four at the time, had never been hunting with me before and had been pestering me to take him for months.
We drove out to a field not too far from my house. This particular area was a great place to find bunnies because there was a large selection of food for them, and large tracts of briars that the bunnies love to hide in divided the whole area.
When we got there, I got the bird out of his box and cast him up into a nearby tree. He landed on a low branch and started moving his head back and forth, peering into the bushes. I got out my walking stick and waded into the waist deep briars, smacking at the branches hoping to get a bunny to run out of his hiding place. Dolan was too small to come along with me into the briars, so he followed along on the edge, hoping to see the bunny run out.
It was a great day for hunting, overcast and a little warm. I took off my glasses and stowed them in my hunting vest. I usually wear these when hunting squirrels to keep the falling bark and leaf debris out of my eyes, but today we were looking for rabbits and I wouldn’t need them. I took off my coat and tied it around my waist. I was already working up a sweat.
“How you doing over there?” I called out to Dolan.
“Good. See anything?” The excitement in his voice was infectious.
After a few minutes I heard some rustling in the bushes off to my left. I couldn’t see what it was since the shrubbery was blocking my view, so I moved towards that area beating at the thorny vines with my stick. I knew I had hit pay dirt when Shihan launched himself from his branch and plummeted into the briars. I couldn’t see where he landed but I heard the shrill shriek of a rabbit. He’d scored!!
I yelled to my son that we’d gotten one. He still couldn’t get to where the hawk was so that he could see. I could see him jumping up and down, pumping his arms, and yelling, just as excited as if he’d caught the rabbit himself.
I fumbled over to where the hawk had grabbed the bunny. It was in a small clearing between two clumps of briars. The bird was holding down the bunny by the rump and head. Perfect! Just like he was supposed to do.I moved in close and grabbed hold of the rabbit.
We’d only been here a couple of minutes so I thought, maybe, after I dispatched this one, we could go for doubles. Dolan wanted to wade in and see what was happening, but he just couldn’t get past the briars, which were almost up to his head. There was a small path he could have followed back, but I told him to stay where he was. I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be when I dispatched the rabbit.
I reached in below the hawk and grasped the rabbit by the hind legs wrapping my gloved hand around his neck. I started to pull on him, but I couldn’t get a good enough hold. The rabbit’s fur kept sliding around in my hands and my attempts to keep him from further suffering weren’t working. I decided that I needed to get a better grip on the bunny. Throughout all this Shihan was doing great. He waited patiently with both his talons still clutched to his prey, wings outstretched to hide the rabbit from any unwanted intruders.
I leaned in closer, wrapping my hands around the rabbit, and in so doing I bent my head forward, towards the bunny, whose struggles had diminished. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I believe that the hawk must have thought that I was trying to take possession of his catch and would begin feeding. Abruptly, before I even saw any movement, Shihan had detached himself from the rabbit. I saw the lighter bottoms of two huge talon feet launching themselves directly at my face. Before the image had registered in my mind, I felt the searing pain of inch long nails sinking into my face and eyes. I don’t think I screamed; I don’t think I moved, but the image of my deflated eyeball swinging against my cheekbone inserted itself in my head.
I dropped the rabbit in shock, surprise, and a little bit of fear. The bird let go and dropped back down on its prize as if nothing had happened. I let him have it. I tore off my gloves and went to touch my face, but I was afraid that the images in my mind would be true. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I felt no pressure of a ruptured eyeball, and I could see with both eyes, but blood was pouring down the front of my hunting vest.
I had to see what happened, but I couldn’t leave my bird there. So I tied the bird to my belt while he began plucking the fur from the rabbit. I tentatively probed around my eye with my fingers, feeling to be sure none of the structure had been damaged. My face felt a little tender, but otherwise it seemed okay.
In the meantime, Dolan was calling from the briar’s edge. “Dad, are you okay? Can I come see?” “I’ll be out in just a minute,” I replied. “But, uh,” my voice was shaking just a bit. I hadn’t realized what a shock of adrenaline had traveled through my system and was now only beginning to wear off. “Daddy’s face is bleeding a little.
I got to my feet and transferred the bird off his kill. He hadn’t even had time to break into it yet, but at this point I really didn’t care. I picked him up and waded out of the bushes.
Dolan was gazing up at me. I was expecting shock or fear but it looked like he wanted to laugh. I was surprised.
“Daddy, you look ugly.”
That one sentence brushed aside all my fears that I had been really maimed by my own hawk. I felt a grin spread across my face.
“Can I see the bunny?” Dolan asked excitedly. “Yeah, let’s put up the bird first.” I replied. We walked back to the truck and I put Shihan back in his giant hood. I crawled into the front seat to inspect my face in the mirror. Rivulets of red had streaked down my cheeks and some had pooled in my bottom eyelid, but once I wiped it all off with a wet napkin from the glove box, I looked pretty good. Hell, we could go for doubles.
I showed Dolan the rabbit we’d caught, and then got the bird back out, and tromped back into the woods. This time we were looking for squirrels. After about an hour without flushing a thing, I could tell Dolan was getting tired and my eye was starting to feel a little funny. There was tightness about it and my vision was getting fuzzy around the edges. We headed back to the truck and got ready to go home.
I looked at myself again in the rearview mirror and was shocked. My left eye was slowly filling up with what looked like blood. The entire white of the eye was almost gone, now it was a glistening crimson. I called my wife from the cell phone to let her know I was stopping at the doctor’s office on the way home.
I found out later that the hawk’s talon had actually pierced my eyelid and had scratched my eyeball, but the blood and the swelling was due to blunt force trauma. In other words, it wasn’t the scratch that turned my eyeball red, but the force of his foot hitting my face. I had to wear sunglasses every day at work for the next month as my co-workers couldn’t look at me without becoming nauseous.
Probably going for doubles that day wasn’t the brightest idea, but what I really learned was that you never know what can happen in the field, and it’s important to be prepared for it. So now, when I leave the house I make sure I’ve got a spare of everything with me, and I always wear some type of protective glasses.