The Veteran and His Hawk

Army vet Jayson Legg comes back from war … with a bird’s help

by KEVIN KNODELL

“Stubborn sumbitch,” Jayson Legg says with a chuckle as he looks up into the tree. Legg is a falconer, and his red-tailed hawk Flaps is ignoring his commands. The raptor looks down at Legg with utter disinterest as Legg tries to hail him with a whistle. It’s Feb. 2o and an uncharacteristically clear winter day in Washington State.

Legg, a U.S. Army veteran, has been an outdoorsman and hunter his whole life. Both before and during his time in the military, he tracked and hunted elk, cougars and other game. He even worked as a hunting guide on occasion.

But Legg’s life changed during his final deployment to Afghanistan six years ago. An explosion inflicted severe injuries to his neck and vertebrae. Though his injuries healed — kind of — his neck is fragile now and his spinal disks are precariously displaced.

Doctors determined that another impact could exacerbate his previous injuries. The recoil of shooting a rifle risked paralyzing him. That essentially meant an end to his soldiering.

And it also meant no more recreational shooting or hunting. It was a difficult adjustment for Legg.

But for years, Legg had been curious about falconry — hunting with birds of prey. It’s a tradition dating back thousands of years. As Legg readjusts to civilian life and comes to terms with the traumas of war — both physical and mental — falconry has become a kind of therapy for him.

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Flaps in the back of Legg’s truck before the hunt. Kevin Knodell photo

Falconry isn’t something just anyone can casually take up. “I don’t want people to get the idea that you can just go out into the woods and catch a hawk,” Legg says. It requires getting the sponsorship of an experienced falconer plus proper training, equipment and a willingness to interact with the animal on a daily basis, caring for it, building a relationship.

The falconer obtains a bird — often caught in the wild — and trains it to be a hunting companion. Rules governing which birds a falconer can obtain, and how, vary from state to state.

Human and bird form a partnership. The human handler, sometimes joined by a dog, moves around on the ground to flush out game. The bird catches the quarry as it attempts to flee. The human sometimes helps the bird by subduing “high risk” prey such as rabbits, whose powerful legs can do serious damage to a bird’s hollow bones.

“My first bird when I was down in Louisiana — and here — was a kestrel falcon, mainly because I was still in the military when I started and I didn’t have the time nor availability to go out and find the rabbits,” Legg explains. He says that falconers often overlook the kestrel, a relatively small bird, because the tiny raptors can’t catch “majestic game” such as rabbits or pheasants.

But for Legg, it’s more about the experience of working with the animal and being in nature. “With the kestrel I could hunt starlings and sparrows, anything in a small micro field. I could do a lot so that was the best bird for me,” Legg says. “Their flight style, their tenacity, their personalities are just absolutely phenomenal.”

After Legg left the military, he and his family moved to Washington State, where he found a new falconing sponsor named Ken Parker. Legg intended to continue using a kestrel to hunt. But he soon found out that Washington is very different than Louisiana.

“Unfortunately when we were out hunting, I found out quickly that the Cooper’s hawk population is very high around me,” the veteran explains. “A Cooper’s hawk actually swooped out of the tree line and took my bird off the fence post.”

With that, he and Parker decided to get a red-tailed hawk. It’s a much larger bird, better able to stand up to predators and capable of taking much larger prey. On Dec. 9, 2015, Legg caught Flaps.

“He trained quick, he was super quick to catch on,” Legg says. But Flaps was also battling a number of ailments. He had ground worm and a high yeast count.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is that a lot of birds of prey don’t make it in their first year, like 85 percent of them,” explains Legg’s friend and fellow falconer Anthony Williams. Young birds risk starvation, illness and occasionally abuse by humans. “Unfortunately, there’s still people that cause harm to them,” Williams says.

As Legg endeavored to socialize and train Flaps, he and his wife also worked to get him healthy. “We fattened him up so that he had the strength and the energy to fight off anything he might fall to, disease-wise.”

Despite the close care and relationship, Flaps is not a pet. “It’s a wild bird,” Legg says. “You’re always at risk of losing him.”

That could be the result of a predator catching or chasing the bird away — as was the case with Legg’s kestrel. Also, in some cases the bird may decide it’s no longer interested in working with the handler and choose not to return. “You always have to be prepared for the event that he leaves and you don’t recover him,” Legg says. “You want to make sure that he’s set up to succeed and survive without you there.”

But when the relationship does work, it’s special. Williams, who has been a falconer for 30 years, explains that some birds of prey can live for decades and may spend their entire life with their handler.

“It’s a very strong bond. A bird of prey to me is 10 times smarter than any dog. They evaluate circumstances. They know their handler. They learn to trust their handler. The key thing is trust … it’s a partnership, it’s a bond, it’s a friendship.”

“When it all comes together, that bird is your hunting partner, it’s not your bird,” Williams adds. “When I’m out with my bird, that’s my team — it’s me, my bird and my dogs. It’s a team and we all have one goal and that is to put up game and bring game to the table.”

For veterans who pursue the sport, it can in some ways replace the teamwork and comradery of active military service. Williams says that falconry is clearly therapeutic for Legg. “He gets to care about something and he still gets the same teamwork. When he brings a dog into the game, that will be another part of the team. It’s going to be one cohesive unit.”

“You know, a lot of these guys, the wounded warriors, they’ve got therapy dogs,” Williams adds, indicating Legg. “He’s got a therapy hawk.”

But during our trip, Flaps is uncooperative. Legg explains that Flaps had been acting out for a few weeks now — ignoring commands, staying high in trees and often not returning for hours. Despite a solid start with the bird when they first began training, Legg struggled to bond with Flaps the way he had with his kestrel.

“My advice to Jayson would be to let this bird go, let him back out into the wild and next September we trap him another one,” Williams says as he watches Legg try to entice Flaps to return with food. But Williams says that Legg has already fed Flaps and the bird is enjoying the sun and breeze up in the tree. That might explain the animal’s reluctance to hunt.

Legg says that he’s actually coming to agree with Williams. He hopes to get Flaps to return, but ultimately plans to release him in the wilderness. “It’s not like I taught him how to hunt,” Legg says. “I just taught him to tolerate my presence.”

Still, Legg is visibly frustrated when Flaps decides to stay in the tree. Eventually the falconers decide to leave the bird. “I’m going to come back tomorrow,” Legg mutters. Sometimes a bird will stay at a location overnight before returning to its handler. But Legg says he isn’t sure Flaps will come back.

Legg admits that, in some ways, that’s something to learn from, too. “That’s actually something I like about this sport,” he says. “It’s helped me rebuild my patience. … I know that yelling at [Flaps] will have absolutely no positive effect.”

And if Flaps decides not to return, Legg says that’s fine, too. “We’ll both be alright,” Legg says as we drive away.

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