Killing a Falcon

Certain experiences mold us differently than we would perhaps have chosen. We don’t have the luxury of God’s power and perspective. We don’t have a hand in picking the people and manipulating the forces that will make us.

While in our nascent state, we have no Olympian detachment that would enable us to see our future lives stretched out like a thread or etched like a glyph into a rock.

We don’t choose our parents, their jobs and hobbies, or the vacations they will take us on or lack thereof, yet they shape our raw materials. Through practice or coercion we adopt certain postures toward intimacy, and those postures often decide the friends we will make and lose; the first few awkward, stumbling romances; the missed opportunity through laziness or lack of courage to travel one summer; and the later onset of wanderlust during college. Necessity initiates most of us into the working world, and childhood becomes a point on the horizon steadily receding.

We choose some experiences, and others simply happen to us.

Then the first gray hairs appear.

I wrote about the opening day of dove season and my total lack of shooting prowess. I have never claimed to be a sharpshooter, but as in most things involving hand-eye coordination, I usually fall right in the middle. I neither distinguish or embarrass myself.

The failure to kill a dove is an excusable failure in a society where I can simply stop at the grocery store on my way home and buy a headless, featherless, gutless chicken and put it in the oven. I can also drive through Chik-fil-A and forgo cooking altogether.

Being back in a field of trigger-happy men with dove swooping and dive bombing above reminded me of one of an experiences I would not have chosen.

It happened in a different dove field. My friend Hunter’s dad, Nick Tenpenny, who was one of my dad’s childhood friends, took me on many hunting, fishing, camping, and canoeing trips.

Mr. Tenpenny called me his “third son,” which is what my paternal grandfather Roger had called him, and that day in that September, he set me up in the middle of the field. I was probably twelve or thirteen, and I’d successfully passed my Hunter’s Safety course, missing only a couple of questions and hitting none of the clays at the shooting range. What I lacked in field experience, I made up for with faithful reading, cover to cover, of every issue of Field & Stream for about ten years running. I knew everything from elk hunting to surviving a bear attack in theory.

Why an otherwise responsible adult would put a boy in the center of a field surrounded by other hunters shooting in his direction might confuse non-hunters, but if dove are flying, a position in the middle of the field is a good one.

A conscientious shooter never shoots low, or a trajectory of about 30˚. The majority of the shots happen above 45˚, so if #7.5, #8, or #9 shot pings your skin, the tiny BBs surprise more than hurt you. Occupational hazard, I suppose.

Sitting in the middle of the dove field is only as dangerous as one’s fellow hunters are careless. In other words, dove hunting is similar to driving.

No matter how vigilant you feel, dove sneak past you. They typically move from a source of water or trees where they roost at night to the fields to feed. Some of them survive the fusillade along the tree line only to land right in the middle of the field. Though shooting a feeding dove is bad form the same as shooting at sitting duck, that doesn’t stop unscrupulous hunters from blasting them.

I remember one particular bird that came winging toward me, somehow evading the thousands of shot peppering the air around it. I remember it because I actually hit it. It crumpled and fell to the ground. That explosive feeling of elation filled me as I walked over to retrieve it.

I’d hit it! I’d hit it when everyone else had missed!

The bird wasn’t dead.

It wasn’t a dove.

It wasn’t even a Killdeer. I took a step closer, and my stomach lurched as a piercing eye looked right back at me. It opened it sharp raptor beak and shrieked at me. It was some sort of falcon, and later, I learned it had to be either a Merlin or Kestrel. Merlins are similar in size to a pigeon and resemble that ubiquitous bird in flight.

I’d shot a falcon.

Not knowing what else to do, I walked over to Nick, and if I’d had a tail, it would have been between my legs. I’d gone from effervescence of elation to the weight of sadness in an instant.

“Mr. Tenpenny,” I said. “I shot something and it’s not a dove and it’s not dead. What should I do?”

He replied with the brevity and practicality of an experienced outdoorsman:

“Stomp its head.”

I took a deep breath and sighed and walked back over to my victim.

Fighting back tears, I stomped the heel of one of my boots on the falcon’s head, and ground it into the dirt. As I picked up the now-dead falcon, I could help but notice its beautiful coloration—the brown streaking and banded tail; the powerful yellow feet and black talons; the soft breast feathers and longer, stiffer wing pinions. Its design was perfect. It belonged in the air. It had been flying just moments before.

I walked to the woods and tossed it out of sight.

The heaviness stayed with me the rest of the day, and obviously, I remember killing that bird and still regret it.

We choose some experiences, and others simply happen to us. I didn’t want that experience. The creature was the perfect embodiment of its own idea—the ideal airborne killer that ended life to eat and for no other reason—and what now seems ironic is that I ended its life by mistake.

I wonder how human error—our bad judgment and limited senses—factors in to God’s conception of us. We are free to make mistakes and snuff out life. We understand morality, we have a conscience, and are therefore accountable for the decisions we make. A falcon kills by instinct, and is thus guiltless. We kill by volition, and thus lose our innocence. I don’t want to romanticize any more than I already have, but I do wish that I had missed that bird years ago the same way I missed dozens earlier this month.

We make many mistakes early, and spend the succeeding decades trying to parse out God’s pardon from the jumble of joyful memories and regret.

I believe God does speak, and perhaps if that falcon were a thinking creature and a messenger, I could translate the noise it made: “You’re human. Of course you make mistakes. Mistakes are your birthright. I forgive you for what you have done. Now, with my blessing and with this memory, go and do better.”

Remembering is vital to our transformation, but what often remains mysterious is what “better” looks like: perhaps a hunter who loves the bird in the air as much or more than the one in his hand.

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