Thanks to a video cam feed of a nesting box on the 14th floor of a nearby office tower, I have become a spy in the home of a falcon family.
Surveillance has not entirely taken over my life, but I do check in on the family in between tasks, a bit of a treat or reward after completing a task.
I am intensely curious and filled with anticipation when I click over to the site. I’m often startled when immediately the adult falcon sharply turns to the camera. Her gaze is direct and piercing.
Can she see me?
Of course not; but then again, is there a falcon sense of knowing when it is being watched, even through an electronic device? Could this be part of the falcon umwelt?
“The world she lives in is not mine. Life is faster for her; time runs slower. Her eyes can follow the wingbeats of a bee as easily as ours follow the wingbeats of a bird. What is she seeing? I wonder, and my brain does backflips trying to imagine it, because I can’t. I have three different receptor-sensitivities in my eyes: red, green and blue. Hawks, like other birds, have four. This hawk can see colours I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarised light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil, and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the earth. The light falling into her deep black pupils is registered with such frightening precisions that she can see with fierce clarity things I can’t possibly resolve from the generalised blur. The claws on the toes of the housemartins overhead. The veins on the wings of the white butterfly hunting its wavering course over the mustards at the end of the garden. I’m standing there, my sorry human eyes overwhelmed by light and detail, while the hawk watches everything with the greedy intensity of child filling in a colouring book, scribbling joyously, blocking in colour, making the pages its own.”
Macdonald brilliantly explains the challenge of trying to understand what another creature experiences — seeing things humans cannot, comprehending the world in ways we cannot.
So I imagine that my falcon family, or at least the adults, can sense when they are being seen and not just that they are being videoed and streamed into the worldwide web. If she can sense me, perhaps she can also sense my admiration and goodwill — love — for her and the family.
I have watched the chicks —called eyas — from hatching, tiny white fluffs kept warm under her. Grooming, feeding; and now, the fledglings beginning to stretch and flap with more control and confidence, starting their own preening. (I loved reading Wikipedia’s explanation of that word eyas — from the mistaken division of old French en niais meaning of nestling, from Latin nidus for nest.)
I check in on them during storms, relaxing to see a parent standing guard through thunder, lighting and fierce winds. I’m anxious during feeding — are all four getting enough? I am calmed and contented afterwards when I see the four nestled together in deep sleep with their bellies full.
I gasp when they bumble toward the edge of the nest, fearing for their safety when a parent is not in the box. I see them changing, day by day growing stronger, more defined as falcons. Someday soon — likely within two weeks, according to other watchers — I hope to see how they will learn to fly. I will be watching for the day when the young falcons sense me in the camera.
Meanwhile, I continue to work with awe and fascination on understanding the umwelt of these amazing creatures through the experiences of others close to them, like Helen McDonald and Mongolia’s Kazakhs with their golden eagles, and through my own limited spying. (You can join me here.)
(Left: Falcon at one month old, just banded.)