Karl opens the creaky door to the little wooden shack out in front of his spectacular home. Tucking the pillow case under my arm and following closely, I close the door behind me as I step down from the door jam onto a packed dirt floor scattered with corn kernels and other feed. Sunlight slants through the cracks in the walls. In a whistling flurry, pigeons scatter from our presence to the furthest corner of the small space, settled wing-to-wing on homemade perches, just above shoulder height. He holds the net above his head and quickly scoops up three of them. Diligently, I pop the pillow case open, stretching it between my two hands, and he carefully removes each bird from the net, untangling them and gently plopping them in the bottom of the cotton sack. When all three are in, I twist it shut slowly for fear of making them dizzy, and place my hand underneath them to help distribute the weight and keep them calm.
Karl and I pile into his old Ford pickup and I place the sack of pigeons on my lap. We bounce along roads that are no more than glorified hiking trails, making our way slowly up the mountain through beech, white pine, and hickory trees. Somewhere behind us, his dog Bess is following. Finally, we come to a small clearing and he parks the truck behind some bushes. In front of us is the crest of the mountain with a field of sorts beyond the last stand of trees. A south-facing slope in the early morning hours in April, overlooking parts of Centre County, Pennsylvania--a little warmer than down below where the trees block the sun, and the view is stunning. The Allegheny Front stretches out of sight to the right and left across the valley and a gentle wind is pushing up against my face from below. Perfect migration weather.
A bird blind is set up in the brush to my right. In the center of the clearing, a thin pole stands about six feet tall with a string running from the top to the ground about seven feet in front of it, making a triangle, with both ends of the string running to the blind to allow a person to pull the string back and forth, up and down, while hidden. We carry our supplies to the blind; me, with the pigeons, Karl with two, blue, metal, Folger's coffee cans that have been duct taped together with a hook on top to get the hanging weight. He's cut the bottom out of one to make it one long, cylindrical container. In his other hand, he has a large circular net, about four feet in diameter, with hinges in the middle so it can be bent backward into a half moon. We put everything but this into the blind, and he motions for me to come to the pole in the clearing with him, net in hand.
He places it on the ground between the two points where the string is thread. We fasten one side of the half-moon into the ground so that it doesn't pop up, and bend the other half back over itself, rigging a trip wire to the blind that can be pulled. After one or two successful practice pulls, he decides it's satisfactory. I have to stoop to get into the bird blind. Karl hands me a tiny leather vest, the perfect size for a pigeon. Keeping the pillow case tight around my arm, I feel around inside of it for one bird and, pinning its wings to its sides, carefully draw it out. I lay it on its back on my lap, pulling first one wing, then the other through the vest, lacing it around his chest. I hand the bird to Karl and he takes it out to the net, hooking the bird to the center of the string by the back of the vest. He motions for me to pull. I pick up the ends of the strings like reigns of a horse and yank my left and right hand in succession. The pigeon bounces up and down, flapping his wings in confusion. Karl gives me a thumbs up.
He joins me in the blind; we each have a five-gallon bucket to sit on and he picks up a pair of binoculars, pressing them against the one-way glass window.
"Now we wait," he says.
We are as still and quiet as we can be. Suddenly, Karl, the binoculars still at his eyes, reaches out and taps my left shoulder with his right hand. I peer out the window and see a shadow cross over the ground. I pull hard with my right, then my left, then back again, over and over, making the pigeon dance noisily. In an instant, a red-tailed hawk comes into view, soaring into the ground, hitting the pigeon full force and tumbling through the grass from the inertia. Karl snaps the trip line hard and fast. The large net springs open, covering the hawk and prey. He knocks over his bucket in his hurry to get out of the blind with me close at his heels, sprinting to get to the net before the struggling bird of prey pries it off the ground and flies away. The hawk is pinned down, having long ago released the pigeon, which is still trapped and panicking just out of reach of the long, black talons of his assailant. In a swift, speedy moment, Karl's hand shoots under the net and grabs the hawk by it's feet with his index and middle finger between them as a spacer.
"GAH!" he cries out, sharply.
Defiantly, a single talon has pierced the skin between his thumb and forefinger, traveling the whole way through and coming out the other side.
"Can you just... can you just carefully slide that out for me while I hold her?" he asks, calmly.
It takes all the strength in my hands to pry apart the birds toes and push the talon out through the hole it made.
Already forgotten, Karl ignores the wound, excited about the bird, which he now turns upside down so she hangs from her feet. She spreads her wings to their full span, puffs out the downy, white feathers on her throat, and with her mouth gaping, small pink tongue sticking straight out, hisses at us both. I smile. I reach out and stroke her sides gently, admiring the band of dark feathers across her belly, her golden eyes under the feather-covered, bony protrusions in her skull that act like little baseball caps, shading her eyes from the sun to help her hunt during the day, making her look oppressive and intimidating. We spend the next fifteen minutes weighing her (sliding her into the coffee cans and hanging her up), counting the primary and secondary feathers on her wings, determining her age, and taking in her irritated majesty. This bird is an adult and Karl is looking for a juvenile, so he lets me take her, toss her into the air, and watch her hurry away into the blue.
Afterward, I notice this pigeon is not flapping its wings at all when I pull it back and forth. I leave the blind to see if maybe I've restricted wing movement with the little vest, but find nothing. When I put the bird down to walk back to the blind, there are red droplets covering my hand. Turning around and bending over, I unlace the vest to find a perfect hole, just like the one in Karl's hand, in the center of the pigeon's chest. I remove him from the harness. Standing still in the middle of the clearing, I cup my hands around him and hold him belly up. With each blink, his eyes stay closed a little longer. His head hangs limply to one side. There's no fight or struggle to find freedom. Here, in my palms, I watch him pant desperately, filling up his little lungs only to have the sweet oxygen rush out of the wound. When he is finally still, I stay there for an unknown amount of time before Karl sticks his head out of the blind to see what's keeping me.
"Uh-oh," he says, bringing his shoulders out the door to get a better look at me. "You all right? Sometimes they don't all make it."
My mouth glued shut, I look up at him with nothing to say. I hold the bird out in front of me like an offering, taking unsteady steps toward Karl, hoping he'll handle it. He puts his hand on my shoulder and takes the bird. With a triumphant swing of his arm, he hurls it away into the bushes beneath the trees.
"Be a good meal for something."
I look after the bird and don't make any move toward the blind.
"Tell you what, let's call it a morning. You head home, and be back tomorrow at 8:30. We're gonna get us a hawk."