The Girl Who Hunts With Hawks

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The Girl Who Hunts With Hawks

Jenna Woginrich lets her falcon, Aya, fly.

Running With Sherman

Anna Kendrick isn’t just beautiful; if you could spend time with her in the woods, you’d realize she’s also lethal, a born hunter with a killer’s reflexes who thrives on things you’d never put in your mouth.

Jenna Woginrich is one of the few who have seen Anna in action, and it didn’t come easily. At first, Jenna and Anna just hung out together, watching movies at night in front of a crackling wood stove. It took weeks before they trusted each other enough for Anna to cut loose and show her wild side. Jenna was thrilled — but it didn’t last long.

“By that summer, she was gone,” Jenna says, with surprisingly little regret in her voice. “I haven’t seen her since.”

It’s a miserable day as we walk the woods near her upstate New York farm, freezing rain and icy winds lashing us from all sides, but Jenna has reason to be upbeat: on her arm is the new love in her life, a gorgeous red-tailed hawk she calls Aya Cash after the actress who starred in “You’re the Worst.”

“I have got to stop naming hawks after people,” Jenna says. “It’s really going to mess up their Google results. Someone out there is going to find my stuff online and think the star of ‘Pitch Perfect’ killed a mouse in my living room.”

Jenna was 29 when she began hunting with hawks. It’s been five years since then, and by the strict code of falconry, she remains an apprentice. Still, she’s expert enough to have trapped three wild hawks and trained each to ignore its own instincts and share with Jenna the rabbit or squirrel it just killed (surprisingly tasty, by the way, as nachos or mole).

“Why don’t they just fly away?” I ask.

“Sometimes they do,” Jenna says. “We’re about to find out.”

Today is Aya’s big test. Jenna is about to set her free on her first solo flight, giving Aya a choice between staying with Jenna or rocketing back into the forest. That’s the magic I’m hoping to understand: what makes a bird of prey choose human friendship over freedom?

Back home, I was facing a similar challenge with Sherman, the badly neglected donkey we’d adopted. Like all of us, Sherman needed more than a home; he needed a purpose, a daily mission that would make put his mind and muscles to use. I’d decided to make him my running partner for a long-distance burro race in Colorado, but one thing kept nagging at me: Was he signing on for this adventure or just submitting to it? Was there a way to make us a true team?

If anyone knows, it’s the woman who watches “Firefly” with a live raptor on her shoulder. Not that she was born to this; Jenna is a graphic designer by training who grew up in the suburbs. “I didn’t know chickens came in different colors until after I graduated college,” she says. “I worked with a woman who sold eggs from her cubicle and I thought You can do that? I got my first laying hens from her and that was my gateway drug.” She saved enough money to buy her own six-acre homestead and decided to quit her lucrative job at the outdoor equipment company Orvis to scratch out a living from the land. Now she raises pigs and sheep, teaches archery, gives fiddle classes and writes books about her life as a solo farmer.

And hunts with hawks.

Jenna got her first taste of falconry at a nearby resort where she worked as an archery instructor. She loved everything about it: the ancient lore, the long hikes in the woods, but especially, the intense focus and kinship necessary to bond with a creature whose every native instinct is to get as far from you as possible. To get started, you have to find two things: 1) a seasoned falconer who agrees to monitor your hawk’s health, and 2) a hawk.

Jenna caught Aya by slowly driving the roads around her farm for three weeks until she spotted that proud, unmistakable silhouette perched on a telephone wire. She tossed out a trap — basically, a ball of chicken wire with bait inside — and when Aya pounced, so did Jenna. Hawks are submissive when cornered, so Jenna was able to gather Aya up in a T-shirt, free her talons from the wire mesh, and take her home.

“I’m not teaching her to be my pet,” Jenna explains. “I’m giving her a chance to stay alive and become a strong hunter.” Only one in every 10 hawks survives until breeding age in the wild, so oddly, the luckiest moment of Aya’s life might have been the day she was scooped into Jenna’s hands. Jenna spends hours with Aya every day, feeding her morsels of rabbit and mouse — the same food she’d eat on her own — and testing her with short, tethered flights to sharpen her hunting eye.

“Aya and I are all about work,” Jenna says. They’re picking up a partnership that’s been around since before the Pharaohs. Ancient Egyptians were often buried with their favorite kestrel, and even cave art depicts early hunters with hawks and dogs. Very early in our in history, humans and raptors must have worked out a deal that satisfied both.

“It’s pure calculation on her part,” Jenna says, nodding toward Aya on her arm. “I’m about to set her loose, and if it isn’t a good deal for her, she’ll be gone.”

Jenna spotted what she was looking for: a branch about head-high in a tree with good flight clearance. It’s a risky day for flying. Aya may not spot Jenna in the gray rain or hear her voice over the wind. Still, Jenna slips off Aya’s hood and eases her onto the branch. Jenna turns her back on Aya. As we walk away, wondering what Aya will do, Jenna lets me in on her best advice.

Every fall, she says, she catches a new hawk. They hunt together all winter and come spring, when the bird is ready to mate, Jenna leaves it in a field with a fresh-killed rabbit to start its own life.

“You spend time crafting something beautiful, and then you let it go,” is how Jenna puts it. “The wild can be human work,” notes Helen Macdonald in her 2014 memoir “H Is for Hawk,” pointing out that without the gentle intervention of falconers who protect their birds until maturity, entire species would now be extinct. Sherman comes from a long line of desert foragers who evolved to trot marathon distances. Aya is a fledgling whose survival is threatened by power lines, farmers and bulldozed woodlands. If we can help them develop their native talents, we’ll have something better than a pet: a partner.

Aya Cash’s first free solo flight.

“Or just a long walk alone in the rain,” Jenna points out. There’s been no sign of Aya since we left her and from this distance, her natural camouflage is already making her hard to spot. A few more steps and she’ll be invisible. A faint jingle of bells indicates she’s still nearby.

“O.K., here we go,” Jenna says. “What’s the worst that can happen? She flies off to be a hawk.” She walks a few more steps, then pulls some food from her pouch, raises her arm, and whistles.

The branch rustles, and suddenly Aya plunges from the tree, soaring toward Jenna like she can’t wait to be home.