As we strolled through the beautiful gardens of Ashford Castle, I noticed the signs to pointing to the Ireland’s School of Falconry and thought that would be a cool activity. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind, we reached the school gates and Barry announced that we would all be experiencing the thrill of falconry.
Birds of prey are inherently lazy, only expending their energy in flight when they need to hunt so each bird has a flying weight. Over that prime weight, the bird will resist flying but if weight drops too low a bird may perish especially in cold weather. Their handlers weight each bird daily and ensure they remain within a tight boundary of their flying weight, easy right? Well, the flying weight changes constantly as birds mature so the handlers are always adapting the flying weight to ensure the birds are at their best.
The School has several different species but the majority of students will work with a Harris Hawk, the only social bird of prey on the world. Unlike other birds of prey who are solitary hunters, Harris Hawks hunt as a team similar to lions and this makes them ideal to work with groups of people.
Maya, a young female hawk, became our companion for the morning walk and each member of the group had at least one opportunity to fly her as we strolled the Ashford Castle grounds. The birds are trained to come to the raised black leather glove and expect the small reward of meat held in your palm, if you look carefully at the photos Maya’s head is focussed on the palm as she lands on the glove.
Maya is amazingly gentle as she lands on your outstretched hand, and sits quietly while waiting for you to send her airborne again. Unlike a parrot or other domestic birds, the hawk never pecks or scratches you and even if she steps off the leather glove her talons never break the skin. A truly magical experience that our whole group will remember as a highlight of a truly wonderful tour.
This is not a regular part of the Rick Steves’ 14 Day Best of Ireland tour but I cannot imagine a better addition to an already great itinerary.
Rick, please make it so.