The first thing I notice, as if there’s anything else remarkable about this scrubby swath of suburbia, is the glinting network of 9,000 solar panels, cordoned off by a chain-link fence: not the setting I had imagined when I thought of hunting, but then falconry is an adaptable sport. On a cold and clear Saturday in late November, about twenty falconers have gathered for the Massachusetts Hawk and Falconry Trust’s first meet of the season—to take turns flying their trained hawks in pursuit of rabbits. We’re fourteen miles outside of Worcester, in the Blackstone River Valley, at a place called Hilltop Farm, which is not to be confused with Hilltop Farms, the housing development across the street. Beyond the panels, fields layered with patchy snow give way to gnarled scrub—briars and vines that border the forest in the distance. Not long ago, this was a functioning farm, but little by little the property has been repurposed—for the solar panels in 2012, and, this year, for a self-storage complex to be built on a portion of the nearby snow-covered field. All that’s left of the old farm is a weathered barn and silo, a few horses in a pasture. The electric fencing has a charge so weak that you can’t feel it through a winter glove. The rest of the property has succumbed to briars, beneath which burrow dozens of rabbits, or so it seems, judging by the pellets, piss, paw prints, and other signs that falconers clue in to.
Wendy Pavlicek, one of the more experienced falconers here, must raise her voice to be heard over the chatter of the group—mostly men in Carhartt gear, camouflage pants, and clunky winter boots. Those who are regulars at the meets stand and gab, catching up, cracking jokes, assessing the upcoming deer-hunting season. They point to the deer tracks in the snow and elbow one another, talking about doe permits, tree stands, and Pavlicek’s voice goes up a notch as she lays out a few basic rules: The falconers will release their birds one at a time, and everyone will work together to try to flush rabbits from the briars or grass, a process called “pushing through.” A line of “beaters” will enter the shrubs, thwacking bushes with sticks to scare out rabbits; “pushers” will then form a line perpendicular to the beaters. Finally, the whole entourage will move in V-formation across a patch of land, trying to flush a rabbit into the sight-line of the raptor.
After Pavlicek’s instructions, we all crunch our way across the snow to an old concrete bay that likely once held farm machinery but has since crumbled into the ground. Next to it is a small dip of land filled with briar bushes, and beyond that, a stand of oak and hemlock. We won’t bother entering the woods, focusing instead on the patch of thorns. This is where the rabbits are.
The first falconer of the day is Austin, a high-school senior and the youngest falconer here. He’s flying a red-tailed hawk named Jason, after the mythical leader of the Argonauts. Under Pavlicek’s guidance, Austin instructs a row of beaters armed with sticks and ski poles to line up at the edge of the horse pasture. I shadow a man named Tony, dressed in a Carhartt jumpsuit. At Austin’s command, we hunch and start moving through thorn bushes in a kind of waddling squat, almost crawling through them, jabbing at the crowns of the bushes, smacking our sticks against the branches. Pavlicek’s instructions are muddled under the crunch of the snow and the sound of my jacket being ripped by thorns close to my head. Occasionally, we can hear the faint jingle of the bells tied to Jason’s leg—the falconer’s way of keeping track of the bird.
When I come to an opening, I can see the other beaters’ breath rising up through the branches. So far, no rabbits, but Pavlicek assures us that this spot is a jackpot. She points back to the thorns we’ve just crawled through, which were, admittedly, “loaded with bunny crap”—the Cocoa Puffs–shaped drops—as well as spots of orange urine bleeding through the snow, and thousands of little clawed footprints. “Guys,” she says, pointing, “the bunnies are all in that brush.”
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