Written by Rich Pollack. Photos by Aaron Bristol.
Jamie Goodspeed is sitting in the backyard of her parents’ Boca Raton home with a redtailed hawk tethered to a glove that covers much of her left arm. The bird, a natural hunter, has not taken its eyes off the visitor sitting just a few feet away and is watching him, well, like a hawk.
Suddenly, there is a dull thud, and a small songbird falls from the sky, landing on a patio chair. There are a few seconds of chaos as the 16-year-old Goodspeed rushes to the injured bird and puts it in the palm of her hand while the startled hawk flaps its wings.
“It’s a red-eyed vireo,” she says, checking to make sure its wings were not broken and that it didn’t have any other outward signs of injury. “He’s in shock, but he’ll be OK.”
It is the little bird’s lucky day. Not only was there a chair to break its fall, but the vireo had almost literally fallen into the lap of a young woman whose knowledge of birds—and how to care for them—far exceeds that of most people.
That knowledge and love of birds, and wildlife in general, has led Goodspeed to take up an ancient sport—falconry—that only two other people in Palm Beach County are licensed to practice. Both are much older.
“I wanted a more hands-on way of working with birds,” she says. “Most people think falconry is a sport that’s been dead for ages. But it’s not.”
The junior at Boca Raton High School—known to her classmates as “the bird girl”—discovered falconry when she saw a black hawk demonstration during a visit to the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis. She was also influenced by the book My Side of the Mountain, about a young boy and his peregrine falcon hunting partner.
“It took almost a full year to convince my parents that it was a good choice,” she says.
It took even longer than that for her to meet rigorous state requirements to become an apprentice falconer, which include passing a 100-question test as well as having a mew—a large home for the bird—built to precise regulations. In addition, she had to wait until she was 14 before she could begin the process. She also needed a sponsor, a veteran falconer willing to take her under his wing.
Falconry, a sport which traces its roots back to as early as 2000 B.C., uses raptors as hunting partners. Birds are released to find and capture prey. During training, birds learn to return to the falconer when called, because positive reinforcement translates into food. As an apprentice falconer, Goodspeed was required to take on a wild hawk in its first year and improve its hunting skills.
“We’re increasing the chance of its survival,” she says, adding that as many as 90 percent of 1-year-old hawks die due to a lack of necessary hunting ability as well as other factors such as habitat loss.
Goodspeed’s sponsor, Jupiter lawyer Tim O’Neill, believes she saved her hawk’s life when she found him about a year ago. “He would have been dead,” he recalls, adding that the bird—named Strider—had dirty talons indicating that it had been digging for worms or other food sources, which usually signals that a raptor is near starvation.
Since finding Strider, Goodspeed has been training him regularly and has taken him hunting several times. Though there is a bond between them, she is quick to point out that he is not a pet.
“He is a wild animal, acting like a normal hawk,” she says. Like many red-tailed hawks used in falconry, Strider will be released back into the wild, most likely within the next year, with his natural hunting instinct intact.
“With falconry you have this very unique bond with a wild animal, and you’re helping to conserve the species,” Goodspeed says.
Protecting birds and other wild animals is a passion for Goodspeed, who spent the past summer as an intern at Busch Wildlife Center in Jupiter, where her knowledge of birds and her understanding of how to handle raptors was put to good use. She is hoping to continue working with birds and other species after college, perhaps as a wildlife officer.
Through her bird-watching and her falconry, Goodspeed is also receiving a rare education and an opportunity to educate others. That education came in handy when the red-eyed vireo landed in her backyard. Disoriented by apparently hitting a glass window during its southward migration, the bird slowly recovered with the help of Goodspeed, who watched as its wings began to flutter within 10 minutes of its impact. With a little encouragement and a gentle nudge, the bird flew to a nearby tree and later took flight to join others of his species as they headed to their winter habitat.