Alan Rogers/Casper Star-Tribune
Maggie bowed her head, covered by a leather hood. Her talons pulsed open and closed with hundreds of pounds of pressure on the perch in the back of Scott Simpson’s truck. In her blindness, the golden eagle reached out to grab at the human voices. She was daring someone, anyone, to put a hand out, Scott said.
He spoke to her softly.
“We’re working on her manners,” Simpson said.
She pushed his thumbnail with her talon as she climbed on his fist. Even through three layers of buffalo hide, the nail would turn purple. Simpson removed Maggie’s hood, and she shook her golden head.
She doesn’t like strangers. Sunglasses and camera lenses look like eyes of predators.
She raised the feathers on the back of her head and rolled the top of her wings forward like a boxer preparing for a fight.
This was mid-October, the first release of their hunting season. Simpson stood in a field and cast Maggie off of his arm.
Golden eagles arguably are the sky’s most effective hunters. Their long tails give them maneuverability. Their razor-sharp beaks and talons are deadly to prey. Their thick, downy undercoat allows them to withstand piercing winds and temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. They prefer jackrabbits, but stories tell of eagles killing coyotes, antelope and Mongolian wolves.
Simpson watched Maggie fly away, on the hunt. She didn’t have to come back. He couldn’t make her.
Soon, he would find out if all of the training and obsessing had built the trust he knew he needed, if he had convinced a purely wild animal that she was better off with him than without him.
Simpson likens falconry to advanced bird watching.
“They do what they’re going to do, and I help them a little bit and get to be part of it,” he said.
The raptors – eagles, falcons and hawks – let you help them. They won’t be your pet. They won’t be your friend, and they won’t love you unconditionally. You think you’ve trained them to work like a well-oiled machine. They think they’ve trained you to find food.
Five years ago, Simpson and his wife packed up their house in North Carolina, quit their jobs, sold their land and moved to a wind-blown spot on a hill in the prairie outside of Casper.
“You know how you can read a person? There are a lot of people who are very intuitive about other people,” said friend and fellow falconer, Larry Dickerson. “Scott is that way about birds.”
Simpson had already flown red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, Cooper’s hawks and others. He’d watched them chase squirrels through trees so thick he couldn’t see daylight. One cold, hungry goshawk split his lip in two. It required 16 stitches.
He’d seen what hawks could do. It was time to focus on eagles.
Only about 60 falconers in the country have permits to fly eagles, and perhaps only a dozen actually do. They are scary, legally the hardest bird to fly and require wide-open spaces to hunt.
Aspiring falconers first must build a facility that passes state regulations. They must pass an arduous exam, spend at least two years as an apprentice and at least five as a general falconer.
For eagles, falconers must build bigger facilities, prove they have worked with eagles in some structured setting and obtain two letters of recommendation from other falconers with eagles, rehabilitation facilities or zoos.
It can be tough to even find an eagle. As a protected species, they can’t be bred in captivity and can be trapped only in federally declared areas.
“It is a lot easier to get pregnant and have a kid,” said Casper falconer Sam Crowe. “But to have a falcon and be responsible for that, you have to take tests and have your facilities examined.”
Simpson trapped his third eagle, Bubba, just outside of Kemmerer, Wyo. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave him permission because eagles were killing lambs in the area. Bubba was 2 years old, 10 pounds and smart. He was the best hunting eagle Simpson ever had.
But Bubba did what Bubba wanted.
Once, Bubba barreled straight up instead of out to chase a rabbit, shooting back at Simpson’s face like a bullet. Simpson knocked him aside and Bubba snuck through the sage brush with his chest puffed.
“It looked like two gunfighters trying to get the sun behind them,” Simpson said.
Bubba thought he’d trained Simpson to give him a piece of meat each time he came back. When Simpson realized he’d been trained, he stopped. Bubba reacted.
“Eagles can be the gentlest of birds out there, but if you screw up and create a problem like that, number one, you better be quick, but you also better be able to recognize your mistake and figure out how to correct it,” Simpson said.
Two years ago, Bubba went to Kansas with Simpson for a falconry convention. He fell sick with avian pneumonia and died 30 minutes later.
“Every now and again, something happens that makes you want to burn your license,” Simpson said. “When Bubba died, that’s how I felt.”
Maggie was 4 years old when Simpson trapped her in the wild. It was 2008, and he’d caught wind of possible changes in regulations that could reduce the number of eagles falconers could trap.
He worked with her and gained her trust. He obsessed over ounces of fat and broken feathers.
The difference between Maggie at 10 pounds and 9 pounds is the difference between a fat, lazy bird with sharp claws and a sleek, powerful killing machine.
For falconers, summer is a runner’s winter. The birds, and their trainers, fatten up. Come fall, they start to work harder. Winter is their season.
“They’re like an athlete. We want to cut their weight down to where there’s nothing left of the fat and they are 100 percent muscle,” Simpson said. “They need to be fast, and they need to be hungry enough to be fierce.”
Simpson worked with Maggie on drills, flying between his fist and a pile of tires. At the beginning of each season, she would fly with a long leash attached to a small dumbbell. It kept her from heading for Nebraska.
Some days he worked with her for hours. Other days he simply weighed and fed her.
But then Bubba died and Simpson’s interest, patience and heart waned. He still worked with Maggie, but not as much as he should have.
His wake-up call came on Christmas day last year.
The wind was blowing 35 mph, and Simpson waded through snowbanks thigh deep. Maggie was soaring above and then took off after a jackrabbit toward the sun as it set. He looked for her until dark, then long after dark.
He wondered if he’d ever see her again.
The next morning, he drove larger and larger circles around the area where they’d hunted.
“There she was, sitting in the middle of the road waiting for me,” he said. “She’d seen my truck from a mile or more away and flown to where she’d last seen me.”
She’d eaten a jackrabbit, he could tell from the ball of food stuck in her crop, an area near her throat where eagles keep food. Eagles rarely return with a full crop. He climbed out of his truck, waived a handful of food and she flew to his arm.
“I can’t describe the bond. I just don’t know what it is,” Simpson said.
He didn’t expect her to come back.
That trust he’d created, the bond that made Maggie come back, he knew he’d have to keep building. Next time she might not return.
For most of September, Maggie vacillated between tolerating Simpson’s presence and wanting to kill and eat him.
He spent hours talking to her and rubbing her feet. He waited for her to molt and tracked her weight. He let her watch TV with him, tear apart toys on his living room floor and stare at him in anger.
In the field for her first hunt this season, Simpson attached a telemetry device to her ankle. He doesn’t usually use them because he says they make falconers lazy. Confidence tells him his birds will return.
That day, he was less self-assured.
She stood on his fist, braced against 20 mph winds, and took off. From a sagebrush perch, she watched him.
He walked slowly away with his hunting dog named Tasha, looking for rabbits to scare up. Finally, Simpson turned and called.
Maggie looked at him.
He held a piece of meat in his glove.
She looked around.
He called again, and she stared back.
And then for reasons he’ll never quite understand, she spread her massive wings and flew to his fist. That day at least, she came back.