As the Gyre Widens (2006)

I had never seen so much blood on my hands. I didn’t kill him. I don’t know when he died or how he died, but I know it had something to do with a girl – a female named Bonnie.

Cherokee (US GOVT RW 084977) was hatched in July, 1994 in Vaughn, Montana. Part peregrine, part gyr, all falcon. Cherokee has the dark moustachial stripe and rufous chest of his father and the general gyr gestalt of his mother, the mellow temperament of the cosmopolitan peregrine combined with the heavy build and increased talon-span of the circumpolar gyrfalcon. With a unique genetic makeup created through artificial insemination, Cherokee was literally predesigned for a post-mortem enshrinement within the dark basement of the American Museum of Natural History.

Captive-bred hybridization is itself a hybrid sport, combining the captive-breeding techniques of a raptor biologist with the training skills of a falconer. Like most falcons bred for falconry, Cherokee’s hawking competencies were exhaustively cultivated. In the manning phase, he was acclimated to human situations; in the training phase, he was conditioned to associate a whistle with imminent feeding. In the adjustment period, he was weighed daily to approximate the weight at which he is eager to hunt but not starving. To quantify “eagerness,” his trainer would sound the Pavlovian signal so that Cherokee would fly to his trainer’s hand looking for food; the initial distance between the trainer and the bird was increased, and when Cherokee still came to the outstretched hand from 100 yards away, his trainer took him off his line. Once in the field, Cherokee would fly above his falconer and glide continuously about in a circle, turning and turning. Before engaging with live game, the falconer swung a lure made of feathers and a food reward (such as a piece of raw meat), and Cherokee learned very quickly that his falconer would be the one presenting the prey. When his falconer rattled a bush or sedge, he would flush out a pigeon or duck; from up in the air, Cherokee would fold his wings and stoop down, talons wide open. Descending at up to 200 miles an hour, Cherokee would strike the bird with his feet, while also raking its back, scraping it with his hallux (or hind toe). The prey would fall to the ground, dead or stunned. Cherokee would follow it down and bite its neck with his notched beak, severing its spinal column.

Cherokee was flown for nine years in Suffolk County, Long Island. He was a decent hunter. Hawking was his profession and he earned his keep by marketing death. His brother Montana suddenly fell dead for no apparent reason, and he soon followed.

I met Cherokee on a particularly grisly October afternoon when I returned to immortalize my first AMNH specimen. He was freshly defrosted, having just escaped his frozen seclusion the night before, for the first time in his year-long cryogenic storage. There he was, eyes sunken, wings haphazardly flopped open, lying anti-climatically on a few paper towels in a cafeteria tray. Hardly the vision of a raptor.

After making my medial incision, my first mental note was that, visually and tactilely speaking, he was very dry and really skinny, but not emaciated. Leg by leg, wing by wing, tail, and head, I separated his flesh from his skin. Within two hours, I had his skin on the left side of my tray, and his body on my right. Cherokee will not make for a dermestid meal because his skinless body contains only a partial skeleton, which is not of much scientific use. In order to retain his intact skin, I left bones in the wings, legs, and tail, and I left the front of the skull attached to the bill.

I placed Cherokee’s external façade back into the freezer, to stuff on another day. Then I opened up his body and followed the usual protocol for museum specimens: (1) collect pieces of the heart, liver, and breast muscle, and using a shiny, new razor, pulp the tissue for easier DNA extraction, and then (2) measure the testes, which in his case was L: 11×8 mm, R: 9×6 mm. (Testes of this relatively large size suggest that Cherokee might have been fertile and capable of producing viable young, had his breeder allowed him to mate.) I crammed his tissues into a tiny vial and placed it into a box where the ice cube tray would usually go.

Since the museum would not conduct a professional necropsy, I was then allowed to play pathologist. The vibrant, reddish shades of the fall leaves outside made for a striking juxtaposition to the blood on my hands. Looking down at my hands, I spent a few seconds regretting my choice to skin the bird gloveless. That amount of blood was very unusual, and as the red water swirled its way down the drain, I realized that something must have gone terribly wrong inside this beautiful bird. The observable facts: (1) he has a major tear on the right side of his face, (2) looking at the inside of his skin, he has wounds on the right side of his breast and on his lower left side, and (3) there is an abnormal cavern in his right lung. These wounds could be lesions symptomatic of the common respiratory infection aspergillosis. I opened up his trachea to test this; however, since nothing was obstructing it, I had to rule out my first hypothesis. I threw his remnants into the biological waste bin “chicken food,” all the while wondering what killed him.

For days I wondered. Perhaps those were puncture wounds resulting from some external agent. An impaling tangle of branches perhaps? Or perhaps a barbed wire fence? The answer came in an unceremonious email from the senior scientific assistant of the ornithology department: Cherokee “died a few days after a tussle with another falcon . . . a ‘pure’ peregrine female named Bonnie who died the same day she fought with him.” And there you have it, a dame did him in. Perhaps the wounds went septic and a blood infection set in, causing a systemic infection. Perhaps whatever blow he took in the chest resulted in a punctured lung. I’ll never know.

On the eve of Halloween, I decided to put Cherokee to rest, to let him sleep forever in his aluminum sarcophagus within the rows upon rows of museum stacks. The amount of time it took me to stuff him could be measured through the mounting pile of failed cotton eyeballs and brains. He deserved better than a bloody cotton eyeball peering out through empty orbits and a cotton brain not big enough to stabilize the dowel spine; or too big, so that the cotton eyeballs bugged out of his eyelids. As if he could comprehend the gory frustration of it all, Cherokee left a final permanent stain on a clean, beige shirt when his blood squirted out in a parabolic arc as I tried to clean out his hollow femur. When his brain and eyeballs were satisfactory, Cherokee received a fluffy body and neck, also made of cotton. After I had placed enough cotton in what would have been his body cavity (but not so much that he looked overfed), I sewed him up and made him quasi-whole again. His wings were tucked in, his legs tied up, and each feather meticulously preened. I pinned him down so that he would dry in the optimal position, and the desiccated trace amount of meat left in him will not rot while he lies in a museum tray for the foreseeable eternity.

When Cherokee was ready to be unpinned, I returned to the AMNH for the fourth and possibly final time. I posed for a picture holding Cherokee in my hands like a trophy. I made some final measurements of Cherokee’s culmen, tarsus, cere, and the like, and I laid him down in the fumigation cabinet just outside the prep lab. Soon he will be accessioned and inserted into a shelf on one of the six floors of the bird collection.

And my catalog entry for Cherokee is written in archival pen: JCF 37, male, Falco peregrinus x F. rusticolus, adult, testes developed, no fat, no molt, tissue saved.

~ by Janet Fang on December 12, 2007.

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