For centuries, humans’ relationship with animals has been related to use and utility. Scientists are now delving into more complex understanding of our fellow creatures. Seeing birds of prey up close offers a chance to appreciate both the evolutionary science — and the emotional beauty of raptors.
Kin Quitugua stood about 100 yards away from a Harris’s Hawk on the Aspen Institute campus. He whistled, and in about two seconds, the hawk soared across the meadow. The crowd released a collective exhale as it reached its talons to perch on Quitugua’s gloved arm.
“It still amazes me they come back,” he said.
Quitugua is a master falconer, and he was here as part of the Ideas Festival, where a series of lectures and discussions focused on the “genius of animals.” He showcased four birds of prey: The Harris’s hawk, a peregrine falcon, a great horned owl and the iconic bald eagle.
Through his organization Hawk Quest, Quitugua teaches adults and kids about birds of prey, and he’s clear, these animals are not pets.
"They're a being of their own, they're just allowing me to be a part of their life," he said.
Quitugua and his team brought each bird in front of the crowd, and he highlighted the superhuman qualities that these birds possess. Raptors can see their prey from hundreds of yards away. He showed how the owl can rotate his head 270 degrees — and in total silence. He pointed out the unique beak adaptation that allows peregrine falcons to dive at speeds up to nearly 250 miles per hour, and breathe while doing it.
But the most powerful part of his demonstration is when the audience got to see the Harris’s hawk up close, in flight. For Linn Cassetta, visiting from Westport, CT, it was an emotional experience…
“Didn’t it take your breath away? I mean, I was three inches away from that beautiful bird!" she said. "It's kind of a life-changing thing."
Carl Safina, an ecologist and a professor of nature and humanities at Stony Brook University, understands this feeling of wonder in the presence of the raptors.
"They are incredibly beautiful -- they make life beautiful for us," he said.
Beyond this beauty, the science is clear that humans actually have a lot in common with animals, especially other vertebrates, which have nervous systems that are nearly identical to our own.
“They have all the same neurotransmitters; they have all the same hormones that drive mood and motivation, and they exhibit behaviors that are very logical,” Safina said.
These similarities lead Safina and others to believe that our relationship with animals needs to evolve. Now, he contends, most of our contact with animals comes through raising them as food. But demonstrations like this one can help people understand a different perspective.
"Animals are of this world as much as we are, and their right to exist and have lives is equivalent to ours," Safina said. "What we really need to do because we are endangering so many and really pushing them off the face of the planet, is to leave room for them."
The birds at this demonstration are evidence of that need for wild space. The owl was hit by a car and can’t be released into the wild because of a broken left wing.
The bald eagle is in perfect physical condition. When a handler brings her in front of the crowd, there’s a collective gasp. The raptor is regal and commanding — a large female with strong muscles and sharp eyes. Quitugua explained that she was rescued as an eaglet after a hunter illegally killed her parent — and she grew accustomed to life with humans.
"She belongs in the wild, but she'd never make it because if she did get released or let's say she got away from us, if you were having a barbeque, she's going to come down and join you, cause she's not afraid," Quitugua said.
So instead of a life in the wild, this bald eagle makes a case for others, working to build connections. And according to Safina, those ties are clear. We share so much with animals, from the chemistry of our nervous systems to motivations and desires.
"We try to stay alive, we try to keep our children alive, we have to find food, and we are all literally related to one another,” he said.
Demonstrations like Quitugua’s are able to help illustrate these connections. He brings raptors down to earth and gives people a chance for a close look at what unites us with our wild cousins.