“You cultivate this deep bond, but still, your bird could always fly away,” says Lauren McGough, 34, a licensed and permitted falconer, who rehabilitates eagles from her home in the suburbs of Oklahoma City. Eagles come together to mate and nest, but most of the time they are solitary and self-sufficient. Unlike humans, eagles aren’t social animals attuned to hierarchies, or to the push and pull of cooperative living. “They have no desire to please you,” McGough says. You are evolutionarily primed to need love and acceptance. An eagle longs for very different things: She needs to soar thousands of feet above the ground on a rising column of warm air, and when she comes down she wants to rip open the bloody innards of a jack rabbit with her talons.
“It’s up to you to convince this wild animal that staying with you is worth it,” McGough says. Such persuasion begins with raw meat. When a bird is new to you, place meat inside its enclosure. Eventually, you’ll put the bit of flesh on your glove, and the eagle will willingly hop up on it to eat. “That’s when you know you’ve got them,” says McGough, who has worked with a dozen different birds and apprenticed under a Mongolian eagle master. She currently has two birds: a golden eagle named Vega, who suffered from lead poisoning and will be released back into the wild, and a Verreaux’s eagle, who is part of a captive breeding program.
Every eagle has a different personality. Work toward mutual trust and respect. Stay attuned to the bird’s body language. “They might give you the side eye,” says McGough, which you should take as a warning and possible prelude to aggression. Be patient. Be gentle. Don’t get angry, even if the bird claws you. The thing that will cement your bond is hunting together. McGough takes her dog and eagles into open spaces where she knows there will be thermal updrafts and wild hares. Sometimes her eagles fly so high the only thing she can see is a dark spot against the sky. All you can do is hope that you’ve made yourself useful and trustworthy enough to this wild predator that it will return to you. To befriend an eagle, you have to know your place. In the end, McGough says, “You’re just a lowly human trapped on the ground.”