Now one of the world's most acclaimed falconers, Emma Ford discovered her passion for birds of prey as a young girl living on the Chilham Castle estate in Kent. In this charming memoir of her girlhood at Chilham, Ford makes it clear that animals have always figured as prominently in her life as people.
Soon after arriving at the estate, eight-year-old Ford begins training Wally, a Wahlburgs eagle so large that, when perched on her hand, the two are eye-to-eye. Despite the bird's size and bulk and his sharp beak and claws Ford loves him instantly. Gradually, my future crystallized in front of my eyes, she writes, and I knew with a burning certainty that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the countryside, with a hawk on my hand. With admirable strength of purpose, she sets about making her dream come true. Ford progresses from flying Wally in displays at the castle to training Pogle, a biscuit-colored kestrel full of spunk and fire from whom she learns the greatest reward of being with birds of prey the chance to work in partnership with a free spirit. To hold Pogle on my glove, release her to the heavens, then recall her from aloft seemed to me like a recurring miracle, she writes.
Ford's affections are not limited to hawks, however; she adores all animals, especially sick or injured ones. In amusing anecdotes reminiscent of James Herriott, she brings to life a lovable cast of furry characters, including her best friend Bella, a feisty miniature poodle; Cuthbert, an exotic bird with a beak like a chainsaw and a knack for charming visitors; and Mrs. Potter, a gentle owl rescued by Ford from almost certain death. As her expertise grows, Ford's reputation spreads quickly. She teaches falconry courses, supplies hawks for film and television (her credits run the gamut from John Badham's movie production of Dracula to a British Airways advertising campaign), and offers flying demonstrations. Word of her skill even reaches to the Arab nation of Abu Dabi, whose ruler, master falconer Sheik Zaid, invites the 17-year-old Ford to his country to share her techniques.
Ford's obvious enthusiasm for her hawks and all animals is contagious, and readers will find themselves laughing aloud at the young girl's adventures at Chilham. Fledgling Days should prove pleasant reading for anyone who has ever counted an animal as a dear friend.
Beth Duris works for the Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Virginia.