On Borrowed Wings, a Plumber Soars Over Sao Paulo

He has found a way to soar above the gutters and drainpipes of his workdays in Sao Paulo’s crowded apartments and alleyways. The shy plumber from Minas Gerais, in this unique portrait from Brazil’s Piaui Magazine:

“Your chicken does look different, man”, commented a homeless man when he saw the exuberant bird of prey that Carlos Alberto dos Reis carried on his arm. It was Pandora, a female Harris’s hawk. Almost half a meter tall, with a chestnut-red plumage, a sharp beak and a menacing look, the bird became the center of attention in Roosevelt Square, São Paulo.

“Where did you catch it?”, asked a young man. “Shouldn’t she be free?”, said an old lady. “May I put it on top of my skateboard and take a picture?”, a skater asked.

A plumber and electrician, Reis has the habit of taking Pandora, his pet hawk, to work. He usually leaves home one hour before his appointments, already knowing he will have to stop countless times on the way to take pictures and selfies with passersby; he fulfills every request with the patience of a monk. “It is a Parabuteo unicinctus”, he explained to a young lady who had asked him for the bird’s scientific name. “I’m still training it, but it flies really well. Don’t worry, it doesn’t peck people.”, Reis calmed the young lady as she attempted to caress the bird’s belly.

Every day, the plumber – a thin 40 year old man from the city of Três Pontas, in the country side of the state of Minas Gerais – has to explain countless time to people in the streets that he didn’t catch Pandora in the wild; he bought her for 3,100 reais (roughly US$ 1,000) with a permit from Ibama, Brazil’s national environment agency. He bought the bird online from “the best breeder in Brazil, an amazing Japanese guy” who lives in the city of São Gonçalo, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. In order to avoid any confusion with the police, he always carries with him the permit to own the bird and the receipt for the bid’s purchase, which took place last year. “I’m constantly explaining to people that Pandora is a pet just like any other, and it could die if it were released in the wild, because it was born in captivity, and it probably wouldn’t adapt to a different reality.”

A shy man, the plumber seems more confident when he parades with his bird through the streets. It is common for passersby to cross to the other side of the street when they see the bird-man duo coming their way. “There are people who think that the sight of the bird is an omen of death”, he states. Other people, however, are just delighted to see it, especially fans of the soccer team Corinthians, whose mascot is a hawk. “Look at the Corinthians’ haw!”, they scream euphorically pointing to the bird. “Actually, I can’t stand those Corinthians fans anymore”, revealed Reis, while entering a hardware store. He is a fan of Santos soccer team.

The plumber practices falconry, the technique that teaches birds of prey hunting skills.

Practiced for centuries in countries like Portugal and Japan, the technique only recently started attracting fans in Brazil. The Brazilian Association for Falconers and Bird of Prey Preservation counts 176 members, of which there are only 12 in São Paulo, most on the state’s countryside.

The memory of seeing an owl when he was only 10 is still vivid in Reis’ mind. “She came down from a tree and grabbed a mouse on the road in a way that was so quick and lethal that it left a mark on me for the rest of my life”, he recalled while having lunch at a buffet restaurant. “From then on I’ve dreamt of owning a bird of prey, but I could only realize it many years later.”

Before purchasing Pandora, Reis studied falconry for almost six months, preparing himself to train the bird. “I only read about falconry”, assured the plumber, who is single and shares a tiny apartment in the Bela Vista neighborhood with his widowed mother. He devotes all of his free time to falconry. “I don’t waste my time in websites or relationship apps.” The bird sleeps on a pole in one corner of his living room. Reis himself sowed the large leather glove he uses to train the bird. The device, which looks fairly professional, keeps the bird’s talons from hurting his skin, and it was made from a pair of his mom’s old leather boots.

Only minutes before he went into the restaurant, Reis fed the bird a baby quail he had brought from home. After being fed, Pandora seemed indifferent to the crowds that filled the salad bar inside the restaurant. Staff and patrons appeared to be used to the bird’s presence. “In order to get her to adapt to a place, a lot of patience, food and strolls are required”, he summarized.

“And a little bit of tenderness helps too, of course. Pandora belongs to a very docile species. Am I right or what, you slacker?”, he explained while caressing the bird’s head delicately.

At the entrance of a 15-story building in Bela Vista, the plumber called up on the intercom to let them know he has arrived to fix a sink. He was bringing Pandora with him. The client was an old acquaintance Ângela Carrosselli, superintendent of the building where Reis has worked for over 25 years.

“Do you really need to bring the poor bird with you? Leave the bird alone for one minute, Carlinhos!”, said the superintendent as she opened the door to her apartment. While the falconer replaced a tube and Pandora shredded the newspaper carpet she had been placed on top of, the superintendent told us the bird is well-known around the neighborhood. “He thinks highly of himself when he’s carrying Pandora.”

Reis often visits the building’s terrace, which has a view of the City Hall and a huge bus station. This is where Pandora plays after its owner goes off the clock. On an afternoon in July, as soon as it was released, the bird flew straight to a lightning rod on a nearby building. With loud, high-pitched calls, it tore through the skies diving quickly into the air before returning to its trainer. “Pandora loves going to the City Hall and then returning, but I need to keep an eye on the clock”, warned Reis. “At around 4 in the afternoon, a couple of American kestrels that live in Santo Amaro street usually flies around here. I’m afraid they might attack Pandora.” Despite their small size, American kestrels, also known as sparrow hawks, are very aggressive and territorial.

The falconer was just starting to talk about the chaos in the city of São Paulo when his cell phone rang. “Yes, this is Carlos. At Brigadeiro Luís Antônio avenue? OK. I’ll be there in an hour”, he promised, right before another client called him. “Listen, can I take my falcon with me? It is trained, it doesn’t peck people.”

Julio Lamas Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard.