After a winding drive along a rural road in Pender County, two vehicles parked behind a field. One license plate read, “LDYHAWKER, giving a clue to what was inside a box the size of a compact motel refrigerator in the back of an SUV.
Climbing out of the vehicle was Jackie Berry, a 23-year-old from Wilmington who works as an intern at Cape Fear Raptor Center. In the other vehicle was Paul Ward, a 27-year-old Columbia County Animal Services Officer from Modoc, S.C. Ward is president of the South Carolina Falconry Association and Berry is the association’s secretary-treasurer.
“All falcons are hawks, but not all hawks are falcons,” said Berry. “I fly a female red-tailed hawk named Sienna. She has taken 46 gray squirrels and one fox squirrel this season.”
Today, hunters use dogs to aid in the chase and have firearms to take the game their dogs find, point or course. However, long before firearms, hunters had only bows and arrows, slings, boomerangs, other primitive tools that would not reliably bag fleeing, fleet-footed small mammals or birds on the wing. Centuries before shotguns were invented humans trained birds of prey to capture game.
Falconry is now a niche sport, practiced and preserved by a dedicated few. Keeping a falcon is a lot like keeping a hunting dog in some ways. In other ways it is much more work. Berry feeds Sienna once a day. Like most coursing and pointing dogs, her bird wears a GPS transmitter. However, in order to become a falconer, she had to undergo an apprenticeship and have her hawk’s living quarters, called a “mews,” inspected for compliance with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines.
“The minimum size is 8 feet by 8 feet,” she said. “My mews is 10 feet by 10 feet. The hard part is training. It takes three weeks to train one to come to hand using a tether. It learns to come to a whistle and lands on a gauntlet to eat a piece of recall food. You have to monitor its weight closely. Sienna hunts best at 44 ounces.”
Most falconers have suffered accidents. Ward has had all eight talons of a hawk pierce his hand and fingers.
“They are perching birds with talons that curl and lock automatically,” Wad said. “The talons are their killing weapons, so you don’t want to make that mistake. It hurts, can cause lots of damage and take a long time to heal.”
With Sienna on her wrist, Berry headed into the hardwood swamp forest behind the field. Describing her bird as a “relentless hunter,” Berry is too, painting her long, sharp fingernails with blood-red polish like the talons of her hawk after making a kill. She carried an axe handle, using it to beat tree trunks while hollering, “Ho, ho, ho!” The hawk wore laces and bells on her legs. When Berry removed her leather hood, she flew from tree to tree, following.
“It is more like you are hunting for your bird than the other way around,” she said. “Most of the time, the hunter puts up the game and the bird catches it.”
A gray squirrel ran through the trees, crossing a water-filled oxbow. Sienna swooped, raked the squirrel from a cypress trunk, and together they plummeted to the water. The red-tail let go and the soaked squirrel hid at the base of the tree. The wet hawk made another “slip,” which is what an attack is called. She missed catching the squirrel and it scampered into a tree cavity.
“She can’t fly when her feathers are wet,” Berry said. “We will put her up to allow her feathers to dry.”
Ward released his red-tail, a juvenile female named Cara. The hunters headed back into the woods, shaking vines that ran up the trees.
“There he goes!” shouted Berry. “Ho, ho ho!”
The squirrel ran up, then down the trunk of an oak with the hawk in hot pursuit . The hunters chased it back up. The hawk was on a limb one side while the squirrel froze, motionless, on the other. When it moved again, the hawk made another slip that missed. It missed several more times until the squirrel escaped. On another attempt, the hunters shook a vine that moved a squirrel from a nest and it climbed to the top of a huge pine. Cara saw it run up the tree, but did not “ladder” upward limb-to-limb to gain enough height enough to spot it.
“She is young and has only killed two squirrels,” Ward said. “It takes them a while to learn. The more experiences they have, the better hunters they become.”
Once Sienna’s feathers were dry, Berry flew her again while Ward rested his bird. All told, the birds made attempts at seven gray squirrels and caught none.
“Sienna is successful 40 percent of the time in open woods,” Berry said. “But, she has never dealt with water or the thick trees in a coastal swamp. Squirrels are the hardest game a red-tailed hawk can catch.”