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Pursuits: Falconry isn't a hobby, it's a "rage"
By Roger Greene
It’s just a little past 8 a.m. on a recent blustery morning and already Flick, a 19-week old male Harris hawk, is a whirlwind of activity. Gracefully swooping from perch to perch amongst the trees that dot the landscape around the Pawleys Island area home of falconer Ab Wilkinson, Flick appears to be at ease.
He keeps his attention focused on Wilkinson and the curious neighborhood dog who has wandered over to check out the flurry of activity on the falconer’s property. When summoned, Flick lights upon the heavy glove that covers Wilkinson’s left hand and wrist. He wears strong leather jess straps – which function like anklets – around his legs, though on this morning they are mostly unnecessary for control, providing further evidence of the temperament that makes the Harris hawk so popular with falconers.
Especially those like Wilkinson, who are still in the apprentice stage.
“Harris hawks are much more sociable than other raptors,” Wilkinson said. “They’re curious, they want to see what you are doing. Falconry is such a natural sport for me to be involved in. I’ve always been an animal person. And there is
something about these birds that captures your imagination.”
Before capturing Wilkinson’s imagination, the thought of helping raptors first captured his heart, as he was drawn to the cause of an injured hawk that went down in his yard.
“I was very intimidated about picking the bird up once I found out it was injured,” Wilkinson said. “But the way he was following me around, it was like he was telling me it was OK. I wound up carrying him just like you would a baby. It was amazing that this bird, who was so injured, was allowing me to do that.”
When searching for veterinary services for the bird, Wilkinson was referred to the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw. While the bird was unable to overcome its injuries, the experience had touched Wilkinson’s soul.
“What struck me about holding the bird was how fragile he was,” Wilkinson said. “When I picked him up, it was almost like holding air. I was pretty stubborn about his cause. I called the center about every day and went down and visited. When I saw the flight demonstrations, I knew falconry was something I could do and something I wanted to be involved in.”
Specific rules for prospective falconers vary from state to state, but in general, apprentices in South Carolina must be at least 14 years of age and pass a written examination. Apprentices must have a sponsor – more experienced general or master falconers – and construct the mews to house the birds.
The mews must pass a state inspection which includes making sure appropriate bathing and watering facilities, as well as perches are provided. Necessary equipment, such as weighing facilities, must also be in place. Apprentices keep their status for two years and during that time there are limits on the amount and type of birds that can be kept.
Current estimates indicate there are only around 1,500 licensed falconers nationwide so finding sponsorship is not always easy. Wilkinson caught a break by having Al Jones, a resident falconer on the Waccamaw Neck, available to provide sponsorship. In fact, Flick is one of Jones’ birds that Wilkinson is assisting with.
“It has been a blessing to have Al right down the road,” Wilkinson said. “He’s right there to answer any questions I have. We are also able to get together and fly the birds. That social aspect means a lot as well. We’ve had great times.”
Wilkinson’s own bird is Rebel, a female red-tailed hawk, who is a year and a half old. Passage birds, like Rebel, are immature birds taken from the wild with the intent of training them for falconry. With many passage birds in the wild never reaching adulthood due to natural hazards, those that are brought in by falconers “win the lottery” according to Wilkinson. They have time to learn the secrets of the hunt while their basic needs are met by the falconers.
“Rebel sees me as a refrigerator,” Wilkinson said. “She knows I’m able to provide food, as well as anything else she needs. She can learn how to hunt without the harsh pressures of mother nature.
“We’ve had some crazy times together. One of the first times we went out she went down in the water chasing prey. She didn’t really know what to do and let out a cry letting me know she was in distress. I had no choice but to get down into my skivvies and go in after her. I drove home shivering and shaking and hoping none of my cop friends were going to pull me over.”
The hunting trail for Wilkinson and Rebel includes rural areas along the Waccamaw Neck and throughout Georgetown County. Though they don’t always encounter many people on their outings, those they do are often fascinated by the display.
“I don’t think it’s something people are always expecting to see,” said Wilkinson. “When they come up on you, they are always taken by what I’m doing. I’m happy to answer their questions and let them see what is going on. It’s an amazing display to watch.”
Like all falconers, Wilkinson knows his time with his birds is limited. There will be a time when Rebel will have to be released into the wild and Wilkinson will have to be content with the notion that he served her well.
“She is my first bird,” Wilkinson said. “I’m sure there will be a lot of different emotions when I have to let her go. She has been a very interesting part of my life.”
As has the sport of falconry itself.
“When people ask me why I’m involved I always refer to a quote from T.H. White,” Wilkinson said. “White said that falconry is not a hobby or an amusement: it is a rage. You eat it and drink it, sleep it and think it. You tremble to write of it, even in recollection. It is, as King James the First remarked, an extreme stirrer of passions.”