"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." T.H. White

The Godstone and Blackymor, 1959 (First American Edition) Van Rees Press, New York, page 18.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Trapping 1

How does one prepare to trap a Red Tailed Hawk?  Hopefully with a tad more insight and possibly a smidge less "irrational exuberance" than I displayed.

To begin with, we decided that only a bird from the North Carolina mountains would do.  North Carolina because trapping started a month earlier there than it does here in South Carolina, and the mountains because, as any good outdoorsman will tell you, you just have to suffer a little bit if you want to have any chance at a good hunt.  I think the logic really fell along the lines of "the mountains are the natural flyway of migrating raptors which will be bigger and stronger than native birds".  I didn't buy this for a second though, because, as an amateur mind reader, I could practically feel Al's thoughts, even through the vibram soles of my shoes, screaming "I need to get out of this town FAR ENOUGH AWAY so that I can't even consider going back early!"  Fortunately, both my sister and my father were to be in the area for this trip so a mini family reunion, with a key emphasis on hawking was planned.

The preparations for the trip centered around organizing and admiring my many traps and making numerous lists of what to bring.  More interesting than anything on the lists themselves were the choices of list material.  Some were the typical sticky note material, but other, more inspired lists sprang from receipts, pieces of wood, my flesh, a milk carton, and one even written on a scalpel box.  When I caught myself about to scribble on a Hemoccult card, I realized I was almost crossing some inviolate line, the consequences of which I don't want to contemplate.

Needless to say, with lists of that degree, one can find it quite difficult to load every bit of necessary crap in a single vehicle while preserving enough room to seat two other adults.  I had to choose between strapping Al to the roof or finagling my wife's ginormous kid conveyor, the suburban.  Even after swallowing my pride and seeing that smirk on my wife's face (don't kid yourself, you know the look I'm talking about), I thought that Rich was going to have to ride in Al's lap. This was especially concerning when I showed up at Al's and it became clear that he had been making lists as well.

Somehow we schlepped three grown men, twelve pigeons (six of whom spontaneously turned into gerbils at some point during the night), and four metric tons of the barest of necessities to Beech Mountain, arriving at the crack of three am.  Yes, I know you are asking your self if it is true, but we did indeed make a five hour trip in just over nine hours.  Lots of things went through my head during that drive, not the least of which were the lists of things I had forgotten (Al refused to write them down for me and wouldn't even hand me a pen so I could jot them on Laura's visor), but the one thing I can't completely nail down is how I managed to create time on that trip.  I remember the feeling of omnipotence as I realized that I, Ab Wilkinson, had almost doubled the number of hours in the car that we got to experience over what normal people would have gotten with the same amount of effort.

Three confusing hours of sleep later found us stuffing down a hearty breakfast at Dann'l Boone's Restaurant.  Kimmy and Dad met us there and we all got to enjoy watching Rich twitch because we weren't out in the field yet.  An hour later found us hiking up a mountain to set out our traps.  Lines were run to tethered pigeons wearing noose covered leather armor, gerbils were busily exploring their new wire accommodations in the BCs, and I was test driving my bownet masterpiece.  We hid ourselves as best we could and waited for the migrating raptors to come see the feast we had laid out for them.

While it is no doubt true that our delectable array of fur and fowl would have called down even those political savvy raptors who had reluctantly followed Bill Clinton to a plant based diet, it was also true that we had set our table approximately one month too early.  As I have found to be the case often in my life, timing is everything and hope is never a good strategy.  It seems that even though the migration was well underway in Pennsylvania, no self respecting bird of prey wanted to be the first one to NC.  Of course it may be true that they were suffering from the same inexplicable phenomenon that struck me as I traversed that great state where time seemed to expand like the lycra pants on the women shopping in WalMart.

Regardless, the skies were empty and not even the faint rumblings of our prior breakfast could distract us from our abject failure to attract our prize.  We decided that migrating birds were too finicky for guys like us, but we still liked the notion of a bird trained at altitude.  If professional athletes can train in the mountains so as not to have to resort to doping, the same must hold true for raptors, right?  We decided to swallow our pride (a fairly small mouthful but still difficult after that big breakfast), pull up our traps, and look for some local birds to trap.  That is how we found ourselves headed to the dump.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Over the next several months, I read and studied everything I could get my hands on about falconry.  I visited websites and called several falconers in South Carolina.  The one thing that was made abundantly clear was that this was not something to be taken lightly.  I was warned at every turn that the level of commitment required to care for a bird of prey was extensive.  It was all quite intimidating at first.  I discovered that there are very few practicing falconers in South Carolina and I despaired of finding someone from whom to learn.

Call it serendipity, call it fate, call it God's hand, but one day at the gym a friend, who had heard of my interest, walked up and told me of a falconer in the area.  Now by this point, I had left countless messages for falconers all around the state trying to learn more and hopefully find a sponsor.  I called Al as soon as I got home and he invited me over to hunt with his bird, Rowdy.  Al's excitement over the sport was infectious to say the least and after a few more hunts, I found myself a sponsor.

The months leading up to trapping season found me making traps.  Lots of traps.  Way, way too many traps.  I made two different Balchatri traps (only refraining from a third by a brief, but momentary, return of sanity), four different pigeon harness traps, and the piece de resistance, my bow net.  Or nets, as I actually made three of them.  Obsessive much?  The last was the inspiration for Laura's question, "Exactly how many traps does it take to trap one bird?"

I read alot.  A whole lot.  I bought every book anyone would recommend.  I began to make all of my equipment and buy that which I could not make.  I drove to Columbia to take my falconry test in May thinking I was far ahead of the game in getting my trapping permit.  Thank goodness I did, as building the mews took quite a bit of time.  I got my inspection soon after my surgery and got my permit right before trapping season started.

The Beginning

In late December of 2009 I discovered a beautiful young male passage Red Tailed Hawk in my back yard.  He was injured and could not move his right talon, probably some infected squirrel bite or some such as befalls so many of these first year birds.  He was severely malnourished and could hunt and fly no more.  He hopped up onto a table on our porch where I watched him for a few hours while I called various vets to find out what to do.  I talked to him and even played a little guitar while waiting to hear back from the vets.

When I discovered the Center for Birds of Prey and talked with a volunteer, they asked me to go and "catch" the hawk and bring him down to Awendaw.  As you might imagine, this gave me no small pause.  I wanted to ask her exactly how does one go about catching a bird of prey, with a wicked curved beak for tearing and needle sharp talons.  My Y chromosome, however would have none of that and I found myself simply saying "Will do!"

The little guy did not like that I left his presence while talking on the phone and he hopped around the fence and followed me as I was going to go inside to find an old kennel.  It was truly remarkable to see something so wild acting in such an out of character manner.  I walked over and picked him up like a baby.  I remember being amazed at how light he was.  This bird appeared so solid and vibrant, but picking him up reminded me of nothing so much as carrying the wind.

Into the kennel for a quick show and tell with the kids, and we were headed down to Georgetown where another volunteer was kind enough to meet me and ferry our little rescue to the center.  The next few weeks went by with many calls to the center (pretty sure that the sound of my voice was beginning to evoke killing urges in several of the staff by the end) to check on "the bird who wouldn't die", as they unfortunately named our little guy.  I say unfortunately as I know full well the risks of making such declarations regarding anyone's health.  They did it all.  Tube feeds, antibiotics, antiparasitics, you name it.  They told me initially that there was no way he would survive the night and the kids and I were sad.  When he made it through the next few days, we found ourselves discussing him more and more.  We practically planned the party for his release from rehab and frankly I am surprised that Brynn didn't have invitations drawn up and ready.

This went on for almost three weeks.  We tried to go down and see him several times but no one at the center was available at the last second.  We finally went down for a tour of the center and watched the flight shows on the coldest day on record in the history of all of mankind.  Maybe.  Again, we were rebuffed when we asked to go see our charge.  They brought us the kennel with assurances that we could go see him later that week.  Unfortunately, the next day I got the call that he had finally flown off to freer skies.

I think you can tell from the above that this bird had insinuated itself into our psyches to a degree that none of us had foreseen.  Jordan and I decided to volunteer at the center to learn more about birds of prey and I spent a considerable amount of time researching falconry and breaking out an old copy of My Side Of The Mountain.

The real kicker was the dreams.  Dreams of flying like I hadn't had since I was young, dreams where I woke up smelling that wild smell like the day I held our bird, dreams of clouds and winds and rain and hunting.  There was never really a chance of escaping this, much to my dear wife's chagrin.  When I discovered that there was a falconer living just a few miles away, I knew that certain things were just inevitable.