My interest in raptors goes back to my Daddy. We used to lie on our backs, in the cool grass, and watch hawks soaring high aloft in mating rituals in the early spring. My Daddy used to say he would trade a few years to be able to look down on the world like that. He had read about folks hunting with birds and always thought that would be the next best thing. In a few early movies, late forties and up, I saw an occasional trained falcon. It was in the back of my mind always.
Then I read a book by Dan Mannix, A Sporting Chance and it all came to the fore front, but I learned it was illegal in my state. A chance encounter and meeting my future wife, getting in with her family, a trip to Pennsylvania, and another chance conversation with my lady, led to a letter to Dan Mannix and a gracious invitation to visit him at his home in Malvern. Spent part of a day with him and saw his birds, a South American road hawk, bald eagles, and a caracara. We talked about the use of birds and primitive weapons. That was in seventy three. I remember because I have a picture of Mr. Mannix holding my son in one arm with the hawk on his other.
February of seventy seven an article in the State Newspaper told of plans to legalize falconry in South Carolina. I was determined to be one of the states first licensed falconers.
It got sticky for the next few months. I had to come up with equipment, bathing facilities, perches, two buildings, a protected one, a mew, for bad storms, a weathering area for every day, and most importantly the knowledge to help me pass what I was sure would be a difficult test. I read everything I could get from the library. Jack Sampson’s book was a big help. It let me know how inadequate I was.
I got the buildings thanks to my wife, Jane’s, willingness to make sacrifices and help me. When, Mr. Stansell, the agent from Wildlife and Marine Resources, came to inspect my facilities he let me know I had a long way to go. I couldn’t find swivels but I knew how to make those. They required Aylmeri jesses and I could find no grommet setters that did not require the use of a hammer, or any info on making bracelets and jesses. He happened to drop the fact that all the knowledge I needed and the entire test was based on one book that I had not seen. This was less than two weeks before the exam. He said he would put me with a falconer later, to help me iron out my problems, but for now just concentrate on studying. He was sorry but he had no copy of the book.
We wasted no time after he left tracking down a copy. It was a privately printed book, North American Falconry & Hunting Hawks done by three men, Frank Lyman Beebe, Harold Melvin Webster and James H. Enderson.
I could only find the location of Harold Webster. He was in Denver, Colorado so we just got the operator to give us all the listings for Webster that could be him, started with the Harold’s and on the third call got a man who knew him and gave me his number. Called and got his wife, explained my situation and told them I would wire the money, plus shipping and handling, if they would send the book. She said he was not there now but she was sure he had some extras in his car. I wired the money. I got the book five days before the exam and I read and studied like mad with my wife’s help.
I took the exam that Saturday. There were seven of us taking it as I recall. Mr. Stansell was administrator. Without his efforts there would have been no program. I think everyone passed but I’m not sure. I was introduced to Mr. Kent Nickerson who was to be my master falconer during my three years of apprenticeship. We would develop a relationship over those three years that would be a great help to me but would end the day my apprenticeship ended. We would hawk together and visit in each others home but about the time my three years apprenticeship would end so would his marriage. He would have many problems. I would never see or hear from him again.
Mr. Stansell and I would have a good but brief relationship because he would shortly be moving into a Federal position. Other than these two men, I have never heard from or seen any of the men that took that first exam again. Admittedly, we were all sort of loners engaged in what we considered a rather solitary sport. At the time, all that mattered was I had passed and could legally trap a bird and get on with it.
The Feds misplaced my falconer’s license. It was in a stack of papers on the desk of an officer in Tennessee who had retired suddenly for medical reasons. By the time anyone found it I had six days left in trapping season.
Mid December, 1977 Mr. Stansell called me. He had a full grown but severely injured red tail that he referred to as “Bertha, the Bitch”. Mr. Stansell was seriously over burdened and told me if I would take Bertha he would let it count toward my apprenticeship. I could also get a lot of valuable experience. In the mean time I could try trapping a bird till he got her to me if I preferred and he would wait, because he would not saddle a beginner with two birds. I figured I had little hope of trapping a bird this season as I was working every day but Sunday. I told him to just bring “Bertha, the Bitch”.
For the sake of my children I changed her name to Gypsy.
Gypsy had been the victim of a sorry hunter, a lousy shot, a lawbreaker ignorant about nature, and without scruples or character. I say that because if he had not been all these he would never have wounded a red tail.
Another hunter found her and carried her to a veterinarian who had no idea what to do for her but had contacted the S.C. Wildlife & Marines Resources Dept. Eventually word trickled down to Mr. Stansell. He had trimmed her feathers, set the broken wing and taken care of her. Gypsy was a good new name. Gypsy was a stripper. She stripped all her perches. She stripped a few pieces out of me more than once. She had been treated harshly by humans. She saw no reason to ever trust one again. I’d like to say I won her over; but you don’t do that with hawks. I did get her manned, and in a sort of working relationship. In the end she would never fully recover physically or psychologically. Her wounds would heal but part of the muscles would atrophy. After a two hundred yard flight she would need lots of recovery time and would droop the wing constantly. I loved her but she would never be a hunter and could never live as a wild creature so we sought other venues. She ended her days in a small zoo in Spartanburg. Mr. Stansell transported her as he had made all the arrangements.
That was December 7th, 1978 and on that visit he informed me he was changing jobs and going to the Federal side of the wildlife field and would be moving to Atlanta. He said he had a fully mature female red tail named Linnaeus that he needed to give to someone. She had no hunting experience but had been flown at demonstrations for students and had been used in television specials on ETV. She was an eyas when he got her but was in excellent health. Her nest tree had been blown down in a storm and some folks had rescued her. He had maintained her through her first molt. Would I like to have her? Does a fire want fuel? She was, in his words, everything Bertha was not. He still called Gypsy, Bertha.
On December 14th, 1978 Mr. Stansell delivered Lennie to my door. I was and am deeply indebted to him. It was the start of a relationship that would last twenty four and a half years. After twenty-two years I would release Lennie. We live in the country and she would have lots of room. We would continue to feed her for two and a half more years. The last half year she would return less and less often until one day she would not return ever again.
During those years we would kill a fair number of rabbits and a million rats. I couldn’t say who was more frustrated over the paucity of rabbits. When she got a rat I would lose her for a few hours, some times for a few days. Many times I would roost her and come back in the dark to pick her up at first light.
Once I would almost lose her when she managed to get hung up in her leash. My wife would rescue her. I kept the weathering area locked because of the neighbor’s kid. The one day Lennie got hung I would be thirty miles away with the key in my pocket. Jane got wire cutters and tore a hole big enough to crawl through and free her. Lennie would be unharmed although Jane wouldn’t fare quite so well. I would make extra keys, but fortunately this would never happen again.
Lennie would never try a squirrel in spite of my best efforts. She caught a possum, a snake and dog but she had no interest in squirrels. Once she landed and actually followed a rabbit into a blackberry tangle so thick she could not fly out. I had a tough day that time. She would never work with a dog or hunt well with strangers.
In all those years she would only once exhibit any anger. On a really long and fruitless hunt one day when I finally decided to give up, Lennie was so frustrated she flew toward me and slapped the glove as hard as she could and kept going. It was a welder’s glove and she hit it so hard she burst some stitches but then she immediately banked and came back and was her usual calm self. Lennie was exceptional.
Published in Bells & Whistles SCFA Summer 2006, Vol. 1 Issue 1