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The Sport Of Kings

Tom Poland
web posted August 28, 2015

LIFE DOWN SOUTH –  The setting for the sport of kings seemed promising, a meadow edged by woods. Three men, three beagles, and a Harris’s Hawk were afield. We were out to pursue the art of falconry. The beagles and hawk belong to Hansel Hart. He’s a falconer. He named his Harris’s Hawk, Rocky. Robert Clark and I tagged along to include Hansel and his hawk in our book, Reflections of South Carolina, Volume 2.
For the uninitiated, falconry is a sport where men train raptors to hunt game birds and small prey such as rabbits. Falconry has a long history. People used raptors to hunt in ancient China, with records referring to falcons as royal gifts in the Heian dynasty in China dating back to 2205 BC.

It was late in the afternoon and we had no luck as hunting goes. We did, however, get to see Rocky and learn about falconry. For me, it was a chance to see up close what I had read about as a boy. I wondered way back then if I might someday try my hand at the art of falconry but that day never arrived. Back in the 1950s it was an altogether different world, nowhere as subject to criticism as it is today. To be a falconer today means subjecting yourself to censure by certain activists that live in a fantasy world.

Falconry is an art, like writing, and like writing, falconry isn’t one of those pursuits you do when you feel like it. It demands a commitment that some equate to a lifestyle. It eats up hours and hours and requires constant devotion. It’s an art that demands finesse, subtlety, and skill. The falconer must train a bird of prey to fly free, hunt with a human, and be willing to return to captivity.

Falconers devote time to their birds 365 days a year. Hansel, by virtue of a serious commitment, is doing what I had merely read about. Hansel got interested in hawks early in life and has practiced falconry for close to four decades. He got his latest bird, Rocky, when Rocky was around five months old.

John James Audubon named Harris’s Hawk after his friend, Edward Harris. You won’t find Harris’s Hawks in these parts. They’re native to the chaparrals, scrub prairies, and mesquite and saguaro deserts of the southwestern United States. You find them in Central American and the drier habitats of South America as well. Males weigh about 1.35 pounds or 22 ounces and females weigh 2 to 2.5 pounds and have wingspans of four feet. Their eyesight is razor sharp—eight times better than ours.

Unlike many raptors that hunt solo, Harris’s Hawks are social and hunt as a team. This approach is an advantage in the harsh Southwest deserts where prey is scarce. Harris’s hawks hunt in pairs or trios (Often it’s an extended family of five to eight birds) and surround their prey, flush it for another, or take turns chasing it. Hansel’s beagles would flush rabbits had we come across any. As well, the team approach enables individual hawks to rest between shifts in a demanding environment.

Falconry is a natural way to hunt but it isn’t easy. A falconer must possess great knowledge. He must understand the life cycles and traits of game birds that are hunted. He must be skilled in the care and feeding of raptors and able to recognize and treat health problems. A falconer must know the rules and regulations that affect the sport and laws applicable to birds of prey and their prey. Falconers have to be tough too. They get attached to their birds and the sport is not without risks. Flying a smaller raptor like Rocky too close to dark means larger night raptors like great horned owls might attack it—sometimes with fatal results. Hansel has lost hawks to other raptors.

As darkness closed in, it was time to call it a day. We didn’t get any game, but Robert and I got what we wanted. You can see Hansel, Rocky, and the beagles on page 112 of Reflections of South Carolina, Volume 2. Recently Robert, Hansel, and I met to sign some books and we agreed we’d all go hunting again. I hope to see Rocky make a stoop—a rapid descent from altitude—and strike a prey just as they did for kings long ago.

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