Izzy twists her head as she scans her surroundings with the discerning eye of a trained hunter. Toes tipped with sharp talons adjust their grip on her perch. She stretches her wings once, twice. Then, with a leap and a quick flap, she glides over to her other perch.
Red-tailed hawks like Izzy usually have only a two-in-10 chance of surviving to adulthood in the wild. Izzy is different. She’s got a nice place in the Columbia suburbs, over by Gills Creek. She’s also got Richard Leaphart looking out for her. Richard is a falconer — one of a handful of outdoor enthusiasts in South Carolina who trains and hunts with birds of prey.
“I’ve always been fascinated with birds of prey,” Richard says. A trip to The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, which gives falconry lessons and demonstrations, sealed the deal for him. “We actually went out in the field and hunted with the birds. Once you have flown a bird and called it to your glove, you become obsessed with it. It’s truly fascinating.”
The North American Falconers Association defines falconry as “the taking of wild quarry in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained raptor.” Raptor comes from the Latin word rapere, which means to seize. Eagles, falcons, and hawks all belong to the same family of carnivorous birds of prey.
NAFA says it has approximately 2,000 members. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources estimates about 45 falconers are licensed in the Palmetto State. State law prohibits the trapping, possession, or sale of all species of the order Falconiformes, which includes eagles, falcons, hawks, kites, ospreys, and vultures. Exceptions are made for education, science, and falconry.
Falconers must register with the SCDNR and pass a test. SCDNR will also inspect the applicant’s equipment and housing for their raptor. The three classes of permits include apprentice, general, and master.
“They don’t allow just anyone to keep a bird of prey,” says Richard, a general falconer who first got his apprentice permit five years ago. “It’s a long process. Your pursuit of falconry typically begins a year or so before you even start an apprenticeship. You’ve got to find some falconers that’ll let you go out and hunt with them and learn what it really takes, and then you’ve got to locate a sponsor who is willing to mentor you for the next two years.”
It can also be expensive and time-consuming. The birds are typically not born in captivity — the falconer traps one that’s less than a year old. The falconer must build a mews for the bird to reside in, and there are regulations for that. Various equipment that is required ranges from gloves to leashes to anklets to the hood that goes over a resting bird’s head to help it relax. The birds are often tracked using tech gadgets while they’re hunting. And they need to eat just about every day, whether it’s hunting season or not.
“As a falconer, you’re responsible for all levels of care for these birds,” Richard says. He has a camera in Izzy’s mews that he can pull up on his cellphone when he wants to check on her remotely. “It’s a process and a huge commitment. It’s not a hobby; it’s a lifestyle. You can’t dabble in it. You’ve got to be all-in. You need to talk with your family. It’s not uncommon for me to take a bird on vacation with us. You can release or transfer your bird if you need to take a break from falconry, but you can’t just keep a bird sitting in a mews; they must be flown and hunted.”
Dogs, horses, and even baitfish are common to the sporting life, but falconry is the only such pursuit that teams a human with a wild creature. While they can be trained using techniques and equipment that have been perfected over thousands of years, these birds are by no means domesticated.
“The biggest thing that draws me to falconry is that I am able to witness the predator-prey relationship between my hawk and whatever he wants to eat,” says Al Gilpin, a longtime Midlands physician who now lives in Florence. “You’re out there to facilitate the hawk’s ability to catch prey. They don’t go to a bird feeder and eat sunflower seed. They’re not some dachshund that’s going to come and sit in your lap.”
Al has been a falconer for about a decade but doesn’t have a bird currently. He’s too busy with his work as an orthopedic surgeon. He’ll typically trap a bird and hunt with it for two years before releasing it back into the wild.
Those few years in captivity can mean all the difference for a bird of prey. Hawks mate for life, so in the wild, their parents will teach them rudimentary hunting and then boot them from the nest. There’s plenty of food to chase in the summer, but winter can be cruel. Unsuccessful hunts lead to lost weight and energy, which can perpetuate a vicious cycle in the struggle to survive.
“Even though falconry is the sport of hunting small game with a bird of prey, it’s also an act of wildlife conservation,” says Emily Kearse, a wildlife biologist with SCDNR. “When falconers are trapping young birds and training them and making sure they’re fed and their health is okay, the birds are usually better off.”
Relaxing in her 14-by-20-foot backyard mews, Izzy looks stout and fit. Richard says she’s pretty much fearless and once captured a racoon. When she catches a squirrel or other game on a hunt, Richard will trade her a better piece of meat for it and bag the squirrel for a day when Izzy isn’t hunting. When she’s molting during the summer, he feeds her a high-fat diet that includes quail.
“Once they’re brought into the falconry program, there’s a good chance of their survival,” Richard says. “They’re exercised pretty hard. But if they work hard, they’re going to be successful. We often hunt in difficult but game rich environments; this builds skills and confidence in the birds. When we release these birds out into the wild, it’s like releasing a trained athlete.”
And throughout their training, every time they’re let off the leash, birds of prey have a choice, although Richard says he’s never had one just fly off and disappear for good. Richard apprenticed under Chris Durham, a master falconer from Lyman. Chris says hawks quickly figure out why it’s good to have a teammate.
“When the bird starts feeding in your presence, you’re the food source,” he says. “They’re very smart. Once that bird knows you’re helping them find food, they’ll stay with you.”
Chris, who’s been a falconer since 2009, currently has a red-tailed hawk he hunts with and another that retired from hunting due to injury. Chris says he typically keeps a bird three to five years and then releases it. Prior to Izzy, Richard had Luci, a large hawk with an eagle-like head and distinctly dark coloration.
“When I released Luci, she sat on the glove and looked at me for about 10 minutes and then turned and flew to a far tree line,” Richard says. “I have two friends that are falconers in the area that she was released that have seen her and confirmed that she is thriving.”
Falconers will weigh their birds daily to make sure they’re getting enough to eat. Al says their weight is also important when it comes time to hunt, for the opposite reason.
“These birds are driven by eating and if they’re full, they’ll fly up in a tree and sit there all afternoon and not come down,” he says. That’s not the half of Al’s hunting challenges. The wind matters, since a bird can ride far off on one gust. He’s also careful of the terrain he’s on so as not to get cut off from his bird in mid-hunt. “I’ve spent the rest of the afternoon with my tracking device, trying to chase a bird down. I’ve been in waist-deep swamps, trying to chase a bird down.”
Hazards exist up close, too. The term “footed” is used to describe when prey — or a falconer’s exposed arm — is subject to those talons. “If he grabs hold of you, the harder you resist, the harder he’s going to squeeze,” Al says. Richard says he’s been footed before and the talons will easily pierce skin.
Most Midlands residents have looked up from time to time and seen one or more hawks circling high above their neighborhoods. Eventually, they come down to Earth. A jogger recently relayed a story to Al to measure his reaction.
Winding their way through the streets of Shandon on a sunny February afternoon, the jogger suddenly noticed a commotion in a nearby front yard. Large wings were flapping in a small tree. There was a bird — brownish-gray with black and white highlights — but what was it doing? Fighting another bird?
The melee quickly bounced from branch to branch, less than 10 feet off the ground. The observer determined those big wings belonged to a hawk, and it had found a late lunch. Eventually it floated to the ground, a squirrel in its clutches. The jogger continued on, letting nature’s circle of life conclude without an audience.
“It happens every day,” Al says. “Red-tailed hawks and Cooper’s hawks have become very urbanized. “They know the humans aren’t going to get them and no other predators are around — they can thrive in that environment.”
In South Carolina, most falconers hunt with red-tailed hawks. Chris says an adult male red-tail will typically weigh from 32 to 40 ounces. The local menu is partially the reason for their popularity.
“The No. 1 game we have here in South Carolina is the eastern gray squirrel and after that it’s the cottontail rabbit, and that’s what red-tailed hawks eat,” Chris says. Not that they’re particularly picky. “They’ll eat bugs all the way up to a fox-sized animal.”
The smaller Cooper’s and medium-sized Harris’s hawk are also both used for hunting in South Carolina. Richard once had a little falcon called an American kestrel that his daughter, Bailey, was fond of. Bailey, now a 20-year-old student at Davidson College, recently began apprenticing with him. Some hunt with peregrine falcons, which can be found on the coast. Peregrines are known for their rapid descents on prey.
“The best analogy of a falcon is like a fighter jet,” Al says. “A falcon is designed for high speed and short bursts. A red-tailed hawk is like a big bomber. A red-tailed hawk is built to soar around.”
Some hunt with great horned owls, which are part of a different order (Strigifornes) but are included under South Carolina’s falconry regulations. Palmetto State falconers often travel for hunts, and the NAFA holds an annual gathering called a field meet. The 2022 event will be in Lubbock, Texas, and field meets have been held in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma in recent years.
“I’ve been to Wyoming, Colorado, Texas — quite a few places,” Chris says. “We’re usually trying to hunt for jack rabbits.”
Emily says the number of falconers in South Carolina is gradually increasing, partly due to experienced falconers who are transplants here. A hunter herself, she’s had the benefit of being able to go out on hunts with falconers. “You have not experienced hunting until you’ve experienced falconry — it’s incredible.”