In this modern age, falconry is a highly regulated sport that demands copious time and serious commitment. Once the sport of kings, it dates back at least 3,000 years, with some speculating that it dates as far back as 4000 to 6000 B.C. in Mongolia, Egypt, the Middle East and Asia. It was an integral part of many ancient societies, often tied closely to social status. The sport later became popular in Europe but did not gain much of a following in the United States until the 1930s and is still relatively rare. One of the oldest field sports still actively practiced, there are currently fewer than 4,000 falconers in the United States with roughly 5,000 birds.
Hansel Hart, a Midlands falconer who has hunted with hawks for more than 35 years, now primarily hunts with a Harris Hawk named Rocky whom he acquired when Rocky was about five months old. Rocky was bred in captivity and raised with his siblings by the parent birds so that his ability to socialize with other Harris Hawks was strengthened.
Hansel first became interested in hawks and falcons as a child when he was watching a birdfeeder at his grandfather’s property in Chapin. A large flock of Evening Grosbeaks were feeding and a small hawk, probably a Sharp-Shinned Hawk, flew in and took one of the birds.
“I bugged my parents until they finally agreed to let me get a hawk. At that time, there were no practicing falconers where I lived to assist me, so success was very limited. I got an injured Red-Shouldered Hawk named Beau at 13 and have had birds ever since. While I had a hawk through high-school, I did not really learn how to effectively manage hawks until I moved to Columbia and began hunting with one of the original South Carolina falconers, Kent Nickerson. My hunting skills were also greatly improved by meeting and hunting with Fred Berry and spending time learning from his father, Frank Berry.”
Falcons are well-known for their long, sickle shaped wings and relatively long tails. They typically hunt from a height advantage, sometimes 1,000 feet or more, called a “pitch” in falconry, and dive on their prey at tremendous speed. Their long pointed wings, stiff plumage and overall body mass and shape allow them to hit speeds in excess of 200 mph in a dive or “stoop.” Hawks, in general, tend to hunt from a perch or from lower levels, although hawks will hunt from a soar. While all are referred to as “hawks” there are three main groups of hawks that are used in falconry in the United States. All three groups, like falcons, have excellent eyesight, curved claws referred to as talons and strong, curved beaks. Accipiters, or short-wings, are ambush hunters and will wait on prey to become exposed and then make a quick burst of speed to overtake its prey. Most flights end relatively fast, whether successful or not. Accipiters include the Goshawk, Coopers Hawk and Sharp-Shinned Hawk. These birds have relatively short, rounded wings and long tails. They are designed for quick acceleration and the ability to follow prey on twisting, turning flights.