The skies over western Botetourt had a different kind of visitor over the weekend. A beautiful Red Tailed Hawk trained as a human hunting aide, Sandy is an almost year old female and was in town with her keeper, Master Falconer Bill Davis and his wife Carolyn from Cary, NC. They were visiting relatives Marie and Ronnie Tyree. On Saturday Feb 2, 2013 she flew around the fields and woods owned by the Tyree’s. The 75 -year- old Davis has been a falconer for 27 years years.
Marie Tyree said, “Bill has been featured in a video by the National Audubon Society called, “Hawks up Close.” Davis said, “It takes up to 10 years to earn the Master Falconer level.” He is very accomplished and is a member of the North Carolina Falconer’s Guild, too. He has taken hawks to Renaissance fairs and schools for crowds and children to marvel at the beauty and force of the raptor bird.
Sandy travels in a darkened box strapped into the back seat of the couple’s car. Besides visiting human kinfolk, she also participates in scheduled hunt meets along the east coast of the US.
Sandy was not well received by Fincastle’s local Red Tailed Hawks, but she had a successful day anyway. Red Tailed Hawks used by falconers are captured in the wild. Often hawks are seen sitting along roads on wires, atop t-poles, on electric and phone lines and in trees. She was captured by a road in October near Sandford, North Carolina. Thus her name, “Sandy,” is a contraction of where she was caught “She had two kinds of parasites and likely would have died had I not captured her,” said Davis. She was brought back to health after being treated by a wildlife vet.
Falconry is thousands of years old with origins in the middle east and moved to Europe during the Crusades. Davis used the same type of trapping system used during the medieval times to capture her. She will live with him for as long as he can maintain her or is ready to let her go. Eventually he can set her free and unlike other animals that have lived in captivity, her hunting skills and primal nature allow her to return to the wild.
Female hawks like Sandy are larger than male hawks. Davis noted, “Because they have the primary responsibility of protecting the nest and feeding the young, females are bigger.”
“A hawk can live 40 years in the wild,” said Ronnie Tyree. After 14 years, Davis released his other hawk, Vanilla into the wild. Though some small game hunters and poultry raisers often turn a jaundiced eye towards Red Tailed Hawks and other raptor species, they are protected by Federal law. Shooting a hawk can be very costly.
After removing her from the trap, Davis proceeded to socialize her. He would watch TV with her sitting on a roost beside him. A hawk’s talons are very sharp and and a thick suede glove is used for her to perch on a human arm. She weighed 38 ounces when he found her. She is now 48 ounces at hunting weight. She still has the immature white feathers on her breast as well as lime green eyes which turn dark as she matures. Nor does she have the significant red tail which also comes along later. Davis takes her hunting five days per week. Being a falconer requires dedication– he has 28 full bodied squirrels in a freezer at home. She gets half of a squirrel per day– fur and all for her efforts of kill and capture. So far, squirrels are the main game she catches, although mice, rats, voles, snakes, rabbits and other birds are part of her natural diet.
To hunt with a hawk, a falconer like Davis walks along through the woods and brush as she makes short jaunts from tree to tree, bells on her legs jingle, as she watches the ground and trees below for what the human springs from hiding. To say she is an efficient hunter is an understatement. Her keen eyesight spots things our dusty orbs miss. They retrieve the game and she returns to his arm. Eventually she gets to eat everything she has killed–mostly from the freezer.
There are no words to describe the feeling of holding such a magnificent animal that can spot even the tiniest piece of wild game in one’s hand. To stare into her determined gaze full of wild mystery as she flew to the arm encased in suede was intensely emotional and exciting. Ever aware, her keen eyes are constantly scanning the horizon and surrounding tree stand. Many Native Americans tribes believe that hawks are messengers of God. It is easy to see why they feel that way.
–Photos by Marie Tyree