The sharp cries of the hunting cast overhead silence the watching crowd as the falconer, swinging a lure at the end of a line, explains what is happening. With a sudden change to the angle of the wings, one of the Harris’ hawks begins the rapid descent known as a stoop, catches the target in mid-air, and lands, mantling the prize quickly. The falconer waits a moment, allowing the hawk to break in, before calling it to the gauntlet and rewarding it with a tidbit. Moving to the edge of the field, she fists the hawk to the perch and attaches the jesses to the anklet before turning to call the other members of the cast in. The vast array of knowledge and skill needed to not only care for, but also teach about, these and other wonderful birds takes a special person. Let me introduce you to Karen “Kitty” Tolson Carroll.
Kitty Carroll is originally from the Maryland area where she worked for the National Institute of Health. She got her falconers license in 1974 and began using her hawk in educational demonstrations for her employer and the local Audubon Society. Her Dad was living in California at the time and told her about the Renaissance Faires there. He enjoyed them immensely, regaling her with stories of a cast member who fell asleep in a tree. In 1981, she attended the Maryland Renaissance Festival for the first time and watched a friend run the falconry show. As she left, she told him that it looked like fun and that, if he ever decided he wanted to get out, she was interested doing such a show.
In 1988, she got a call from the Maryland Renaissance Festival who wanted to hire her for the 1989 season. She agreed and, still working full time for the NIH, Kitty presented her Birds of the Gauntlet show each weekend. She realized that there were performers at the show who were making a living with their performances at faire. The commute for work was becoming brutal and she began looking at how she could make the break to full time performer status. By 1992, she was ready and left the corporate world, moving first to Bradenton, Florida, and in 1995 to Live Oak where Accipiter Enterprises is now located.
Falconry isn’t for everyone. At this time, Kitty holds licenses to rehabilitate, to breed, to include birds of prey in her educational presentations, and as a Master class falconer to hunt. Each license has specialized requirements and takes years of study and experience. For instance, an apprentice, the beginner level of falconer, is required to pass a test, find a sponsor, pay a license fee, obtain all the necessary equipment, build housing for the bird, and pass an inspection of that housing. All that is required before the apprentice can acquire their first bird, which must be either an American kestrel or Red-Tailed hawk captured from the wild in its first year. The apprentice must maintain a valid hunting license in their state of residence and hunt their bird for at least two years before they are eligible to advance to the next class, a General falconer.
As a Master Falconer, Mrs. Carroll keeps the maximum of three birds of prey for hunting—a Red-tailed hawk, a Cooper’s hawk, and a Golden Eagle. The other fourteen birds of prey fall under her educational license, appearing in the shows but never hunted. There are three owls, eight falcons, and five hawks plus a macaw parrot and two cockatiels. Many of the educational birds have rehabilitated injuries that prevent their release in to the wild. A few are retired falconry birds—like her Gyrfalcon that is susceptible to epileptic seizures if excited—or breeder birds who have reached their old age.
Kitty told me that owls come to her primarily from rehabilitation projects. Using car headlights to spot rodents feasting on refuse from car windows, the owls are extremely susceptible to vehicular accidents. If the injury involves a wing that does not heal with perfect alignment and symmetry, regulations do not allow the re-introduction of the rehabilitated birds to the wild. Studies at the University of Minnesota and other institutes have determined that the survival rate for an imperfect wing is very low, unlike those with one eye or one leg. Though she has a rehab license, she does not rehabilitate at this time because the closest facility that can handle the specialized care needed is over an hour away in Gainesville at Florida Wildlife Care. Instead, she gives the healthy, but unreleasable, birds a home and includes them in her educational shows.
In addition to her work with the public and the birds, she occasionally sponsors an apprentice. Her most recent apprentice, Summer Hargraves, has just advanced to General Falconer and Kitty is especially proud of her accomplishments and advancement. The Red-tailed hawk she captured was extremely emaciated and full of parasites. The veterinarian, after examining it, determined that its weight would need to increase substantially before they could treat it for the parasites. With much attention, the hawk has recovered completely and become a fine hunter. Kitty says that in the wild the hawk would have been dead shortly and called it a “classic example of how the sport of falconry is beneficial.”
Running Accipiter Enterprises is a full time business for Kitty and her husband, Pete. There’s a lot of work involved in caring for the birds, doing the business, traveling to faires, and performing. The birds alone require four to five hours of “maintenance” per day. That maintenance includes cleaning the mews and weathering yard, keeping up the equipment, training, feeding, and medical attention as necessary. The birds spend some time each day in the weathering yard where someone is always with them for protection. Kitty says that they have had trouble with stray animals bothering the tethered birds.
Accipiter Enterprises usually does East coast faires because the birds must have ground transportation. To get there they use two diesel trucks, one pulling a travel trailer, the other a box trailer with equipment. The birds ride in secured transport boxes (large dog crates). They learned early on to have duplicates of most of the equipment they use on a daily basis, unpacking, cleaning, and reloading the road equipment after the each trip. Even with those preparations, it requires two to three days to pack. The one thing she always makes sure to have is tennis balls, the birds’ favorite toys.
Since her first faire in 1989, Kitty has appeared at the Maryland Renaissance Festival (1989-1995), King Richard’s Faire, Minnesota Renaissance Festival, Hoggetowne Medieval Faire (since 1993), Tennessee Renaissance Faire (since 1999), Great Lakes Medieval Faire, Silver Leaf Renaissance Festival (since 2004), and the Louisiana Renaissance Festival since it began in 2000. Kitty laughed as she told me about that first year at Louisiana, saying that it rained every weekend. She tried to fly the hawks during the show, but they would fly up to a tree and perch, looking down at her as if to say “Have you lost your mind, can’t you see it’s raining?”
It was at the Maryland Renaissance Festival that the Harris’ hawks, who would scavenge a bit naturally, got their first taste of turkey legs. Patrons were throwing the remains of their food over the fence and the birds discovered them. Later they found that dumpsters were full of discards too. Kitty was looking for them during a training session one day and located them dumpster diving for turkey legs. Those kinds of habits occur from time to time and she uses a substitution method to break the habit, teaching them to do something different.
Anubis, a Barbary falcon, is her favorite bird to fly right now. Anubis is very fast and maneuverable, bold and sassy. The Barbary falcon is very similar to the Peregrine of America but stockier. It is native to the Middle East and a highly regarded bird in falconry circles of old. The bird that gets the most pictures, though, is the Eurasian Eagle Owl, Artemus. Very large with bright orange eyes, she is a very impressive educational bird. “People are so unfamiliar with the birds of prey, seldom being able to get near them. We always hear, ‘Is it real?’ quickly followed by ‘Is it alive?’” The birds sit so still, watching but not moving, often making it difficult to tell.
Kitty and the hawks will next appear at the Outdoor Heritage Days in Norwood, North Carolina. After that, they will be at the Tennessee Renaissance Festival, the Charlevoix Renaissance Festival, the Silver Leaf Renaissance Faire, and Louisiana Renaissance Festival.
The goal of Kitty Carroll and Accipiter Enterprises is to help people get back in touch with the natural world. Come watch the birds and learn about falconry. The sport is far from dead and is a direct connection between history and modern times. The birds are fascinating and draw huge crowds, but be aware of your surroundings. These are wild creatures and the ropes are there to protect both the birds and the public.