Is and Is Not
Still, hawking dates back perhaps 3000 years, which makes it far more venerable than say, football. And falconry is unique in being the only sport in world history to have a wild animal as the central participant. While an experienced falconer can help his or her raptor hunt successfully, the falconer is essentially a spectator on the edges of the action. The real players are raptors. That has always been a great part of the sport’s appeal – the chance to establish a bond with a wild bird of prey so that it can be handled and observed at close range. In fact, no less an expert on the subject than Tom Cade, ornithologist and falconer, calls falconry “basically a special form of bird-watching.” The art of falconry provides the techniques for forming that bond.
The relationship between a falconer and a raptor is very different from the relationship between a person and a pet. For starters, a falconry bird is never a pet. It is painstakingly trained for a purpose – to catch prey in partnership with a person. Unlike a dog, a trained raptor does not perform for the falconer because it wishes to please. Nor can it be forced to obey out of fear, as a horse might be. A falconry bird responds to the falconer not out of affection or fear but because it has been trained to associate the falconer with food. A raptor’s behavioral patterns are governed in large part by its appetite. By controlling the bird’s appetite, by teaching it to regard the falconer as its only source of food, the falconer can control and even modify the bird’s behavior.
The falconer’s first challenge is to overcome the raptor’s natural wariness of people. This is done by carrying the bird on the glove for hours at a time, as well as by feeding it on the glove. The falconer’s patient handling as he or she carries the bird instills trust. Feeding on the glove teaches the bird to associate the falconer - and the glove – with food.
Once the bird has accepted the falconer as the food-supplier, training can proceed to the next step. Using food rewards – usually tidbits of chicken or quail – the falconer induces the tethered bird to fly a short distance to him or her. Gradually the distance is increased. Finally, when the tethered raptor has learned to fly to the falconer without hesitation, the bird can be taken out into the field and flown free. It doesn’t need to be taught to hunt. It does that by instinct. However, hunting skillfully is learned by experience, and the falconer helps the novice raptor gain the necessary experience. The bird learns to watch the falconer, who will “put up” game by driving it out into the open. Often the falconer will use a hunting dog to help in this task.
The falconer watches the raptor just as carefully. Once the bird has made a kill it will not carry it back to the falconer, as is widely believed. So it is vital that the falconer is on the spot when the quarry is brought down. If the falconer is nowhere in sight, the raptor will proceed to eat its fill from its downed prey. The bird will then be “fed up” and two things, both of them unfortunate for the falconer, will have just happened. The now-full bird will have no interest in returning to the falconer, who can no longer motivate it with food. Just as bad, the bird has now learned that it can provide itself with food, that it doesn’t have to depend upon the falconer. If these things happen, the falconer has lost control of the bird.
If all goes well and the falconer is nearby when the bird makes its kill, he or she gives the raptor a reward of food and removes the kill. The reward will be a small amount – a tidbit – so the bird will remain hungry and eager to hunt again. This strategy also reinforces the idea that the falconer is the bird’s sole source of food. Only when the bird is returned to its home base will it be allowed a real meal.
Before the falconer hunts with his bird again he or she will weigh it carefully. If the bird exceeds its flying weight (the weight at which it is hungry enough to hunt and strong enough to do it efficiently) the experienced falconer will not hunt with it. Raptors hunt only when hungry because the effort and risk of making a kill are great. A “fed-up” raptor, one that is not motivated by food, will not be interested in hunting or in returning to the falconer for food.
Raptors Used In Falconry
Falcons are also called “longwings” by falconers. All longwings have long, relatively narrow wings that are triangular in shape, wide near the body and pointed at the tip. Seven species were widely used in medieval falconry: The gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus); the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus); the saker falcon (Falco cherrug); the lanner falcon (Falco biarmicus); the lugger falcon (Falco jugger); the hobby (Falco subbuteo); and the merlin (Falco columbarius). The Eurasian kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), a small falcon the size of a blue jay, was occasionally used by the common people. Its diminutive size meant it was limited to small, uninteresting prey like insects and mice, so nobility scorned it. They especially prized the gyrfalcon, largest of the falcons, and the peregrine, the swiftest. The merlin, no larger than a pigeon, was considered an appropriate noblewoman’s falcon, while the fast but delicate hobby was allotted to the page.
Nowadays modern falconers can choose the prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus) from North America; the American kestrel (Falco sparverius); and hybrids of the different falcon species produced in captivity.
Medieval falconers only knew of one buteo, and they weren’t impressed by it. The common buzzard (Buteo buteo) is a soaring hawk, a bird of open spaces, and it’s powerful enough to tackle prey as big as a rabbit or squirrel. But falconers thought the buzzard lacked dash – it often resorts to scavenging a meal – and they dismissed it as a falconry bird.
Modern falconers, however, can use two large and powerful buteos, both from North America. The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is a big, powerful and (relatively) easy-going hawk. Since it is a widely distributed, common species, in the U.S. it is considered a good apprentice falconer’s bird. An even larger bird is the ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis), but this somewhat temperamental species is more difficult to work with than the red-tailed hawk and has a much more restricted distribution. Consequently it is much less used in falconry than the almost ubiquitous red-tail.
Today’s falconer has one more hawk available to him or her, and it’s regarded by many as the ideal hawking bird. The Harris’ hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) from the southwestern deserts of the U.S. is laid-back (for a raptor) and very versatile. This agile hawk can tackle anything from a quail to a rabbit or squirrel. Just as important from a falconer’s standpoint is a quality that makes the Harris’ hawk unique. In the wild this species hunts cooperatively in small family groups. This isn’t true of any other species used in hawking, and the trait is immensely useful to the falconer. This bird needs no specialized training to work in partnership with a person or with other Harris’ hawks. The British School of Falconry in Manchester, Vermont, uses Harris’ hawks to train beginners.
Close relatives of the golden eagle occasionally used by falconers yesterday and today are the imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca), the tawny eagle (Aquila rapax rapax) and the steppe eagle (Aquila rapax nipalensis). Although all three are smaller than the golden eagle, they are still eagles and are for experienced falconers only.
However, owls were used in Europe for a falconry-related purpose. Falconers were well aware that owls are hated and feared by other birds because by night these nocturnal hunters prey upon those other birds. By day, any owl sighted is mobbed by other species, either to drive it away or to kill it. European falconers profited by this behavior by catching owls and staking them out in the open during migration. Raptors passing overhead would spot the helpless owl and alight to harass it. Concealed falconers were waiting to trap young, easily trained raptors for the upcoming hunting season. So while owls were not flown as falconry birds, they were used in the sport as decoys. The practice was discontinued in Europe long ago; it was never used by American falconers.
Jess – All trained raptors wear jesses, which are leather straps attached to the birds’ legs. This is the best way for a falconer to handle a hunting bird.
Bells are attached to a trained raptor’s legs above the jesses.
The specially-made pair of bells will each ring with a different tone,
to carry a long distance. Their sound alerts the falconer to his or
her bird’s position if the bird has made a kill in thick cover.
The bells ring as the raptor shifts its feet to hold the prey. Modern-day
falconers still use bells, but rely on radio telemetry to track their
birds from miles away.
Hood – A leather hood is placed over a trained raptor’s head to cover its eyes and keep it calm. Traditionally falcons are hooded, because they are more high-strung than hawks. Medieval falconers, men and women, used hooded falcons as props. Since the hooded birds, a symbol of the aristocracy, would stand virtually motionless on the falconer’s glove, they could be carried anywhere. Hooded falcons accompanied their noble owners to court, into banqueting halls, even into church.
Glove – The falconer carries a trained raptor on a leather glove or gauntlet. The thickness of the leather and the length of the glove vary according to the size of the raptor. A glove made to accommodate the huge feet of a golden eagle extends to the falconer’s elbow, while a gauntlet for a peregrine falcon will be half that length. Traditionally, the glove is worn on the left hand, so the falconer’s (usually) more dexterous right hand is left free. In earlier centuries, the right hand would be needed to wield a sword or control a horse.
Lure – The lure is an artificial quarry used for training and exercising a falconry bird. It is made to look like the prey a raptor is being trained to hunt. Falcons are trained with lures that resemble birds, while a lure shaped vaguely like a rabbit is used with hawks and eagles. Meat is attached to the lure, which is swung on a line. The motion attracts the raptor’s attention.
Falconry’s Origins and
The Chinese people were great innovators who were responsible for many technological firsts. They were willing to experiment with new species of animals – they domesticated the great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) for fishing – so they may have been the first falconers. In Fair Game author Eric Hobusch states: “The earliest sources concerning falconry go back to a Chinese king, ruler of the Kingdom of Ch’ou, who organized falconry at the Lake of Tung-t’ing in the Province of Hunan between 689 and 675 BC.”
A slightly earlier date – somewhere around the 9th century BC – has been given for a neo-Hittite bas-relief that is now in the Louvre. The stone fragment depicts an ornately dressed boy standing on a woman’s knees while holding the leash of a raptor sitting on a wall perch. Paraphrasing an expert from the British Museum, J.E.M. Mellor in Notes on Falconry describes this carving: “a young Princeling is represented at the debut of his education as a gentleman, the falcon indicating sport and the stylus, in his right hand, and the book of wax tablets, on the wall, ‘letters.’” The woman would be the prince’s mother or nanny.
Hawking must have begun earlier than these two dates. It certainly must have taken several centuries of trial and error before early falconers worked out the best techniques for training raptors and were able to pass them along to apprentices, allowing for falconry to become an organized sport. So it’s safe to say that hawking dates back at least 3000 years.
Whoever the earliest falconers
were, the ancient Chinese probably spread the sport through their extensive
trade routes. The Chinese were centuries ahead of Western technology
in the production of everything from cast iron and steel for weapons
to luxury goods like textiles, carved jade and ivory, and exquisite
porcelain. These desirable items were moved in vast caravans as far
west as the Mediterranean. The trade routes came to be known as “Silk
Roads” for their best-known merchandise. Trained raptors and Asian
falconers were considered valuable commodities, so they too moved westward,
carrying falconry into Europe.
So had the Mongols. Like the Scythians, the Mongols were nomadic horsemen. They originated on the Mongolian Plateau and were a constant threat to the Chinese. The Mongols were probably the first to hunt foxes and wolves with golden eagles. This widely distributed species varies in size depending upon geographical region, and the largest variety, called the Berkut, is what the Mongols trained. They carried the immense birds on horseback, cradling their left arms on a wooden support. To this day a few falconers in Central Asia hunt with golden eagles in this traditional way.
Genghis Khan (b. around 1162; d.1227) extended Mongol rule westward to Russia and eastward to northern China. Genghis considered hunting of all kinds as “the training ground for war” and organized regiments of hunters. Falconry was overseen by the Ministry of War, and Genghis’s bodyguard was made up of falconers. The messengers that connected his far-flung empire bore the symbol of a gold falcon.
His grandson Kublai Khan (b. 1215; d. 1294) conquered China and relocated the Mongol capital to Beijing. Like Genghis, this khan believed in hunting on a grand scale. Marco Polo, who worked for Kublai and was a wondering observer at his court, wrote that the Mongol emperor of China hunted from a pavilion lined with beaten gold and borne by four elephants (apparently trained to walk in synchronization). On a hunting expedition Polo records that Kublai “takes with him full 10,000 falconers and some 500 gerfalcons, besides peregrines, sakers, and other hawks in great numbers, and goshawks able to fly at the water-fowl….”
The Mongols helped to spread falconry westward. The Persians probably learned it from them, and they in their turn probably taught it to the Arabs. By the time the Prophet Muhammad was writing down the Koran in the 7th century AD, hawking was well established in Arabia. As Islam was carried into Europe by its adherents falconry went with it.
But there were places it didn’t go. Greece did not embrace hawking, probably because its mountainous terrain wasn’t suited to a sport that is traditionally practiced on horseback over wide sweeps of level grassland. So although Greek coins from the 4th century BC show Alexander the Great with a raptor on his fist, there is no evidence that he actually practiced falconry. The Persians, whom he conquered, did practice the sport. Perhaps this pose was part of Alexander’s political strategy to adopt Persian customs.
Probably because hawking was absent from Greece, it was slow to reach the Romans, heirs to much of Greek culture. The Romans picked it up late in their history from the Gauls, and just a handful of aristocrats seem to have become falconers.
Falconry was never practiced by Native Americans, possibly because they lacked horses until the arrival of the Europeans. Nor did hawking move into the African continent beyond Morocco. Contrary to what some older reference books state, there is no evidence that the ancient Egyptians ever practiced the sport.
Hawking had arrived in Europe by the 4th century AD. An early description comes from Bordeaux; the laws of Burgundy a century later mention the sport. By the 600s falconry had reached England. There is a carving of a falconer carrying a hawk on his glove on the Bewcastle Cross in Cumberland, installed during that century. An archbishop named Boniface is on record as sending two falcons and a hawk to Ethelbald, king of Mercia, in the 8th century. This same Boniface was entreated by Ethelbert II, Saxon king of Kent, for “two falcons of such skill and courage as readily to fly at and seize cranes and bring them to the ground.” Alfred the Great (b. 849; d. 901), King of Wessex, was a falconer as well as a scholar.
Before we move on to the late medieval period, with its images of jousts, knights in armor and ladies in pointy hats, it’s worth pausing for a moment to ask a pertinent question: Why in the world was falconry invented? By the time of the sport’s beginnings, some 3000 years ago, humans had devised numerous effective ways to capture game, from birdlime, slings, snares and nets to spears and bows and arrows. It’s often stated that falconry began as a way to obtain food, but I doubt that. There were any number of easier, faster ways to get meat without dealing with a temperamental raptor that wouldn’t be capable of bringing down really large prey and that would have to be fed whether or not it made a kill.
Several writers have pointed out that falconry was the only means available to people in the pre-gun era for capturing birds in flight. This is true, but how important was this game source? Surely a deer or a bear taken with a longbow or spear would be far more useful quarry, providing a useful hide as well as meat.
I think it’s far more likely that falconry grew, slowly and in an unplanned way, out of the ancient animistic beliefs of Asia. Animism, which stretches back thousands of years into Paleolithic times, is the belief that things in nature, from rocks to trees to animals, have a spirit. One way to possess the spirit of an admired animal was to wear something from that animal – a tooth, perhaps, or a claw or feather. Predators, including birds of prey, were particularly respected by ancient people who depended upon hunting for their survival. So how would ancient Asians obtain raptor feathers to wear? Raptors are masterful fliers and wouldn’t be easy to shoot with primitive weapons. People could have picked up scattered feathers during the summer molt, but in all probability they kept birds of prey in captivity. Pueblo Indians into historic times kept golden eagles in wooden cages to harvest their feathers.
Ancient Asians might also have observed fledgling raptors as they left their nests. Young raptors, just before they can fly, leave the nest and climb about to exercise their flight muscles. These trusting young birds lack the wariness of their parents and will allow humans to approach. Intrigued tribespeople may well have fed these young raptors, which would gradually come to see humans as their family. As the juveniles began to hunt for themselves, they would return to home base at the village. Slowly ancient people will have evolved the idea of accompanying the raptor as it hunted. Over time they would have developed the techniques and equipment that would allow them to handle and control the bird.
Why bother? Because there are certain animals – I think raptors are among them – that people respond to passionately. Horses and dogs are also in this category. Falconry developed in part because people wanted a means to get close to animals they regarded with admiration and esthetic pleasure.
Another reason is that training a raptor is not easy and not for everyone. That gives it status as a rare accomplishment. So from its inception falconry was an elitist sport. Back before there was a monetary system and societal classes, falconers would be people who had an unusual and therefore valuable gift for handling predatory birds. As society became structured and people had specific jobs, falconers would be hired by the wealthy to perform a valued service. The stage was now set for falconry’s heyday as one of the most popular aristocratic sports in England and on the Continent.
Falconry at its Peak –
1066 through the 1600s
William wasted no time in exerting his authority. By the time of his death in 1087 more than 90% of England was held by the new Norman aristocracy. Fortified castles – a new concept in England – appeared at strategic locations, built by Norman lords with the backing of the king. These castles weren’t just fortified residences – they were symbols of the new order. Each castle was a declaration in stone of individual power and prestige. But in this society, now organized along feudal lines, all power flowed from the king. So each castle was an echo of the royal court, with an entourage of courtiers and a large household staff to serve them. Among the household offices was that of falconer (the surname “Faulkner” indicates that an ancestor held this position). The falconer held a prestigious position among the establishment’s retainers. Like everyone else who mattered in this new society, the falconer spoke Norman French. The language of falconry, still in use today, is therefore French-based. Words like “eyas,” “lure,” “mews,” even “falcon” itself are derived from French. The imprint of the Norman Conquest can be seen in virtually every aspect of English life, including falconry.
Lesser nobility who couldn’t afford castles built manor houses. Like the castles, these great houses would model their organization on that of the king’s household. So each residence, small or large, wealthy or just-getting-by, would have a mews to house the falconry birds and one or more falconers. Among the lord’s attendants at every residence would be young squires, noblemen’s sons intent on learning the knightly skills of riding, fighting, hunting (large game like wild boar and deer) and hawking. They would be instructed in these different skills by experts. Falconry techniques would be taught by the professional falconer, who would also train the birds and care for them in the mews.
So falconry, thanks to the new Norman aristocrats and the feudal system they imposed on England, had become a pastime of the nobility. It had also become a symbol of nobility. A hooded falcon was now just as much an accoutrement of an aristocrat as a well-bred horse or a sword.
Falconry became so firmly entrenched in society that by the 1100s even the merchant class of London was aping the nobility and flying “ignoble” hawks -shortwings like the sparowhawk and the goshawk. The “noble” hawks – the longwinged, desirable falcons – were the traditional prerogative of the privileged class because of their flying style and hunting prowess, as well as their beauty. The merlin, a small but determined hunter, was considered appropriate for noblewomen. This falcon was used to hunt skylarks in a dramatic aerial duel that saw the skylark “ringing up” vertically, while the heavier but stronger merlin tried to overtake it.
Large falcons like the gyrfalcon and the peregrine falcon were particularly prized because they could tackle large birds like the gray heron (Ardea cinerea) and the crane (Grus grus) with dash and style. The white gyrfalcon from Greenland was so prized for its beauty that the Viking settlers there established a profitable trade in the birds. But this northern falcon was hard for medieval falconers to maintain in good health. The peregrine falcon, on the other hand, was widely distributed and easier to obtain. It could hunt in any climate and could catch anything from a rook (a relative of the American crow) to a heron. It was unyielding to prey but gentle with the falconer. It was this species’ flight style, though, that won it so many admirers. A hunting peregrine takes a high pitch and then plunges straight down onto its prey. This headfirst dive is called a "stoop,” and a stooping peregrine is the fastest animal on the planet, reaching a top speed of around 200 mph. During the late medieval period, the peregrine falcon was the most extensively used of the falconry birds.
William the Conquerer’s great-grandson, Henry II (b. 1133; d. 1189), was an enthusiastic falconer. He and his nobles were in the habit of bringing their hooded falcons to the table at mealtime. When special meat pies containing small live birds were opened, the hoods were removed and the falcons were set on them. Henry even discovered a new source of hunting birds. While journeying to Ireland he stopped at Ramsey Island off the coast of Wales. The peregrine falcons that nested there were spectacular fliers, and Henry’s admiration for these island peregrines ensured their popularity with his court.
Henry’s military leader, William Marshall, was sent to Normandy as a boy to learn knightly skills from a man famed as “the father of knights.” Hawking, as a hallmark of nobility, would be one of the skills he would be expected to master.
Henry’s son, Richard I or Richard the Lionheart, was a renowned participant in the Third Crusade (1189-92). The crusades were Christian campaigns to free Muslim-held territory, particularly the Holy Land. Like other crusaders, Richard was exposed to new raptor species as well as new falconry techniques and equipment during his sojourn in the East. There were several major crusades beginning in 1095 and petering out in 1221, and as the surviving crusaders trickled back home to Europe they brought with them Eastern hawking equipment such as the hood. They also returned with some Eastern falconry terms still in use, such as “yarak.” Other conduits for Asian falconers and birds were nobles traveling to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, and merchants shuttling luxury goods between Europe and the Orient.
Another monarch who participated in the crusades and returned to Europe with Eastern ideas and goods, including falconry birds, was Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1220 to 1250. This gifted scholar was also an ardent falconer, and he penned a book entitled De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds) that contains not only a great deal of practical information on falconry, but original observations on raptor behavior, anatomy and migration.
One of Frederick’s contemporaries described this multifaceted ruler as “stupor mundi” (the amazement of the world) and indeed his scientific achievements continue to amaze. His masterwork, now published under the title The Art of Falconry, is still consulted by falconers. Frederick might be regarded as one of the first true scientists, one who drew conclusions based not on inaccurate tradition but on his own acute observations.
Since trained falcons were the prerogative of the nobility they were considered an appropriate exchange for aristocratic prisoners. During warfare, including the crusades, nobles were often captured alive and held for ransom. Carl VI of France offered a Saracen ruler twelve gyrfalcons and a jeweled gauntlet in return for the son of one of his nobles.
Trained falcons were also a royal gift. The falconry school founded by the Grand Master of the Order of Teutonic Knights in what was then Marienburg in Germany (now Malbork in Poland) seems to have been an important source of falconry birds. Recipients included kings, emperors and even the pope.
Trained raptors were well traveled in those days. Since a hooded falcon would stand motionless on a gauntlet and moreover identified its owner as patrician, aristocrats were apt to carry their falcons with them on their daily rounds. Falcons, to the dismay of churchmen, were brought to church. They went to banquets and even into bedchambers. Hunting birds also went to war. During the drawn-out rivalry between England and France known as the Hundred Years’ War, the English king Edward III crossed the Channel with over 1000 ships in 1359. Included in his entourage were 30 falconers to look after the king’s birds.
Falconry was a favorite aristocratic pastime outside of Europe as well. In Japan, hawking schools were run by noble families who had been falconers for generations. The Japanese specialized in hunting with goshawks and hawk eagles (Spizaetus nipalensis) because of the mountainous terrain of their country. They developed a vast literature on hunting with these birds; one of the books was the contribution of the emperor. Russia produced its own books on the subject, as did Germany and France.
One English work deserves special mention because it is so widely misunderstood. The Boke of St. Albans was written by Dame Juliana Berners, Abbess of Sopwell, and first printed in 1486. The book contains discussions of “Hawking, Hunting and Cote Armour.” The two pages set out here (in the original’s Middle English) (For larger image please click below) are from the section on hawking, and they are frequently described as laws governing what type of hunting bird was allotted to each noble rank. Such laws never existed. There certainly were laws prohibiting peasants from possessing the large species of falcons, and the penalties for breaking the laws ranged from fines to imprisonment. However, the nobility’s choice of falconry bird was regulated not by laws but by tradition and peer pressure.
The real importance of the
Abbess’ work lies in its recognition that English society had
become thoroughly hierarchical. The disaster of the Black Death (bubonic
plague), which struck Europe in 1347, had killed roughly one-third of
the population by 1400. Society had been rearranged as a result. By
the time The Boke of St. Albans was
written, the British peerage was far more subdivided than it used to
be. Below royalty there were now dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts
and barons. The gentry or non-nobles were further broken down into knights,
esquires and gentlemen. Dame Juliana’s matchup of falconry birds
with appropriate rank should not be taken literally or as legally binding.
It is simply a commonsense acknowledgment that society had become strictly
Modern readers of The Boke of St. Albans need not worry over the fate of say, a baron who had the effrontery to forget his station and fly a female peregrine falcon rather than a male peregrine falcon. The point to remember is that a baron probably wouldn’t consider hunting with a bird traditionally used by a higher rank. Think of the designations set forth by Dame Juliana as rules of etiquette closely followed by people who valued the status quo.
Falconry continued its reign as a favorite of nobility throughout the 1500s and well into the 1600s. The falconry school of the Grand Master of the Order of Teutonic Knights sent out no fewer than 1818 trained falcons as official gifts between 1533 and 1569. Henry VIII of England (b. 1491; d. 1547) and his French rival Francis I (b. 1494; d. 1547) were both ardent falconers. In his athletic youth Henry followed the flight of his falcons so enthusiastically that he once ended headfirst in the mud while trying to vault over a ditch in the heat of the chase.
Francis, for his part, hunted with style. The French king’s 300 falcons were looked after by a large staff of 50 masters of falconry. They in their turn were under the jurisdiction of the Grand Fauconnier, who held an exalted position. He alone could sell falcons in France, and he took a cut from the price of every transaction.
Henry’s daughter Elizabeth (b. 1533; d. 1603) loved hunting and hawking, and one source claims that she had a woman, Mary of Canterbury, as her Grand Master of Falconry. The queen’s royal rival. Mary Queen of Scots, was eventually executed by Elizabeth. During Mary’s long captivity she whiled away some hours by flying a merlin. Elizabeth’s heir, James I, was a falconry enthusiast. Shakespeare, who was writing his plays during this period, used extensive falconry imagery.
Nothing lasts forever. Falconry had enjoyed a centuries-long run as a popular aristocratic sport. But it had a serious weakness. Its fortunes were bound to those of the nobility. As the aristocrats of England and the Continent were overthrown by societal changes, their favorite sports began to disappear or be displaced by new ones, better suited to the times.
Decline – 1700s through
An unmistakable sign that the English monarchy and its traditions no longer held unquestioning sway over its subjects came in 1649, when James I’s son Charles I was beheaded. The turmoil of the Civil War, which saw the nobility on the losing side, and the aftermath of the Puritan Commonwealth spelled doom for aristocrats. At the same time falconry’s noble practitioners were dying in civil unrest in England and on the Continent, guns were becoming widely available. Guns required no specialized training (A saying of the time pointed out: “It is easier to train a gun than a hawk.”), nor did they demand a noble genealogy. Moreover, guns could be hung on the wall and picked up at the whim of the hunter, something that is hardly possible with a raptor. The great English estates, many of them owned by a new group of peers created after the English monarchy was restored in 1660, became hunting preserves. Now raptors, once protected for the pleasure of the nobility, were seen as competitors for small game that human hunters wished to kill themselves. Gamekeepers made it their business to eradicate any bird of prey they found, and in time, ironically, raptor shooting became a popular sport in England, on the Continent and in the U.S.
Meanwhile English farmers were plowing up heath land and enclosing it with hedgerows, so riding for miles in pursuit of a falcon became impossible in most places. Desirable quarry, such as the gray heron, was becoming scarce, so in 1839 British falconers formed a hawking club in the Netherlands with King William II as their patron. In 1853 patronage was removed, and falconry’s fate rested in the hands of a few die-hards. Like the old order, falconry had just about passed away.
Falconry – 1900s to Present Day
Between the world wars there were several noted American falconers, but it wasn’t until after World War II that the sport’s enthusiasts began to organize and share their knowledge. Which was ironic, because at the same time raptors were beginning to die in unprecedented numbers.
The war’s end saw synthetic chemical poisons come into widespread use. One was DDT, an insecticide designed to wipe out insect pests that spread disease and decimated agricultural crops. DDT and another widely-used insecticide called dieldrin turned out to be effective killers in ways no one had predicted. They caused reproductive failure in many raptor species, particularly birds like the peregrine falcon that were at the top of the food chain. By 1972 the peregrine falcon was gone as a breeding bird in the U.S. east of the Mississippi.
The plight of this magnificent species in particular brought about a sea change in the way the general public perceived raptors. Until the 1960s birds of prey were regarded with indifference at best and with a shotgun at worst. That attitude began to change as scientists, bird-watchers and falconers documented precipitous declines in raptor populations. In 1973 the use of DDT was banned in the U.S., and the Endangered Species Act gave extra protection and government assistance to species like the peregrine that were in danger of disappearing altogether.
The fortunes of the peregrine falcon and of falconry became entwined. Using falconers’ peregrines as foundation stock, two scientists began an intensive captive-breeding program in the U.S. Tom Cade and Heinz Meng, both falconers themselves, had learned how to do something medieval falconers could not. Working separately, the two men worked out how to induce peregrines to breed in captivity. The techniques they developed have been used successfully with many other endangered raptors as well, from the huge California condor down to the tiny Mauritius and Seychelles kestrels. Supported by a network of falconers who contributed birds, expertise and time, Cade and Meng did more – they began to release captive-bred peregrines back into the species’ former haunts. The program, which to date has bred and released thousands of peregrines, is a success. The peregrine falcon has now been delisted by the government, meaning that it is no longer in danger of extinction.
Now that raptors could be bred in captivity, falconers for the first time in the history of hawking had access to falconry birds without having to depend upon wild populations. This fact, more than anything else, has resulted in falconry’s renaissance. The majority of birds flown by falconers now are captive-bred, and new hybrids with new flying styles are available.
In the United States now there are under 10,000 licensed falconers. Their advisory and record-keeping body is the well-organized North American Falconers Association. Present-day falconers track their birds using radio telemetry. They have access to modern medications for old diseases like frounce and coccidiosis, as well as to advice from other falconers via the Internet. Falconry today is a blend of ancient traditions and modern techniques, but one thing has not changed in 3000 years – a true falconer in any century is a person who cares passionately about birds of prey.
Laws Governing Raptors and
Once the beginning falconer
has passed the state-administered test and obtained the apprentice permit,
he or she may possess either an American kestrel or a red-tailed hawk.
These are common, easily handled species, and with a special permit
the apprentice may use a specialized form of trapping to obtain the
bird. Young birds on their first migration, called "“passagers,"
are considered best, and apprentices are not allowed to take a nestling
bird, which is known as an “eyas.” Only experienced falconers,
who have worked with raptors for many years and passed advanced tests,
are allowed to work with the more difficult species, such as goshawks
and peregrine falcons. And only master falconers, who are at the top
of modern falconry’s ranking system, are allowed to fly golden
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