Falconry is the art or sport of training raptors (birds of prey) to hunt or pursue game.
Traditional views of falconry state that the art started in Asia, however archaeologists have found evidence of falconry in the Middle East dating back to the 16th century BC. Though these renderings of raptors atop a clenched fist are, according to some researchers, purely religious, it puts a shadow of doubt on those traditional views.
Falconry is currently practiced in many countries around the world.
In the United States, falconry is legal in all states except Hawaii. A falconer must have state and federal licenses to practice the sport. Among North American raptors, some of the most popular birds used in falconry are the peregrine falcon, the prairie falcon, the goshawk, and the Harris hawk.
Owls and eagles are sometimes used in North American and European falconry. In Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, the golden eagle is used exclusively, hunting game as large as fox and wolf.
Until recently, all peregrines used for falconry in the U. S. were captive-bred from the progeny of falcons taken prior to the enactment of the U. S. Endangered Species Act. Peregrine falcons were removed from the United States' endangered species list in 1999 due largely to the effort and knowledge of falconers. Finally, after years of close work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a limited take of wild Peregrines was allowed in 2004. The first wild Peregrine falcons taken in the US specifically for falconry in over 30 years.
In the UK, Falconry is permitted without a special licence, but only using captive-bred birds. All birds are ringed and registered, and can be DNA tested to verify their origins.
In Australia, although falconry is not specifically illegal, it is illegal to keep any type of bird of prey in captivity. The only exemption is when the birds are kept for purposes of rehabilitation (for which a licence must still be held), circumstances under which the practice can be an effective tool used in returning a bird to health.
Historically, falconry was a popular sport, and status symbol, among both the nobles of medieval Europe and feudal Japan as well, where it is called takagari. Eggs and chicks of birds of prey were quite rare and expensive, and since the process of raising and training a hawk or falcon takes a lot of time, money, and space, it was more or less restricted to the noble classes. In Japan, there were even strict restrictions on who could hunt which sorts of animals, and where, based on one's ranking within the samurai class. In art, and in other aspects of culture, such as literature, falcony remained a status symbol long after the sport was no longer popularly practiced. Eagles and hawks displayed on the wall could represent the noble himself, metaphorically, as noble and fierce. In addition, woodblock prints or paintings of falcons or falconry scenes could be purchased by wealthy commoners, and displayed as the next best thing to partaking in the sport itself, again representing a certain degree of nobility.
There are two main categories of birds used in falconry - long wings (falcons) which hunt birds and short wings (hawks) which hunt a range of prey, often focusing on rabbits.
A young bird (eyass) is trained through the reward of food. Raptors, unlike dogs for instance, are top predators, not social animals. They do not 'love' the falconer, they will not aim to please him, they do what they have to do to find the easiest source of food.
A young bird will be fed by the falconer on the glove, often taking a day or two to accept food after being taken from its parents. It is very important to establish in the bird's mind that food comes only from the falconer. The bird will be getting accustomed to its new 'furniture' as well as its new owner. The bird wears a bell, or pair of bells, on its legs which can be heard from a surprising distance. An identity ring is worn in most countries, and the bird has 'bracelets' placed around both legs. Strips of strong kangaroo leather called 'jesses' are threaded through the bracelets, and tied to a swivel, which is in turn tied to a 'leash' made of strong boat cord. The leash will be tied, using a loop system or the 'falconer's knot' to the bird's perch. Falcons sit on a 'block' - a flat topped perch similar to the rock ledge they would use in nature, will short wings, used to tree branches, will sit on a 'bow perch', so called because it looks like an archer's bow.
Once the bird will feed from the gloved fist, the bird is encouraged to jump to the fist to gain its reward of food. This trains both the bird's muscles and its association with the falconer with food. It is at this time that a falcon is 'made' to the hood. Falcons can be highly strung and a specially designed hood is used to protect it from sights which might upset it. Falcons have long memories and once scared by something unexpected can take a long time to forget it. Short wings are not made to the hood, the more they see the more 'manned' they get. Raptors are not 'tamed' in training, they are 'manned'. Even birds bred for several generations in captivity are not 'tame' in the way that social animals are.
The falcon will soon be trained to associate the 'lure' with food, encouraged to jump to the lure to feed. The lure is nothing more than a pair of wings, or piece of shredded car tyre, on a long line which will soon be used to exercise the bird in free flight. A rabbit lure may be used for a short wing in a similar way.
The bird will make longer and longer jumps for food, soon progressing to flying on a 'creance'. This word, from the French, means simply a long light cord on which the bird can fly up to fifty yards. The bird will be called from an assistants fist, in the case of a falcon which is never encouraged to fly to a post lest this becomes a habit, or a post in the case of a short wing. Speed of response is more important than the length of the flight. When the bird will come without hesitation the full length of the creance, it is time to fly the bird free.
Birds are flown according to their weight and hunger. A fat bird may refuse to fly at all, a bird that has just been fed may see no reason to return to the falconer's care and fly away to explore his surroundings. The daily weighing of the bird is vital therefore to maintaining its well being. Birds are flown as 'high' e.g. as heavy as possible. A bird that is ready to fly is said to be in 'yarak', a turkish word, meaning in good health - often 'rousing' the raising and ruffling of a contented bird's feathers is a sign of this. To ignore a bird's weight and condition is to lose it or kill it.
The creance is so light that a bird should be unaware that it was wearing it, so flying free for the first time should prove no different to it, however traumatic it can be for the nervous falconer. The bird should fly like a bullet to the glove or lure, and from now on the bird will fly free on every occasion. The next major step in training a long wing is to pull the lure away from it just as it is about to take it, making the bird wheel round, in theory, and attack the lure again. Once this is achieved the lure will be swung around the falconer's head, encouraging the bird to make more 'passes' at the lure, having it twitched away at the last moment. A bird may make forty passes at the lure once fit, the equivilent of circuit training. If the bird should catch it on the first pass it is rewarded with the small piece of meat tied securely to the lure, just as it is if it catches it on the fortieth. The falconer then 'makes in' to the bird pulling on the lure, and gently offers it more food on the glove as he replaces the birds jesses and ties it to the glove. You NEVER take food away from a raptor. Once the bird kills its prey, the bird is taken from it with more food on the glove.
Short wings are not flown to the lure, but encouraged to make long flights at a rabbit lure pulled along the ground, and perhaps encouraged to fly from tree to tree as the falconer walks along.
Falconry is the hunting of quarry with a trained bird, a bird kept as a pet is not a falconer's bird. Birds may be used for breeding, or kept long after their hunting days are done, but a young fit bird should be flown at quarry.
Most practical falconry is done with the American Red Tailed Hawk (a suped-up version of the european buzzard) and the Harris Hawk, a bird from the Southern USA which often hunts in social packs, with rabbits as the main quarry. Goshawks, powerfull european birds of prey, are excellent hunters, once called the 'cook's hawk', but can be wilfull and unpredictable in unskilled hands. Rabbits are bolted from their warrens with ferrets, or approached as they lay out. The acceleration of a short wing, especially the Goshawk, is astonishing and the rabbit surprised any distance from its burrow has little hope of escape. Short wings will dive after their quarry into cover, where the tinkling of the bells are vital in finding the bird. Modern falconers use radio telemetry to track their birds in many cases. Game birds in season and a wide range of other quarry can be taken, though only a large female Goshawk takes many hares before a kick too many encourages them to find easier prey. Sparrow hawks were formerly used to take a range of small birds, but are really too delicate for serious falconry now american birds are avaliable.
The long winged falcon flies only after birds. Classical game hawking saw a brace of peregrines flown against grouse, or merlins in 'ringing' flights after skylarks. Rooks and crows are classic game for the large falcon, while the magpie, making up in cunning what it lacks in flying ability, is another common target. While short wings can be flown in wooded country, falcons require large open tracts where the falconer can follow the flight with ease, the horses beloved of mediavel falconers are less often seen today however!
Falconry is always associated with the middle ages, and many of its terms and practises seem archaic, but the last 30 years has seen a great rebirth of the sport, with a host of innovations. One of these, steming from the captive breeding of birds which has rejuvinated the sport, is the creation of 'hybrid' falcons. Falcons are more closely related than many suspected, the heavy northern Gyr falcon and Asiatic Saker being especially closely related and they may interbreed naturally to create the so called 'Altai' falcon. Hybrids are commonly created, using artificial insemination, to boost size, strength and vigour and though the practise is controversial, it seems here to stay.
Birds are inevitably lost on occasion, though most are found again. There are no records of 'foriegn' birds becoming established in Britain after escape, although the return of the Goshawk as a breeding bird to Britain since the war is due in some part to falconer's escapes. After raptors were mercilessly wiped out by gamekeepers, shooters, egg collectors and DDT, the numbers of most British species have recovered well in recent times. The Red Kite, the Goshawk and the White Tailed Sea Eagle have all returned as breeding birds, and the techniques perfected in breeding birds of prey for falconry have proved their worth.
Falconers used to start with a kestrel, but this little falcon is really too delicate for a beginner's hands, and the European Buzzard is similarly useless for taking quarry. The first bird of choice is either the equitable Harris Hawk or the slighly more demanding Red Tailed Hawk. The beauty of these birds, easily bred in captivity, is that they can be used to take quarry and can easily satisfy a falconer's demand for a capable bird in themselves. The delightful Lanner falcon makes a good first long wing, with a Peregrine, or a hybrid containing Peregrine or Gyr genes being the ultimate step.
Falconry is not the preserve of the past, or the lord of the manor. If its simple, but invioble precepts are followed, a well trained bird is a delight for many years. Falcons can live into their mid teens, with larger hawks living longer and Eagles likely to see out their middle aged owners. The captive breeding of birds rescued a dieing sport in the seventies and has ensured its good health today. It has largely escaped the attention of the anti-blood sports lobby and its popularity, through lure flying displays at country houses and game fairs, has probably not been higher for 300 years. Flying a raptor is a delight, but entails a great responsibility. A bird cannot be loaned out to a next door neighbour while the falconer holidays, nor hung up in a cupboard like a gun. One mistake can lose the bird, but the hours of care and attention in training is repaid in full by the thrill of a perfect flight.
- http://www.gutenberg.org/etext98/nmybk10.txt (search for "Boke of St Albans")
- http://www.r3.org/life/articles/falconry.html (Bibliography looks good)