Medieval Falconry

Medieval Falconry


Medieval Falconry - History

FALCONRY AND THE MEDIEVAL WORLD

Falconry is the sport of hunting with a trained bird of prey. It is also the demanding art of training a predatory bird that is by nature wary of people to hunt cooperatively with a human partner. While the sport has a 4,000 - year history, its glory days were indisputably the medieval period. Falconry then was a court sport in England and France, and the most desirable birds were the legal property of the nobility. Paintings from the medieval period show gorgeously attired ladies and gentlemen riding forth for a day of hunting, hooded falcons on their embroidered gloves. While this presentation centers around live birds used in falconry, it is not a flight demonstration but a history-rich look at an ancient sport. Focusing on the medieval period, it explains the characteristics of the birds of prey used, how the sport reflected the lifestyle of the time, and the historical reasons behind falconry's rise and fall.

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Falconry in the Middle Ages

By Grethe

Historically, no bird of prey has shared as close a relationship with humans as the falcon did during the Middle Ages, when the sport of falconry and hawking were an important part of life. It reigned as the most popular sport in England for more than four centuries. So important were falcons in England that the first laws aimed at protecting birds of prey were treated here. Perhaps no such stringent laws have ever been passed to protect a wild bird or animal. Somehow wildlife conservation was born during the age of falconry.

No one knows exactly where or when humans started using trained raptors to hunt for food, but a theory says that it probably came into existence by the nomads on the Asian steppes around 2000-1600 B.C., from where it spread east to China and west to Arabia, Persia and Europe.

The first record of humans using birds of prey for hunting comes from an Assyrian bas-relief dated in the early part of the seventh century B.C. References to falconry in China are as early as 680 B.C., but one Japanese work states that falcons were used as gifts to Chinese princes during the Hsia dynasty, 206-220 B.C.

With the increasing trade falconry reached the Mediterranean about 400 A.D. Germanic tribes acquired the sport around the sixth century A.D., and by 875 A.D. it was practiced through western Europe and Saxon England.

The first documented English falconer was the Saxon king of Kent, Ethelbert II (died 762), followed by Alfred the Great and Athelstan in the ninth century. After the Norman conquest in 1066, new raptor species were introduced in England. The Normans restricted falconry to the upper classes, and peasants could be hanged for keeping hawks. Yeomen were allowed to use the short-winged hawks, like goshawks and sparrowhawks, to hunt for food, but only king and nobility were allowed to have the more noble long-winged falcons, like gyrfalcon, peregrine and merlin.

There are few written sources about falconry in the period before the Middle Ages, but already around year 1000 big amounts of art and literature began to emerge. Beyond being hunting birds the falcons were symbols of power, strength and superiority and found their place in coat of arms, banners and tapestries. The famous Bayeux tapestry is one of the best preserved contemporary sources. The first 10-15 meters of the embroidery is about a falcon hunt of Harold Godwinson's.

In the thirteenth century Frederick II of Hohenstaufen brought the sport to its highest state of respectability, when he wrote "The Art of Falconry". The book took over thirty years to complete, and as one of the first scientific works about birds placed him as one of the founders of ornithology. He introduced the Arabic practice of hooding falcons to keep them tranquil during training. His work also holds several pages of interesting instructions for dog trainers. The falcons often worked in conjunction with special trained hunting dogs, raised with the falcons since puppy hood. Frederick II's book is available for modern readers, newly edited and reprinted in 1969.

The position of falconer was usually handed down from father to son. In a royal household he was called Lord Falconer, sitting fourth from the king at table. He was responsible for capturing, training and caring for the hawks. He was a key number of the hunt, planning with the lord which birds to fly at which prey. He also rode to war with the lord, bringing the birds along to hunt for food.

During the Hundred Year's War falcons accompanied their masters across the Channel to the battles of Grecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. When Edward III invaded France, he had thirty falconers with him. John of Gaunt often brought hunting parties to the Test Valley, and since it was due to the practice of ringing these birds, the huntings are documented in the Domesday Book.

Neither hawks or falcons are suitable house-pets because they have spectacular mode of excretion, they are tradionally kept on special perches standing in sand, the mews. Richard II let build the Royal Mews at Charing Cross in London, and the office of Master of the Mews is still extant.

Falconry remained popular among royalty until the reign of George III. The Stuarts were particularly fond of the sport. Henry VIII was perhaps the most important falcon advocate since Frederick II. Mary, Queen of Scots, was an ardent fan of the merlins("milady's falcon"), and Elizabeth, who liked the sport herself, occassionally let Mary out of the dungeon for short hawking excursions.

Falcons were so highly valued that they were worth more than their weight in gold. During one bloody crusade in the late fourteenth century, the Ottoman Sultan Beyazid captured the son of Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, and turned down Philip's offer of 200.000 gold ducats for ransom. Instead Beyazid wanted and was given something even more precious, twelve white gyrfalcons.

Falconry's popularity became a status symbol in medieval society, but it was a rather expensive pleasure. The birds required intricate housing and all kinds of accessories- and falconers were required to feed the birds a balanced diet on a daily basis. The average citizen kept more common birds like sparrowhawks and goshawks. According to the Boke of St. Albans of 1486, written by Dame Juliana Barnes, the prioress of Sopwell nunnery, there was a type of bird of prey for each class of feudal society. To keep a falcon that was above one's station was a felony, and the typical punishment was cutting off hands of people, who committed that crime.

People brought their pet falcon everywhere, perched on hand or wrist. Falcons were very popular among the clergy and were taken into religious services, especially nuns were rarely seen without their falcon on their wrist. Knights took their favourite birds to church so often that eventually rules were made to bar them. A few couples even got married with falcons on their fists. A lady was advised by her husband to take her bird everywhere with her so that it would become accustomed to people. Elements of the sport were found nearly everywhere. The Lisle Letters, published in six volumes by Muriel St. Claire Bryne, reveals how thoroughly falconry permeated various realities of life in the household of Lord and Lady Lisle.

In Shakespeare's works the reader will probably get a more distinct vision of falconry and the sporting pastimes of the aristocracy of that day than in any other way. To understand falconry and the falconer's words was an important part of the upbringing of young men and women, and it was often a necessity in order to understand the expressions in art and in some of Shakespeare's plays. In Shapespeare's time it was usual to go hunting in the afternoon, and when the falcon went up for the heron in a North Western wind, the falconer couldn't know the falcon from the heron, because he had the sun in his eyes. Therefore the words in Hamlet: " I am but mad north northwest, when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."

The Golden Age of falconry ended several centuries ago, due to the discovery of the firearms, but also because the feudal systems changed, and the forests were cleared for farmland.

Borrowed words:

The word codger, used today to describe an elderly person, can be traced back to the falconry term, cadger, who carried a portable perch called a cadge for a falconer. Most cadgers were old falconers.

Callow, which is a nestling raptor whose feathers are still in the blood-quill stage, is now used to describe someone who is young or untested.

When raptors drink , it is called bowsing. A bird that drinks heavily is called a boozer, the term used to describe the same tendency in humans.

The falcon's maximum speed:

Speed is the falcon's forte. If birds of prey were airplanes, then the eagles, the buzzards, the kites would be the gliders, and the falcons would be the jets. Estimates of the maximum speed of a falcon dive are as fast as 273 miles an hour (440 km/h) based on analysis of motion-picture footage of a falcon in full vertical dive taken by the Naval Research Laboratory in England in WWII. Most biologists, however, estimate the falcon's maximum velocity at 150 to 200 miles an hour ( 240 to 320 km/h), which is still faster than any other animal on earth.


Viking Falconry

In the long struggle for survival, humankind has found help by forming relationships of symbiotic cooperation with animals. Horses enabled us to cover ground, oxen increased our work capacity, and dogs helped us hunt or herd. People have made up for some of the limitations of our species by harnessing the strengths of others. One of the most impressive and dramatic applications of this principle is falconry – using birds of prey to catch game.

There are references to falconry in Assyria and China, both going back to the 7 th century B.C. The techniques of training these natural-born killers to catch and retrieve other birds and small mammals spread over Eurasia in the centuries that followed. But it was in the Middle Ages that falconry had its real heyday and shifted from a clever means of supplementing the diet to a true sport of kings. The Vikings employed falconry and enjoyed its benefits, and they played a large role in its spread and prestige.

Viking Birds

By far the bird most associated with the Vikings is the raven. Ravens were symbols of Odin, and imagery of their feasting on the bodies of the battle-slain are ubiquitous in Norse poetry. According to the Landnámabók, Floki, the 9 th century Viking, discovered Iceland by releasing three ravens and following their flight.

With the common knowledge of Odin's two raven pets (Huginn and Muninn), who were given the magical ability to speak about what they saw and hear, it makes perfect sense that Vikings were intrigued and excited about the idea of training large birds of prey to hunt for them.

Ravens are exceptionally intelligent, good hunters, and capable of learning, but humankind has seldom been able to make consistent use of these magnificent, mysterious birds. One reason for this may be that ravens rely on their complex social structures and are not solitary predators like falcons, eagles, or hawks. It would seem ravens were pleased to follow Odin but quickly lose interest in humans.

Falcons, hawks, and even eagles were a much better match. They are highly trainable (with skill and patience), and they have the size and strength to retrieve game worth eating. Their fantastic eyesight and astounding dive speeds (sometimes in excess of 200 mph) make them some of nature's most perfect predators. With the help of such birds, a Viking could make a fine dinner of meat and foul he ordinarily would not have even known were there.

Germanic tribes were using falconry by the 6 th century A.D. The Saxon kings of Britain were avid falconers at the dawn of the Viking Age. Even Alfred the Great would not let his illness stop him from going out and hunting with his birds.

The Norse of Scandinavia were not ones to be left behind. Some graves in Norway and Sweden from the Vendel period and Viking Age contained the bones of falcons along with the high-status warriors interred there. Archaeologists have found other graves and treasure hordes that contained small iron or copper bells that may be associated with falconry. In addition to this material evidence, there are runestones that depict hunters with dogs and falcons, including those at Alstad, Toten (Norway), and Böksta, Uppland (Sweden).

There are numerous references in the historical record to the Viking use of falcons, hawks, and other birds of prey. According to a Frankish source, the 8 th -century Danish king Godfred was assassinated on a hunting trip as he was about to release his hawk. King of Norway Olav Tryggvasen (Leif Erikson’s mentor) reportedly ripped the feathers from his sister’s falcon in a particularly-unattractive fit of rage. King Haakon the Good’s tribute paid to King Harald Bluetooth included 60 hawks or falcons.

One gets a sense for the awe that Vikings held for falcons, hawks, and eagles by reading Norse mythology and poetry. The goddess Freya has a cloak of falcon feathers that she can don whenever she wants to fly. Loki sometimes borrows this cloak to spy on enemies or travel to the home of the giants. The goddess Frigg (Odin's wife) has a similar cloak. When Odin stole the Mead of Poetry from the giants, he changed his shape into an eagle to make his lightning-fast getaway.

The Viking Falcon Trade

Vikings were not just raiders and explorers but were avid traders. They used their extensive networks, their adaptable ships, and their matchless daring to bridge the farthest reaches of the cold North Atlantic to the opulent kingdoms of a golden age East. One of the most sought-after, expensive, and coveted items Vikings purveyed were hunting falcons – especially the large, snowy-white gyrfalcon of the far north. These magnificent birds were worth much more than their weight in gold and were considered the ultimate status symbol and gift for kings.

To illustrate just how much value was placed on these birds: During one of the Crusades, an Ottoman sultan refused a ransom of 200,000 gold ducats for a captured prince, insisting on 12 gyrfalcons instead.

Erik the Red and his hardy Viking settlers of Greenland knew that they could not scratch out enough food from that barren island, but the gyrfalcons and walrus ivory they could export would make them rich.

Of course, the Viking falcon trade was not exclusively these big-ticket items. The 11 th century Domesday Book of newly-Norman England describes the extensive imports of various types of hawks and falcons from Norway that had been taking place for years.

The popularity of falconry would continue to rise after the Viking Age had declined. In the High Middle Ages, it became common across many social classes and was enjoyed equally by both genders. The type of bird used, though, became strictly associated with status and there were even laws that prevented someone from owning a bird above his station. It became so fashionable to own a hunting bird that bishops demanded that men and women not bring their falcons to church. The most valued birds continued to form part of paid tributes and even to seal peace treaties. The same sleek, fast, agile, and strong birds that they Vikings favored became the prized possessions of aristocrats and royalty.

For the Vikings, the falcon was a hunting partner and a source of sport, wealth, and inspiration. Even today, anyone who sees a display of falconry cannot help but be impressed by the creature's abilities, the trainer's skill, and the ingenuity of our many ancestors who realized the potential of this partnership.

Sons of Vikings is an online store offering hundreds of Viking inspired items, including Viking jewelry, Viking clothing, Drinking horns , home decor items and more.

To learn more about Viking history, we recommend our 400+ page, self titled book that is available here.


Falconry 101: An Introduction To The Basics and History of the Sport

Birds of prey fascinate us in ways other animals simply cannot. Not only is their method of hunting hypnotic in its beauty, raptors wear an air of languid superiority as comfortably as they wear their feathers. By virtue of their haughtiness, they demand our attention. And we, as spellbound, earth-bound subjects, always give it. But there is a small group of people who take our earthbound fascination with birds of prey beyond passive observation and into a realm few have the opportunity to witness, even fewer the dedication to achieve. These individuals have learned how to fly–vicariously, anyway–by learning how to live and hunt with birds of prey in a way that is at once art, science, history, and lifestyle. But to be successful at falconry, its practitioners say, you have to apply all qualities equally. Falconry is a hunting sport, but one in which the actual taking of game is secondary to the nuance of flight and the subtle interaction of human handler and winged hunter. It’s also a sport that, to the average observer, is as mysterious and visually intoxicating an activity as you are likely to find anywhere. Field & Stream‘s Chad Love has always had an interest in falconry and these photographs, which he hopes conveys the essence of a sport very few see, are from some of the hunts he’s tagged along on over the years. For more info on falconry visit the website of the Noth American Falconers Association. The mechanics of the sport are deceptively simple and have changed very little over the centuries. Falconers either raise or trap birds of prey and train them to catch a variety of game, depending on the type of raptor used. Those who fly falcons pursue winged game like grouse, waterfowl and pheasants almost exclusively, since falcons generally hunt other birds. Falconers who fly hawks can, depending on the species of hawk used, hunt birds as well as ground-dwelling game like rabbits and squirrels. The accoutrements of the sport are simple as well. Heavy leather gloves allow birds to perch on their handlers’ arms during training sessions and hunts. Hoods are used both as a training tool to tame birds and as a way to keep birds calm before and after hunts. Lures are leather pouches garnished with meat used to train birds to fly to the handler’s first. Any falconer will tell you that they’re a little different from other people. They live to live vicariously through their birds. They’re not in it just to catch game. Their passion lies in watching the bird fly, and hunt. The pursuit of that moment – when training, timing and instinct meld into a perfect flight – is the tonic that sustains the falconer’s world. It is a direct portal into wildness, but the toll required for entry is heavy, and must be paid in the currency of dedication. Perhaps that’s why there are so few falconers. Not only is it the most highly regulated sport externally, due to a maze of state and federal regulations, but its unique demands are such that anything less than total commitment is doomed to failure. That’s why the one overriding truth of falconry is that there is no such thing as a casual falconer. To become one, a person must first pass a comprehensive, state-administered written test covering everything from biology to care and handling to pertinent laws and regulations. He or she must then build housing facilities, purchase certain equipment that must be inspected and approved by a state inspector, then purchase all the necessary state and federal licenses. That’s the easy part. By law, all beginning falconers must be apprenticed to a licensed falconer for their first two years, and if you haven’t made an honest assessment of why you want to be a falconer in the first place, you can be sure that the person you ask to be your sponsor will do that for you. Apprentice falconers are allowed only one bird and are limited in their choice of species. The overwhelming majority of apprentice falconers start out with a red-tailed hawk due to the red-tail’s trainable nature and its relative abundance. The bird must then be “manned” which is the process of taming the bird and making it feel comfortable in your presence. The result of all this work is a trust bond between handler and bird, and a mutually beneficial relationship. The next step is to get that bond cemented and then “enter the hawk to game,” which is falconer parlance for taking the bird on an actual hunt. Falconers train birds through the reward of food. That’s how handlers train the birds to fly to their fist and stay with the handler in the field. That’s also why an accurate set of scales is one of the falconer’s most important tools. If the bird weighs too much, not only is it too heavy to hunt effectively, there’s no incentive for coming back. With the regulations, requirements, enormous time commitment, and shrinking habitat, the sheer difficulty of becoming and staying a falconer gives rise to the question, why? What causes a person to get drawn into falconry in the first place and what about this arcane sport makes almost everyone introduced to it develop an almost monkish devotion to its practice? Almost every falconer replies, in one fashion or another, that it’s the experience of being able to both witness and interact with something that represents unfettered wildness, and the fascination with and allure of flight. “It’s not about taking game,” one falconer told me. “Falconry is not a results-oriented sport, and it’s actually a very inefficient way to hunt. It has everything to do with the birds themselves, watching them fly, interacting with them.” “When you let your bird go, you never really know what’s going to happen,” says another. “They’re wild creatures, and when they leave your fist, they can lead you in the strangest places. Or you may never see them again. That’s just part of the allure of it.” That connection to wildness is why every morning in the fall and winter, falconers can be found on the prairie and in the woods, sending their birds aloft in search of game and thus perpetuating a cycle as old as history itself. Falconry is so ancient that its origins are somewhat murky. No one really knows when some enterprising nomadic hunter first lured an eagle or falcon down from the sky, but the first documentation of the symbiotic relationship between man and bird dates to around 1700 B.C. What is known is that falconry has been and still remains an intrinsic part of human culture, especially in the Middle East and parts of the Asian Steppe, where for over a thousand years Mongolian eagle hunters have trained golden eagles to hunt animals as large as wolves. Pre-Renaissance Europe is generally considered to be the golden age of western falconry. Not only were the Crusades bringing western religious fervor to the Holy Land, they were bringing Middle Eastern falconry techniques back to the Old World. However, like every aspect of medieval life, a rigid caste system existed in falconry. What species of bird you flew depended on your station in society. Royalty flew birds such as gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons, and merlins, while birds like goshawks and kestrels had to suffice for the lineage-impaired common folk. In the Middle East, however, the deep-rooted falconry tradition had less to do with pageantry and more to do with the pragmatic goal of catching game. For centuries, nomadic Bedouin tribes roamed the arid regions of the Arabian peninsula, living by the ebb and flow of the falconry season so rooted in Arabian culture. The oil wealth and power of the 20th century has done nothing to squelch that passion. Today, more than 70 percent of Arab men participate in falconry, while western falconers make up an infinitesimal percentage of the population But no matter the nationality, all falconers are joined by the threads of a common bond. “It’s not a hobby,” one falconer tells me. “It’s a 365-day-a-year commitment, but those are the sacrifices you make when you choose to become a falconer. Sure, it’s hard, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything, and I don’t think any falconer would.”

Birds of prey fascinate us in ways other animals simply cannot. Not only is their method of hunting hypnotic in its beauty, raptors wear an air of languid superiority as comfortably as they wear their feathers. Field & Stream_’s Chad Love has always had an interest in falconry.

These photographs, which convey the essence of a sport very few see, are from some of the hunts on which he’s tagged along over the years and provide a basic introduction to the sport and tradition of falconry._



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Thyra


Gurre Castle Ruin, Zealand


Falconry , especially in medieval England.

In history no bird of prey has shared as close a relationship with humans as the falcon did during the Middle Ages, when the sport of falconry and hawking was an important part of life. It reigned as the most popular sport in England for more than four centuries. So important were falcons in England that the first laws aimed at protecting birds of prey were treated here. Perhaps no such stringent laws have ever been passed to protect a wild bird or animal.

Somehow wildlife conservation was born during the age of falconry. No one knows exactly where or when humans started using trained raptors to hunt for food, but a theory says that it probably came into existence by the nomads on the Asian steppes around 2000-1600 B.C., from where it spread east to China and west to Arabia, Persia and Europe.The first record of humans using birds of prey for hunting comes from an Assyrian bas-relief dated in the early part of the seventh century B.C. References to falconry in China are as early as 680 B.C., but one Japanese work states that falcons were used as gifts to Chinese princes during the Hsia dynasty, 206-220 B.C.

With the increasing trade falconry reached the Mediterranean about 400 A.D. Germanic tribes acquired the sport around the sixth century A.D., and by 875 A.D. it was practiced through western Europe and Saxon England.The first documented English falconer was the Saxon king of Kent, Ethelbert II (died 762), followed by Alfred the Great and Athelstan in the ninth century.
After the Norman conquest in 1066, new raptor species were introduced in England. The Normans restricted falconry to the upper classes, and peasants could be hanged for keeping hawks. Yeomen were allowed to use the short-winged hawks, like goshawks and sparrowhawks, to hunt for food, but only king and nobility were allowed to have the more noble long-winged falcons, like gyrfalcon, peregrine and merlin.

There are few written sources about falconry in the period before the Middle Ages, but already around year 1000 large amounts of art and literature began to emerge. Beyond being hunting birds the falcons were symbols of power, strength and superiority and found their place in coat of arms, banners and tapestries. The famous Bayeux tapestry is one of the best preserved contemporary sources. The first 10-15 meters of the embroidery is about a falcon hunt of Harold Godwinson's.

In the thirteenth century Frederick II of Hohenstaufen brought the sport to its highest state of respectability, when he wrote "The Art of Falconry". The book took over thirty years to complete, and as one of the first scientific works about birds placed him as one of the founders of ornithology. He introduced the Arabic practice of hooding falcons to keep them tranquil during training. His work also holds several pages of interesting instructions for dog trainers. The falcons often worked in conjunction with special trained hunting dogs, raised with the falcons since puppy hood. Frederick II's book is available for modern readers, newly edited and reprinted in 1969.

The position of falconer was usually handed down from father to son. In a royal household he was called Lord Falconer, sitting fourth from the king at table. He was responsible for capturing, training and caring for the hawks. He was a key number of the hunt, planning with the lord which birds to fly at which prey. He also rode to war with the lord, bringing the birds along to hunt for food.During the Hundred Year's War falcons accompanied their masters across the Channel to the battles of Grecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. When Edward III invaded France, he had thirty falconers with him. John of Gaunt often brought hunting parties to the Test Valley, and since it was due to the practice of ringing these birds, the huntings are documented in the Domesday Book.

Neither hawks or falcons are suitable house-pets because they have spectacular mode of excretion, they are tradionally kept on special perches standing in sand, the mews. Richard II let build the Royal Mews at Charing Cross in London, and the office of Master of the Mews is still extant.Falconry remained popular among royalty until the reign of George III. The Stuarts were particularly fond of the sport. Henry VIII was perhaps the most important falcon advocate since Frederick II. Mary, Queen of Scots, was an ardent fan of the merlins ("milady's falcon"), and Elizabeth, who liked the sport herself, occassionally let Mary out of the dungeon for short hawking excursions.

Falcons were so highly valued that they were worth more than their weight in gold. During one bloody crusade in the late fourteenth century, the Ottoman Sultan Beyazid captured the son of Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, and turned down Philip's offer of 200.000 gold ducats for ransom. Instead Beyazid wanted and was given something even more precious, twelve white gyrfalcons.

Falconry's popularity became a status symbol in medieval society, but it was a rather expensive pleasure. The birds required intricate housing and all kinds of accessories- and falconers were required to feed the birds a balanced diet on a daily basis. The average citizen kept more common birds like sparrowhawks and goshawks. According to the Boke of St. Albans of 1486, written by Dame Juliana Barnes, the prioress of Sopwell nunnery, there was a type of bird of prey for each class of feudal society. To keep a falcon that was above one's station was a felony, and the typical punishment was cutting off hands of people, who committed that crime.

People brought their pet falcon everywhere, perched on hand or wrist. Falcons were very popular among the clergy and were taken into religious services, especially nuns were rarely seen without their falcon on their wrist. Knights took their favourite birds to church so often that eventually rules were made to bar them. A few couples even got married with falcons on their fists. A lady was advised by her husband to take her bird everywhere with her so that it would become accustomed to people. Elements of the sport were found nearly everywhere. The Lisle Letters, published in six volumes by Muriel St. Claire Bryne, reveals how thoroughly falconry permeated various realities of life in the household of Lord and Lady Lisle.

In Shakespeare's works the reader will probably get a more distinct vision of falconry and the sporting pastimes of the aristocracy of that day than in any other way. To understand falconry and the falconer's words was an important part of the upbringing of young men and women, and it was often a necessity in order to understand the expressions in art and in some of Shakespeare's plays. In Shapespeare's time it was usual to go hunting in the afternoon, and when the falcon went up for the heron in a North Western wind, the falconer couldn't know the falcon from the heron, because he had the sun in his eyes. Therefore the words in Hamlet: " I am but mad north northwest, when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."

The Golden Age of falconry ended several centuries ago, due to the discovery of the firearms, but also because the feudal systems changed, and the forests were cleared for farmland.

Borrowed words:
The word codger , used today to describe an elderly person, can be traced back to the falconry term, cadger, who carried a portable perch called a cadge for a falconer. Most cadgers were old falconers.
Callow , which is a nestling raptor whose feathers are still in the blood-quill stage, is now used to describe someone who is young or untested.
When raptors drink , it is called bowsing . A bird that drinks heavily is called a boozer , the term used to describe the same tendency in humans.

The falcon's maximum speed:
Speed is the falcon's forte. If birds of prey were airplanes, then the eagles, the buzzards, the kites would be the gliders, and the falcons would be the jets. Estimates of the maximum speed of a falcon dive are as fast as 273 miles an hour (440 km/h) based on analysis of motion-picture footage of a falcon in full vertical dive taken by the Naval Research Laboratory in England in WWII. Most biologists, however, estimate the falcon's maximum velocity at 150 to 200 miles an hour ( 240 to 320 km/h), which is still faster than any other animal on earth.


Koldinghus Castle, East Jutland

Falconry in the Middle Ages II
by grethe bachmann

"Their haufdu Hauka sina a oxlom" (They had hawks on their shoulders) Rolf Krakes Saga Chapter XL:
Rolf Krake (6th century) and his men went on a visit to his hostile stepfather king Adils in Uppsala, and the saga says: "They had hawks on their shoulders, and this was considered a great splendour, and king Rolf owned the hawk named Höjbrog."
Hakon Jarl had to pay a yearly tax to Harald Bluetooth (d.985) of 10 mark in gold and 60 hunting falcons for that part of Norway that was transferred to him, and on account of this tax Harald Bluetooth used to call Norway his Haukei (hawk- or falcon island.)
Canute the Holy had in 1085 a seal made, showing him on horseback with a falcon upon his hand, and after his death in 1086 his mortal remains were swept in a Byzantine silken carpet with motifs of birds of prey.
Hakon the Old of Norway (1204-1263) was the first northern king, who made present of falcons to foreign sovereigns, thus a considerable amount of goshawks, and later Icelandic falcons were sent from Norway and Iceland to England. In 1276 Edward I received eight grey and three white gyrfalcons from the king of Norway as a sign of peace.


In the 14th century at least five shipments of falcons were sent to the Emperor of Morocco, and negotations concerning similar shipments to Tripoli were conducted by the Danish king.The Renaissance king Christian IV gave his brother in law, James the First of England and Scotland 24 falcons every year.
Finding new birds was an important endeavour in the Middle Ages. Falcons from Scandinavia were considered especially good birds. The gyrfalcon came in colours from grey in Scandinavia, especially Norway, to a lighter shade in Iceland and to and almost white with black markings in Greenland. Falcons from Iceland and Greenland were sent to the Royal mews in Norway and Denmark, and from here they were sold to a medieval company in Lübeck in northern Germany and then shipped across the Alps to Venice and thence to Alexandria, Baghdad and Constantinople.
The Icelandic gyrfalcon was already in 1100-1220 years exported to the courts in Europe. The resources for bringing falcons home from Iceland were rather troublesome, and the men had to travel several hundred kilometres along primitive roads. Many falcons died during these long travels in spite of the best care. Furthermore there had to be enough food for the falcons upon the ships on the way home. An account shows that 10 falcons for a period of 3 months eat 200 kilo meat, which had to be of the finest and leanest quality. Some falcons (ab.12-20%) were rejected in the end ot the journey, if they did not please the royal falconer. Most Icelandic falcons were given to foreign courts, only a few were kept by the Danish and Norwegian falconry.
Falcons were also captured in the open moors of Valkenswaard, Holland, where each year millions of migrant birds would stop on their way south, followed by the falcons. All during the Middle Ages falcons were trapped and trained here for the nobility of Europe. In the fall, knights and falconers from the courts of every feudal lord and king would gather for lively medieval auctions, bidding against one another for the best of the birds captured that year.
There are two main categories of birds used in falconry, long winged falcons, which hunt birds, and short winged hawks, (accipiters), which hunt a range of prey, often focusing on rabbits. In falconry the birds were divided by the type of bird and by the way they were flown at the prey. While short wings could be flown in wooded country, the long winged falcons required large open tracts, where the falconer could follow the flight with ease. The general rule was that true falcons were "hawks of the lure" and accipiters were "hawks of the fist".
The term hawking was used when a hawk was used for the hunting, and even the broader term austringer was used for a falconer, who hunted with hawks. The term falconry was used strictly for hunting with falcons. Short wings (goshawk, sparrow hawk) were not flown to the lure, but encouraged to make long flights at a rabbit lure pulled along the ground and encouraged to fly from tree to tree as the falconer walked along. If the hunt was not successful the bird returned to its place on the falconer's glove and waited for a new opportunity.
One of the characteristics of a true falcon is to prey on birds in the open air. They circle hundreds of feet into the air, waiting for the prey to be flushed out by beaters or dogs. In falconry only the larger female bird was properly called the falcon. The male, which is up to one third smaller than the female, was the tiercel. A male hawk is also one third smaller than the female, but never called tiercel.
The long winged falcons were restricted to nobility, and the gyrfalcon was considered the ultimate status symbol of the medieval potentates. It makes its home in the Arctic, and it prefers to take its prey in a low ground hugging attack. The gyrfalcon is the largest and noblest of the falcons, it's similar to the peregrine, but heavier and harder to train.
Peregrine Falcon

The most highly evolved of the falcons is the peregrine. It is a large falcon, but unlike the gyrfalcon the peregrine takes almost all of its prey out of the sky. The peregrine was a favourite of falconers and the most frequently bird used for falconry. It was not only easily trained, but provided the most daring spectacle. It circles high overhead, waiting for the quarry to be flushed, then dive for it at high speeds. In locations where the main quarry was wild fowl, it was sometimes called "hawk of the river". The peregrine was found all over Europe.
The saker was the banner bird of Attila the Hun, it feeds only on small mammals, usually taking its prey near the ground. Sakers were trained in Arabia to go after gazelles. They were the bird of choice of Arab falconers. Their breeding grounds were in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
The lanners were used predominantly in France and Spain during the Middle Ages.
Hobby

The hobby was considered the easiest falcon to train, it was mostly used for hunting larks. The merlin was "Milady's Falcon". It was considered the best flyer among the birds of prey and was sent after high flying skylarks. It circles up on a higher flying bird, until it is exhaused - and it doesn't mind chasing it through a tight flock of birds. Falconers recommended the kestrel for beginners, it was easy to train and handle and was used for hunting small birds like sparrows and larks.
Accipiters, (goshawks, sparrow hwawks) take birds too, but they do so in forests, where their short wings and long tails give them the ability to swerve through the branches, taking their prey by stealth and surprise. They waited upon the falconer's wrist or fist until the game was flushed, then were flown straight at the prey. They cannot fly as fast as the true falcons, but they can turn instantly and locate their quarry in dense vegetation.
The goshawk was considered the classic hunting bird, it was used for hunting pheasant, partridge, wild duck, hare and rabbit. Goshawk was everyman's hawk, as handy to the poacher as to the squire and required less skill than the peregrine. The austringer was not on horseback when hunting with goshawk. Its virtues were summed up in a nickname: kitchen-hawk. The French came to refer to goshawks as cuisiniers.
The female sparrow hawk was used for quail hunting.
The only difference between a trained and a wild falcon was that the falconer's bird had learned to accept the falconer as its helper. Falcons were taken from their nests as young birds and kept in mews or hawk houses. The falcon required much human contact and careful attention on daily basis, or else it would quickly grow wild an unreliable.
The falconer would feed the bird secretly, so it would not be aware that the food came from humans. The falcon was fed with its hood still on, until it ate without hesitation. Then gradually the hood was removed and the bird allowed to eat by candle light, as it slowly became accustomed to men, women, children and dogs.

Special devices aided the falconer. The falcons had small bells tied around their necks to help the falconer locate them, and they wore jesses, small leathered straps that hung loose, though they could later be attached to a leash. A leather hood covered the eyes of the bird to keep it calm.

Later the bird would be making long flights, and if it was absent at the regular feeding time, the falconer captured it back with nets. Training falcons required extreme patience and persistence, and the falconer was morally committed to keep his bird in good condition and to fly it regularly. Basically a hunting bird had to be tamed, or "manned". Raptors were not tamed in training, even birds bred for several generations in captivity were not tame in the way that social animals are.
The falconer was responsible for finding proper terrain with right wind conditions, plantations and proper quarry. When this was taken care of he was responsible for positioning himself, and if he had a dog, also the dog, in a way that left the bird in a position with the best chances possible of catching the quarry. Eventually the bird was taken into the field, where it was introduced to the lure, a padded weight with wings and with a long string attached. Food was tied to the lure and the falcon allowed to eat from it, until the bird associated the lure with food.
Birds were flown according to their weight and hunger. A fat bird might refuse to fly at all. The daily weighing of the bird was vital, and to ignore a bird's weight and condition was to lose it or kill it. The falconer manipulated the falcon's diet, so that the bird was in peak health, but just hungry enough to come to the falconer and the lure when called. A falconer must never take food away from the falcon. Once the bird killed its prey, the bird was taken from it with more food on the glove.
Before the hunting the bird was equipped with a hood, often decorated with tuft of feathers in the colours of the royal house. Hunting with falcons was usually done on horseback. The falconer wore his bird on his left glove hand. During the ride the falcon's breast had to be turned against the wind to prevent it from being restless. When the falconer saw the quarry, he threw the falcon up in the air, and if the bird caught eye of the game, it pursued it and went down on it in a vertical dive.
The horse was necessary for the falconer in order to move fast, and he had help from his dogs, who came to the falcon and its catch early. It all depended on the falcon itself, whether or not there would be any hunting. The falconer hurried to the spot and offered the falcon a piece of lean meat of partridge or something he knew his bird liked in change. It was essential that the falcon didn't feel cheated by the trade. If the bird found it was cheated it would fly away. Occassionally the falcon didn't start to eat the quarry, but awaited the approach of the falconer and the treasured morsel of lean meat.
Frederick II of Hohenstaufen said in his work about falconry that hunting for food put too great a burden on the falcon. He believed falconry was best practiced as an art, and he cautioned that a successful falconer could not be "indolent or careless, for this art requires much labor and much study". He advised the falconer to quiet a restless falcon with mouthfuls of pure cold water - after thouroughly having cleansed his mouth before the operation. Before Frederick II introduced the falcon hood, the birds' lower eyelids were stitched together with a fine silken thread, which was loosened gradually in the progress of the training.

The original purpose of falconry, using birds to capture quarry, was slowly replaced among the nobility by another purpose. The use of falconry was not a primary means of obtaining food for medieval citizens. Not even among nobility did falcons and hawks provide other than a small percent of meat. Falconry provided an opportunity for kings and lords to host other nobles for grand hunting parties. The kings of England and France, the Russian czars and the Holy Roman emperor all maintained extravagant falconry establishments. For the nobility falconry practiced on a magnificent scale became an essential element in establishing and maintaining personal and national prestige.
The patron of falconers St. Bavon is celebrated on October 1st. According to legend he was accused of stealing a white gyrfalcon, tried for the offence, and condemned to be executed. On the day and place of his execution the missing falcon suddenly appeared in the air and came down to land. St. Bavon's innocence, established by sign from heaven, caused him to be released immediately. He subsequently was regarded as the patron saint for falconers. He died in 659 and is buried in the cathedral in Gent.
Sources:Michael Tennesen: Flight of the Falcon, Edith Wenzel: Kunsten at jage med rovfugl, Bettina Buhl: Falkoneren og hans jagtfugl, Shawn E.Carroll: Ancient and Medieval Falconry


photo: grethe bachman & stig bachmann nielsen, Naturplan Foto
sketch: gb


Medieval Falconry and Hawking

Medieval Falconry and Hawking took advantage of trained birds of prey to hunt small wild game such as squirrels and rabbits, and other birds.

A falconer would fly a falcon, an Austringer, a hawk (Accipiter), or an eagle (Aquila).

Falconry became a regulated, revered, and popular sport and status symbol among the nobles and the clergy of medieval Europe. In some religious orders, falcons were even taken into religious services.

Falcons were so highly valued that they were worth more than their weight in gold.

History of Falconry

It’s believed that falconry’s art may have begun in Mesopotamia in approximately 2,000 BC. With cases also found in northern Altai, western Mongolia (for Mongol tribes, the falcon was a symbolic bird). Figures of a falconer on horseback were also described on Kyrgyz’s rocks in Central Asia dating back to the 7th century AD.

Falconry was introduced to Europe probably around AD 400 when the Huns and Alans invaded from the east. It’s believed that Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (King of Sicily, Germany, and the Roman Empire) obtained firsthand knowledge of Arabic falconry when he got a copy of the Arabic author Moamyn‘s manual on falconry and had it translated into Latin by Theodore of Antioch. Moamyn’s work is largely based on the Kitāb al-ṭuyūr (كتاب الطيور), the Book of Birds or Book of flight cycles (patterns) of Birds), a more extensive work by al-Ghiṭrīf ibn Qudāmah al-Ghassānī from the early ninth century.

King Frederick II wrote what is now widely accepted as the first comprehensive book of falconry, the De arte venandi cum avibus (“The Art of Hunting with Birds”). The treaty took him over thirty years to complete and is considered one of the first scientific works on birds’ anatomy and a founding book of ornithology.

Falconry soon became a popular sport and status symbol among medieval Europe’s nobles, as it required a commitment of time, money, and space.

Illuminated page from Latin translation of Moamin's treatise on falconry: "De scientia venandi per aves, etc. "copy from Yale Beinecke Library. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Bells and jesses

Frederick II and one of his falcons

Medieval falconry required considerable money and time, not only in the acquisition of a bird appropriate to a lord’s station, but also in both its training and maintenance.

With the sport of falconry being as prized as it was, the proper care of birds was of utmost importance to their owners. Although the Gieses reveal that, “A favorite bird shared his master’s bedroom and accompanied him daily on his wrist” (p. 128), the majority of birds, when not in the sky, spent their time in a structure specially constructed to meet their needs.

One of the essential buildings in a castle courtyard was the mews where the hawks roosted and where they took refuge during molting season. It was spacious enough to allow limited light, had at least one window, and a door large enough for the falconer to pass through with a bird on his wrist. The floor was covered with gravel or coarse sand, changed at regular intervals.

In the semidarkness inside, perches of several sizes were adapted to different kinds of birds, some high and well out from the wall, others just far enough off the floor to keep the bird’s tail feathers from touching. Outside stood low wooden or stone blocks … on which the falcon’s “weathered”, that is, became accustomed to the world outside the mews. (pp. 128-9)

The training of birds was said to require “infinite patience and care” (Gies and Gies, p. 129), the falconer who trained them being a well-regarded servant of any household.

Many treaties and manuals about falconry were written during the Middle Ages, the most famous of which is the De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Falconry), an important work of medieval zoology written by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily and Jerusalem.

This volume laid out a comprehensive program of training for a bird, which would have been obtained as either an eyas (a nestling taken from a tree or cliff-top) or a brancher – a newly fledged bird that is caught using a net.

In preparation for training, the falconer did the following to the bird:

  • Trimmed its talons
  • Temporarily sewed its eyes shut
  • Attached jesses (strips of leather with rings at the end) to its legs
  • Attached small bells to its feet
  • Tied it to a perch with a leash, and
  • Placed a leather hood with an opening for the beak over its head.

The goal of all this was to enhance the bird’s senses of taste, hearing, and touch.

The first lesson for the bird was to learn to stand on a person’s wrist. To do this, the falconer would carry the bird around for days, slowly coaxing it with food, singing, gentle stroking, and the un-sewing and re-sewing of its eyes at different times of the night for gradually longer intervals until it was finally exposed to daylight (at which time its eyesight was permanently returned).

Subsequent lessons included getting the bird accustomed to being carried while on horseback, teaching it to return to its master when released, and finally, how to hunt other birds. According to the Gieses,

Dogs, usually, greyhounds, were often used in teaching the gerfalcon to capture larger birds. This meant special training for the dogs as well as the falcons, so that the dog did not desert the hunt to chase a rabbit. Dog and falcon were fed together to enhance their comradeship, while the dog was trained to run with the falcon and help her seize her prey. (p. 133)

During this training, the falconer made certain to keep the naturally excitable bird calm so it didn’t try to fly off its perch, bite at its jesses, or scratch at its head.

A lady watching her hawk kill a duck (from the Taymouth Hours, England, 14th century)


Medieval Falconry - History

A DESCRIPTION AND HISTORY OF FALCONRY

What Falconry Is and Is Not
Falconry is the sport of hunting with a trained bird of prey, usually a hawk or falcon. It is also the art of training the bird to hunt in cooperation with a human falconer. Falconry is also known as hawking. The two terms are synonymous and either is appropriate regardless of whether a falcon, a hawk or an eagle is being flown. Falconry is often touted as the oldest sport still being practiced. It isn’t. Coursing, the sport of running down game with sharp-eyed hounds, deserves that honor.

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
There are some 280 species of diurnal birds of prey, ranging in size from massive eagles down to minute falconets the size of a songbird. They hunt almost exclusively by sight, and the eyesight of an eagle may be the sharpest in the world. Within this huge and varied group, only a handful of species make good falconry birds. Some species are too small to capture anything larger than a mouse. Some are too nervous to be handled easily, while others are too sluggish to be interesting. Falconers don’t just want to hunt with a bird. They want to witness an interesting hunt. Birds that provide a worthwhile spectacle combined with the desirable size and temperament break down into three groups: Falcons, hawks and eagles. As will be seen, owls once played an unexpected role in falconry. It should be noted that falconers traditionally use the word “hawk” in a generic way for any falconry bird smaller than an eagle. Thus a falconer may speak of her peregrine falcon as her “hunting hawk.” The reverse is not true – hawks are never called falcons. I have no good explanation for the practice.

Falcons
The word falconry is derived from this group’s name. Falcons have long been considered the most desirable of the falconry birds because of their speed, dash and trainability. The fastest animal on this planet is the peregrine falcon in a headlong dive called a “stoop,” and this species has enjoyed a long history of being flown by aristocrats.

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.

Hawks
The desirable hawks are divided into two groups by falconers: Accipiters and buteos. The accipiters or “shortwings” are forest hawks adapted for darting flight in wooded areas. In the Middle Ages European falconers used two: The goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) and the Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus). The goshawk was dubbed “the cook’s bird” by medieval falconers for its reliability in taking game. Today’s falconers use two other accipiters: The sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) and the Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), both from North America. Accipiters are not easy to handle. They are high-strung (a friend calls them “nerve endings with legs”) and apt to throw distressing, often lethal fits. These are birds for experienced falconers. In European falconry, a falconer who specialized in working with goshawks was known as an “austringer.”

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.

Eagles
Because of their great size and power, eagles are not now and never were used by many falconers. As a group eagles are moody and inclined to be lazy. Moreover, their ability to fast for long periods makes their weight hard to control. In medieval times the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) was designated a king or emperor’s bird, but of course the king or emperor wouldn’t actually handle this massive raptor. He would pay a court falconer to do that. In practice, it appears that few court falconers really did fly golden eagles. These majestic birds of prey, which resemble a living sculpture, were more apt to be seen as symbols of royalty than as working falconry birds. Appropriately so. Golden eagles can bring down prey weighing one hundred pounds, and this fast and aggressive species can be viewed as the ultimate hunting bird.

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.

Owls
Owls are not considered good candidates for falconry birds because they are adapted for hunting in darkness, when the falconer is unable to see the hunt. Two species, the American great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) and the Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo) have been trained by modern-day falconers to take gamebirds and rabbits and squirrels, but in general owls are hard to train.

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.

Falconry Equipment
Think of all the equipment used in football. In that sport, the players are people and the specialized equipment is used on or by them. Falconry is different. The important player in this sport is a raptor, so most of hawking’s specialized equipment (called “furniture”) is, literally, for the birds. The most important pieces, all of them devised centuries ago, are:

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.

Bell – 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.

Ho od – 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 Early History
C. 1000 BC to 1066 AD

Falconry originated in Asia. Of that there’s no doubt, but when and precisely where are harder to pin down. Probably it was invented independently in more than one place, and probably it developed over time, in fits and starts. One point of origin may have been China another almost certainly was the Middle East. Wherever hawking began, its inventors were surely people who had plenty of experience in domesticating animals, from dogs, cattle and horses down to sheep, goats and pigs, as well as chickens and pigeons.

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.

Between China and the Black Sea stretches a vast grassland known as the steppes. This area of Central Asia was once home to several tribes of nomadic horsemen. They lived by herding horses, cattle and yaks, and sheep and goats. One group, which migrated into what is now southern Russia in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, is known to history as the Scythians. While they had no written language, the Scythians have left us a great deal of information in their tombs, called kurgans. The aristocratic class, known as Royal Scyths, were buried with rich collections of grave goods. Excavations have revealed that several kurgans contain raptor bones and metal bells, indicating that these warlike horsemen had become falconers.

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
Two years before he invaded England, William the Conquerer hosted his rival Harold Godwinson at his court in Normandy, and the two men went hawking together. The Bayeux Tapestry shows them on horseback, falcons on their gloved fists. On October 14, 1066, the two met again, this time across a battlefield. By the end of the day the Battle of Hastings was over, Harold was dead, and England had a new ruler, a new court language (French), a new court, and, over time, new customs and laws. All would affect falconry.

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 ranked.
So who traditionally hunts with what, according to the good abbess? From highest to lowest, the ranks and their rightful birds are: Emperor – golden eagle king – gyrfalcon prince – peregrine falcon particularly the “falcon gentle” or female peregrine (larger and therefore more desirable than the male) duke – peregrine falcon earl – peregrine falcon baron – male peregrine falcon knight – saker falcon squire – lanner falcon noblewoman – merlin page - hobby yeoman (member of the landed gentry) – female goshawk poor man – male goshawk priest – female Eurasian sparowhawk holywater clerk (clergy below the rank of priest) – male Eurasian sparrowhawk. Other references add the lowest stratum of society – the “knave” or male servant. He was accorded a bird that, in falconry terms, barely counted – the tiny Eurasian kestrel.

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 the 1800s
England’s Henry VIII may have been a passionate falconer in his youth, but as middle age, weight and ill health overtook him he became more interested in horse racing. And in developing the English racehorse, which in time became the fastest horse in the world, the Thoroughbred. The royal mews at Charing Cross, where his falcons were once housed, were demolished and material from the old building was used in the construction of the king’s new interest – his impressive palace of Whitehall. Although the next few English sovereigns continued the sport, falconry’s days were numbered.

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.

Modern Falconry – 1900s to Present Day
Hawking never died out completely. As the 20th century dawned the sport had perhaps a few thousand adherents worldwide. Many were in Asia and the Middle East, where the old traditions were kept alive. These people continued to follow an anachronistic pastime not because it was fashionable or glamorous but because they were passionate about birds of prey. On the Continent and in England the traditional falconry clubs still met, but many of their members were merely interested observers. Few people, it seemed, had the time, interest and money required to actually fly birds.

Hawking had never caught on in the Americas, but a spark was about to be ignited. In 1920 the December issue of the National Geographic Magazine contained an article entitled “Falconry, the Sport of Kings,” by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. This seminal piece was illustrated with Fuertes’ dramatic paintings, and it left a lasting impression on several young people. Frank and John Craighead were among them, and they became influential falconers as well as renowned biologists. (Their sister, Jean Craighead George, wrote My Side of the Mountain, the classic story of a boy who trains a peregrine falcon.)

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 Modern Falconry
Modern-day falconers have far more species available to them than medieval falconers did. They also have the option of buying captive-bred birds. That means that today’s falconer doesn’t have to wait for months for a gyrfalcon to arrive from Greenland on shipboard – if indeed it survives the voyage. Now falconers can call a breeder and order the best bird they can afford. Or legally possess, because modern falconers must adhere to strict laws, both state and federal, that govern the sport. All raptors are protected by law in the U.S. (even the birds’ feathers are protected). That means that a falconer MUST BE LICENSED. The U.S. employs an apprenticeship system for the obtaining of permits. An apprentice falconer must learn hands-on with an experienced falconer, and may not have his or her own bird until passing an exam that indicates that the apprentice knows how to care for a captive raptor as well as hunt with it.

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 eagles.

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