Hunting with hawks
For many, myself included, raptors are magnificent birds that are awe-inspiring to watch even when they’re perched and stationary. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “bird-watcher,” there have probably been times when you’ve admired the grace and power of one of these species- whether it’s an osprey winging steadily over the water or a red-tailed hawk alighting from a telephone pole to hunt.
The closest I ever got to a live bird of prey was volunteering at a raptor rescue center in Connecticut, which took care of injured and non-releasable birds, but I’ve always been interested in falconry both as a way of life and as a hobby. There’s something fascinating about a human and a raptor working together to bring down prey and in some places of the world, hunting with these birds is still very much a cultural and livelihood necessity.
By definition, “falconry” is the taking of wild quarry with trained birds of prey. Many species of raptors can be trained in falconry (not just falcons) including hawks and bigger birds like Golden Eagles. There are three categories of hunting birds, divided up by how they naturally hunt their prey. “Longwings” are predominately falcons, including the lightning-quick peregrine, which mainly hunt other birds in flight. They have to be flown over open terrain like marshes or desert so that the falconer can keep their bird in sight. By contrast, “shortwings” like sparrowhawks, are evolutionary designed to hunt ground game in enclosed countryside and woodland. They are agile, maneuverable birds, and falconers work them in forests. The final group, “broadwings” include the soaring birds like eagles and buzzards which are used over rolling country and mountain terrain.
In the past, falconry birds were all wild-caught animals either taken as young birds or even as mature adults. Nowadays, while it is still legal for permitted falconers in the US to trap wild birds, there exists enough of a captive population that most birds are born in captivity and trained from there. For both wild-caught and captive-bred birds however, training is still an intense and time-consuming process. The bird learns to accept food from the falconer’s glove and, more importantly, to come back to the glove when called. It learns how to respond to signals such as flying in the direction the falconer is walking and practices attacking lures to simulate wild game. It is taught how to retrieve these lures and exchange them for a reward for its handler and then, when the bird is ready, it’s taken out for its inaugural hunt.
Training practices have changed remarkably little over time and falconry itself is a truly ancient activity. While I always associated falconry with images of medieval Europe and richly dressed hunting parties releasing birds from their horses, it far predates that. There are Syrian hunting illustrations that date back to preliterate times (13th century BC) and records in 2,000 BC China that indicate raptors were a common way to hunt and falcons were gifted to royalty. It took until around 500 AD for falconry to reach great popularity in Medieval Europe but once it arrived, inspired by falconry practices in the middle east, it stayed popular right up until the French Revolution in the late 18th century.
And perhaps “popular” is a bit of an understatement. The practice took off like wildfire both among the peasanty (who used the birds for subsistence hunting) and the nobility who turned it into a sport. Strict rules governed which birds could be used by which levels of nobility (with gyrfalcons reserved for royalty, peregrines for earls, sparrowhawks for priests, and kestrels for servants) and during the reign of Edward VIII the theft of a trained raptor was punishable by death. William Shakespeare was an avid falconer and made numerous references to falconry in his plays which have since turned into modern colloquialisms. For example:
“Wrapped around my little finger,” is a reference to wrapping the bird’s tethers around a falconer’s finger to prevent it from flying away,
“Booze,” draws it’s roots from bouse, which means to drink excessively and is itself a reference to a raptor’s refusal to hunt after drinking too much water,
And “Hoodwinked,” in its context of tricking someone was first used by Shakespeare who compared hoodwinking someone to the covering a raptor’s eyes with a leather hood to prevent distractions.
Falconry remained popular in Europe until 1800 when both the French Revolution and the rise of firearms caused it to decline. It made the jump to the US in 1900 with the first sizable North American falconry group, the Peregrine Club, founded at the University of Pennsylvania in 1930. From there, falconry and the rules governing its practice have been overseen by the North American Falconer’s Association which even publishes literature and research on the activity.
While falconry’s not exactly ‘common’ in the US, it’s still incredible that such an archaic and labor-intensive activity continues to exist in much the same form as it has for centuries. Unlike hunting dogs, which are predisposed to working with humans in the field, even a captive-bred raptor is still a wild animal at heart. Bonding and training the bird takes immeasurable patience, knowledge, and skill, but it must be an exhilarating experience to work with such an amazing animal.