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"I know a hawk from a handsaw." --William Shakespeare

The sight of a hawk soaring above the hillsides inspires a reverence for the untamed beauty of nature. Soaring on air currents above the countryside, these majestic raptors search for prey with vision far keener than our own. The sight of one person, standing in a field, calling the hawk to perch fills those who witness it with awe. The hawk swoops to land on a gauntleted arm, rewarded with tasty bits of meat.

The sport of falconry binds man and raptor into an intimate dance of life and death. Although done in the past as a way of feeding one's family, today, falconers practice the art for its enjoyment. Although the sport is called falconry, the birds used come from all species of raptors. A raptor is the name for any bird that comes from the family Accipitridae, order Falconiformes. These birds characteristically have a large, curved beak, powerful, sharply-taloned feet, and exceptional powers of flight and sight. The two common classes of raptors used in falconry are falcons and hawks.

History of Falconry

Falconry first appeared in China as early as 2205 BC. Ahizado Pito (1808), a Japanese writer, indicates that falcons were given as gifts to the Chinese princes of that dynasty. The British bibliographer Harting reported a bas-relief depicting a falconer in the ruins of Khosabad dating from around 1700 BC. Other records and wall hangings recovered from the same era show that people in Arabia and Persia practiced falconry.

As trade between the different civilizations of the time moved from west to east, falconry also moved. Aristotle (384-322 BC) makes references to the sport of falconry being found in Greece, the earliest appearance of the sport in Europe. The Japanese imported goshawks around 244 AD.

The conquering Germanic tribes brought falconry west, and in Medieval Europe it became a favored pastime, especially among the nobles. In the 8th or 9th century, an Arabic treatise on falconry appeared. The Arabs had much to say to the crusaders on the sport, especially in the use of hoods. Much of their information still holds true today.

The earliest Western treatise on falconry was written around 1247 by Emperor Frederich II of Hohenstaufen, a crusader. As a result of his book titled De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, Frederich II has been called the father of ornithology. History tells us that Frederich II almost lost an important military battle because he wanted to go hawking instead of continuing with the siege of the fortress.

During one crusade, the Ottoman Sultan Beyazid captured the son of Philip the Bold, Duke of Normandy. He turned down Philip's offer of 200,000 gold ducats for ransom, instead demanding and receiving twelve white Gyr falcons. Henry VII of England enacted a law protecting goshawk nests "in pain of a year and a day's imprisonment," making this the earliest legislation to protect raptors.

Other laws to protect raptors emerged. To poach a falcon from the wild meant the criminal's eyes were poked out. Holding a bird above one's social status meant the loss of the individual's hands.

Falconry and Social Rank

Only kings could fly either a male or female Gyr falcon. Peregrine Falcons were the domain of princes, while dukes could use Rock Falcons, a subspecies of the Peregrine. Earls flew the Tiercel Peregrine, while a baron was relegated to the Bastarde, or Common Buzzard. Knights hawked with Sakers, while squires could use Lanners. Ladies, when they were allowed the sport, used female Marlins. The yeoman used the Goshawk or Hobby, which was said to be able to sufficiently stock a larder. Priests and holy water clerks flew the female and male Sparrow hawks respectively. Knaves, servants, and children used the Kestrel. Although not all of these birds are falcons, the sport was and still is known as falconry.

The nobility usually didn't bother with training their birds themselves. Instead, they hired falconers, and Master falconers were paid extravagant sums of money to work for kings or other nobles. The office of Master of the Mews was created for the individual in charge of obtaining, grooming, and keeping the king's best hawks in constant readiness for hunting.

Sadly, around 1800, societal changes, including the French Revolution and the growing popularity of firearms, caused interest in falconry to wane.

Shadows of Falconry in Modern Language

Many of the terms used in Falconry, then as well as today, are French in origin. A "cadger" carried a portable perch called a cadge for the falconer. Most cadgers were older falconers and in time, the word became corrupted to "codger" meaning an elderly person.

"Callow," which was used to describe a nestling falcon that still had quill feathers, now means someone young and untested. When raptors drink it is called "bowsing," and a bird that drinks heavily is called a "boozer." The term now applies to people of the same disposition.

Although it now means someone who was cheated, "hoodwinked" also describes the state of a hooded hunting bird and was originally used in this context. A hooded bird had been cheated out of the meat it caught, because shortly after the bird caught its prey, the falconer replaced the hood on the bird's head, allowing him or her to take the prey from the bird. The hood serves to keep the bird "in the dark" and allows it to remain calm while waiting for its master's orders.

Modern Falconry

As the terminology in falconry has trickled through the ages, so too has the equipment. While the building materials may have changed, raptors are still kept in their own personal enclosures, called mews. This home includes bathing and watering facilities, perches, and a place for the caretaker to perform routine chores, such as monitoring the bird's weight.

In the United States, someone who wishes to become a falconer needs to pass a falconry examination provided by the state (in accordance with federal law) by scoring at least 80 percent. The apprentice enters into the sport under the careful eye of an experienced master who then becomes the person's sponsor. Finding a sponsor may be difficult, as there are only about 1500 licensed falconers nationwide. Not everyone who is licensed practices falconry, and not everyone who practices wishes to take on the care and responsibility of an apprentice.

After passing the test, the apprentice sets up the mews, which are inspected and approved by the state's department of fish and wildlife. Federal law regulates the design and amenities offered, though states may enact stricter laws if they choose. In any case, the mews must contain flights, one for each raptor kept. Flights are large walk-in cages that allow the bird freedom of movement. They must be both indoors and outdoors, to protect the raptor against inclement weather. Outdoors flights should contain at least one perch. Both indoor and outdoor flights need a bathing container, at least two to six inches deep and wider than the length of the raptor. Dead trees work well for perches.

Once all of these items are in order, the appropriate paperwork is sent to the state's department of fish and wildlife, which will then issue a permit for the apprentice to acquire a hawk from the wild, the source for every American falconer's first birds. Obtaining the birds from the wild serves several functions. First, individuals without the patience and fortitude to capture a wild raptor do not continue with a sport that easily demands a lifetime of attention. Secondly, falconry is a dance between man and bird, and what better way to learn the most intimate habits of any creature, than to understand it in the wild. It takes more than technology to capture a wild raptor; it takes a harmony with the creature itself.

It isn't enough, however, to merely have a place for the bird and a permit, special equipment is needed. In addition to the mews, the aspiring falconer needs the tools of the trade. According to the federal falconry regulation, before the applicant can become a licensed apprentice falconer, he or she needs to have the following items:

The falconer needs at least one pair of jesses, made of either pliable, high-quality leather or other synthetic materials. The jesses hold the hawk to the perch when it is outside its pen.

Whereas the jesses hold the raptor to the perch, leashes and swivels hold the hawk to the human. Swivels are the snaps that attach to the gauntlet. Swivels connect the leashes to the bird. Leashes are longer pieces of leather or cord that allow the bird more freedom of movement than jesses, but not so that it ranges far from its human. At least one leash and swivel pair are required for the beginning falconer.

Finally, the apprentice should acquire a good gram scale in order to measure the weight of the raptor accurately. A raptor that is too fat may not hunt, as it has all its meals given to it, while an underfed raptor will not hunt because of lack of energy. Just as in the wild, raptors eat small animals, and these are either provided live, or meat is torn into strips and provided for food.

Today, all raptors used for falconry are marked with identifying bands. If the bird is born in captivity, the band will be a seamless one, placed around the chick's leg and remaining as a permanent identification marker. Birds taken from the wild have an open, numbered band affixed to their leg. The band is closed around the bird's leg like a ring.

In the Medieval heyday of falconry, a young person would present himself to a master falconer for apprenticeship, appropriate with his station in life. The training presents itself much the same way today, with the exception that we do not have to worry about proper societal positions. Still, it takes a good king's ransom to keep a raptor happy and well fed so that it will hunt well for you.

Federal regulations also control how the apprentice progresses through the steps to become a master falconer. The apprentice has this status for at least two years, and during that time, he or she is limited to the numbers and types of raptors kept. The General falconer is someone who has been an apprentice for at least two years and is at least eighteen years old. While under limitations for the numbers of raptors kept, these are less restrictive than the apprentice license, but more restrictive than the master. The Master falconer is one who has been a general falconer for at least five years. The government imposes restrictions on Master falconers as well, though these are the least restrictive.

Regulations may have changed, as have the materials from which equipment is made, but the thrill has remained the same over the centuries. Man and bird, working with the wilder instincts of nature to feed themselves and their families. Back then, as it is now, falconry was a sight to behold.


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Mary K. Wilson lives in Iowa with her parrots (who wish they were raptors), cats, and horse. She writes weekly for and recently, her nonfiction has appeared in Bird Breeder Online. She edits the e-zine Dreaming Blood, and also maintains her own Web site.

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