The sport of taking wild game with birds of prey is called falconry. The sport of kings, has a very long history, starting thousands of years ago in Asia. The Mongols were avid falconers and brought the practice with them when they invaded Europe around 400 BC. During medieval times, a person’s rank determined the birds they could legally fly. Only Emperors were allowed to fly eagles, Kings flew white gyrfalcons, while cooks flew goshawks. In some of the nomadic tribes of the Middle East, falconry was not a leisure spot the way it was in Europe, but a way to supplement their meager diet in the desert, particularly in the winter when game was scarce.
Today, in the United States, falconry is the most highly-regulated sport and there are countries in the world where it is illegal. In the U.S., to be a legal falconer, you must have a special license issued jointly by the state and federal governments. To the get license you must pass a written test to prove your knowledge about birds of prey, you must build a special facility called a mews to house your bird and you must find another falconer to take you under their wing and teach you their art. In some parts of the country, the last part is the hardest since there are only about 7,000 falconers in the whole of the United States. The requirements above are from a U.S. viewpoint. Laws vary across the globe.
Once you have your license in hand, the adventure truly begins. In most states, you’re required to work with a wild-caught bird for the first two years, called apprentice years since you will be working closely with a more advanced falconer. The most popular bird for apprentices in the U.S. is the Red-Tailed hawk. They are a hardy and plentiful species of raptor that quickly adapts to a hunting partnership with a human. Being a robust bird, they easily handle the minor mistakes that most people make with their first bird. After about three to four weeks, most redtails have already bonded with their new human and are ready to go out and hunt. (A note here, falconry is not about keeping a cool pet. Falconry is the sport of hunting prey with a raptor. Anything else is not honoring the spirit of the magnificent bird you have asked to be part of your life.) Hopefully before you caught you bird, or during the training time, you’ve been out finding places to hunt. Red-Tailed hawks are the most versatile bird of prey species on the planet and will hunt everything from mice to rabbits, jackrabbits, squirrels or ducks. Their limitations are basically imposed by the falconer. A redtail is happiest when you can hunt it every day, but in our modern world, sometimes this isn’t possible, so most get hunted several times a week. Hunting seasons are dictated by your state so check the regulations to see when the seasons are for the prey you have available. In a lot of states, there are open seasons on things like rabbits and squirrels. Responsible falconers realize that they want prey around next year and stop hunting in the spring when they start catching pregnant animals.
Once you pass your two-year apprenticeship, the species of birds available open up. There are a lot of falconers who release the redtail they’ve been flying and go for a more advanced species (another note here, there are a lot of falconers out there that fly a bird for one season, trapping in the fall and releasing in the spring. Most birds of prey in the wild don’t survive their first winter. Falconry birds have a greatly improved chance of survival during this critical time.).
In our modern world, a bird that was not available to early Europeans is extremely popular. The Harris’ Hawk is a unique species from the deserts of the Americas that was introduced to falconry in the 1970s. In the wild, these birds are the only raptors that hunt in family groups, a lot like a pack of wolves. This close bonding carries over to the bond they form with humans. A well-bonded Harris’ hawk is nearly impossible to lose in the field. They’ll almost always come back to their falconer, or their family group as they see it.
Today, falcons are still highly regarded in the sport of falconry. Most people hunt ducks, grouse, pheasants, and other winged prey with falcons, although some like the gyrfalcons and prairie falcons are highly versatile in their prey selection. Most falconers who fly falcons, judge their success with the birds based on how high a pitch they take. A pitch is the coursing altitude that the bird maintains while waiting for prey to be flushed. During the time when falconers were fighting to save the Peregrine falcon from extinction, major advances were made in captive breeding of these wonderful birds, and through the hard work of a lot of falconers, species like the peregrine have been saved. With the advent of artificial insemination, we’ve seen hybrid falcons emerge specifically designed for certain traits to be used in the sport of falconry. Great care is taken to insure that hybrids are not released into breeding populations.
The trust bond between falconer and bird is at the heart of falconry. Falconry isn’t about bending a bird to your will. Birds of prey do not respond to negative reinforcement the way dogs and cats will. Everything you do when training a raptor must be positive. This forms a tight bond. You must respect your bird at all times. These birds can be very dangerous. If you want a good experience for you and your bird, you must honor your bird and cherish the bond you have with it. Falconry is not a sport or hobby. For most falconers it’s a lifestyle and we shape our lives around it. For many of us, the really important part is that these magnificent creatures choose to live their lives with us. Once a bird is flying free, every time they come back they make the choice to come back. They can fly. We can’t. There is nothing more exciting than when you’re out hunting and your birds brings down prey, or even when it doesn’t and you just raise your hand up and your hawk, falcon, or eagle comes down from either a perch or a soar to land gracefully on you glove.
A.M. Burns is a writer of urban fantasy novels. His latest book is “Blood Moon, Yellow Sky” Blurb: Tal O’Duirwood, dragon, enjoys his quiet life of solitude in the Colorado mountains. He never realized what was missing until his gets an assignment to travel to Yellow Sky, Texas and help a witch and her students there stop a vampire invasion. Once there, he finds that things were not as he was told. The witch is actually a werecoyote, and one of her students has eyes for Tal. Can Tal help stop the vampires in time to save his blossoming love? Will his heart, so long closed off from the world be able to open to the touch of the handsome young mage?
Visit website www.amburns.com