The English poet Thom Gunn used hawking as a metaphor for love in his poem “Tamer and Hawk,” and the sport has many romantic associations. The image of a hooded bird of prey, poised on the hand of its master or mistress, is often linked to the medieval age of chivalry. But in fact the sport of falconry is among the oldest forms of hunting practiced today.
An Ancient Sport in Modern Times
“It probably started as subsistence living by nomads on the steppes of Asia,” said falconer and sporting historian Peter Devers, who sits on the boards of the American Archives of Falconry and the Falconry Heritage Trust in Great Britain. Some sources place the sport’s roots in Mongolia around 3,000 years ago, but recently discovered artifacts suggest even older origins — possibly as long ago as 12,000 years.
Hawking then spread throughout Asia and to Russia. Some European travelers and traders — including that emissary par excellence Marco Polo — brought the sport back to Western Europe, where it became an established part of royal and upper class sporting life and was widely practiced well into the 18th century. It was also adopted in the British Isles. One traditional rhyme talks about the death of the last Saxon king Harold (c.1020 – 1066), “with his hawk in his hand and his eye full of arrow.”
Hawking was introduced in the Americas in the 19th century, but “exploded” in the States as part of the 1960s counterculture movement, according to Devers.
“People were looking for a different way of living from the one their parents had experienced,” he said. “And one of the forms they got into was decidedly un-modern — falconry, something their ancestors had practiced before anyone knew North America existed. Even though most of the general public thinks falconry is a medieval antique sport, falconers actually believe we are living in the golden age of falconry, because never have so many people in so many countries practiced the sport.”
Like most forms of hunting, the principle of falconry is simple: harness and direct the natural instinct of predators (in this case, raptors) towards their prey. The type of bird used depends on location and terrain, according to Devers, who lives in upstate New York.
“A lot of falconers want to have a bird that’s matched to the countryside in which they live, so for instance in our area of New York,” he said, “we probably have 40 percent open fields and 60 percent woodland. So a lot of people use what we call ‘short wings’ or ‘broad wings.’ These are birds such as the Red-Tailed Hawk, the Coopers Hawk, the Goshawk and a very popular American breed, the Harris Hawk.”
States with more open land, which can accommodate longer flight patterns, are more hospitable to ‘longwings’ such as the dramatic Peregrine falcon.
Falconers obtain their birds in one of two ways — from licensed breeders -- this is not a Pets 'R' Us situation -- or by trapping young birds in the wild.
The first steps in training a bird involve socialization, according to Devers: “The steps are very simple. The first is to get the bird to stand comfortably on your gloved fist. (Falconers traditionally wear tough leather gauntlet-like gloves to prevent getting cut by their birds’ formidable talons). Birds of prey will initially regard you as an enemy; something foreign, something to be wary of. And so it takes a little bit of time to get them to stand quietly on the fist. You’ll be able to feel that a bird’s becoming more comfortable with you because of what we call ‘feather compaction.’ When you first get a bird, it’s going to sit up very straight on your fist, its feathers will all be pulled in very close to its body; when the bird starts to get comfortable with you, you’ll see it sort of hunkering down a bit more, the feathers will loosen up.”
Once the bird is comfortable with the handler, it learns how to pursue a tethered lure of simulated prey. (Hawks hunt small mammals such as field mice and rabbits, as well as other birds.)
“Hunting is innate,” noted Devers. “It doesn’t need to be taught. You’re just creating an opportunity.”
Eventually, a bond will form between handler and hawk, and the bird can be allowed to hunt freely with the expectation that it will return to the glove. Devers had his last hawk, a female Red-Tailed Hawk named Wyvern, for 27 years.
“I adored her,” he said. “It was a great relationship. Hawks don’t look at us the same way that, say, a dog does. They don’t fawn over you and maybe they don’t even love you. But the acceptance of you as part of their life by a wild bird of prey is an extraordinary experience. She knew that I was her hunting partner, that I was her friend, that I would take care of her and feed her, so there was total acceptance from the time she first relaxed when sitting on my glove until the time she passed away.”
Photo courtesy of Peter Devers, who is pictured with a female Red-Tailed Hawk named Wyvern, his friend and companion for 27 years.
Peter Devers was one of a handful of American falconers who was invited to attend the Third Annual International Festival of Falconry in the United Arab Emirates this past December.
The first such festival was held in England in 2007, and was part of a campaign to have the sport of falconry declared, “an activity of intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO. The campaign, which gives the sport the same sort of designation and recognition as traditional crafts and performances, succeeded this past year, and the December festival was, in part, a celebration. It showcased 400 sponsored falconers from over 70 countries, as well as nearly 2,000 local falconers.
Michael Dupuy, another longtime American falconer, was also one of the invitees, and still remembers his impression of the first festival: “It was like a 'Star Trek' episode where all the aliens were falconers — no matter what planet you were from, you knew what a Goshawk was, you knew what a Peregrine was, and that was our common language.”
He says the same was true of the festival at the UAE, which included a wide range of events and showcases, including dramatic demonstrations of lure training in a vast arena. (Think The Hunger Games, with hawks).
“You sling an artificial bird around with the falconer being the point of the axis,” he said. “The falcon is a bird that is very athletic, much like a rower. It’s rowing through the air, and trying to grab this bird out of the air, at 100 miles per hour!”
With the wide open spaces of the desert -- part of the festival took place in the fabled “Empty Quarter” beloved of 18th- and 19th-century adventurers -- falconers in the Middle East are able to hunt the faster “long wing” hawks such as the Saker falcon, which has been clocked at 240 miles per hour during a downward swoop. (If a comparison to jet planes comes to mind, this is not altogether irrelevant. Some people are now using radio telemetry to keep track of their hawks and Dupuy witnessed one man training his bird to follow a remote-controlled airplane.)
Another much anticipated part of the festival involved night hunting in the desert, where the traditional quarries are the Houbara Bustard and the Desert Hare. Dupuy said that the sight of an Arab falconer in full regalia, returning from the hunt with his hawk on his fist, was an incredibly romantic image that would stay with him.
Other events at the festival included a camel race and a race involving Salukis — a hound breed that is as old as falconry itself — and hawks working together.
And let’s not forget retail therapy! There was a thriving marketplace featuring traditional crafts associated with falconry such as gloves, jesses — leather straps that go around the birds’ legs — and the striking hoods -- intricate and ceremonial -- that make it easier to subdue and travel with these volatile birds.
But most of all, according to Dupuy, the festival was a chance to meet and mingle with the international community of falconers.
“For me to meet a falconer from China, to meet a falconer from Japan, from Poland, from El Salvador, from Argentina, is just a wonderful thing,” he said. “And it’s that cross-pollination of culture where … what I don’t agree with … is irrelevant, because we have this common bond, and the bond is falconry.”
It seems to be a bond that transcends language barriers.
“We do a lot of talking with our hands, indicating what the hawk was doing, what the quarry was doing, and you see these conversations in hotels and you know exactly what’s going on,” Dupuy said. “Someone’s describing the one that got away.”
The festival concluded with a parade of nations led by members of the family of Emir Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, which rules the UAE. Some of them are also active falconers.
(Photo by Jim Hayes. Mike Dupuy with a Saker falcon named Hollywood, and a pointer named Nila.)
Hawks in the City
Dupuy says he got interested in falconry as a teenager when he read the Jean Craighead George well-loved classic My Side of the Mountain, in which a runaway boy is befriended by a Peregrine falcon. Ecologist Arthur Middleton also got his first look at raptors as a teen working in bird rehabilitation programs, but really became involved when he went to train in England with legendary falconer and conservationist Jemima Parry-Jones, who has a falcon sanctuary in Gloucestershire.
From there he moved to a stint with the Northumberland Crow Falcons, headed by Dr. Nick Fox, which hunts crows from horseback in this traditional farming community where they pose a danger to livestock.
Middleton says crow hunting is one of the oldest and most esteemed forms of hawking, and is “scrappier” than hunting ground quarry, such as small mammals, because “crows are smart and really good flyers.” The engagement between the two birds is longer, more involved, and more aerial.
“You get these flights that are really spectacular,” he said. “It puts on display the skills of both the prey and the predator that you don’t often get to see. These are dog fights between a crow and a falcon.”
When Middleton moved back to the U.S., he had a variety of odd jobs involving birds, but the oddest may have been as one of New York City’s official hawk handlers. For a brief period starting in 2003, the Parks Department sought to manage the overpopulation of pigeons in Bryant Park (where they were pestering diners and soiling their possessions) by having handlers circulating with hawks to provide a deterrent.
Attention was first drawn to the presence of hawks in the city in the 1990s during the controversy over a Red-Tailed Hawk named Pale Male, who became a cause célèbre when he settled his family on the terrace of a West Side celebrity apartment building.
So Middleton was not surprised when the reactions of visitors to Bryant Park ran the gamut from: “absolute nonchalance in the classic New Yorker way — ‘I don’t care that you’re walking by with a hawk sitting on your fist. I’m from New York and it makes no difference to me whatsoever’; to people who were beside themselves with surprise, fear, curiosity, skepticism, criticism; to super fans who came every few days and who brought their kids, and whose names I knew.”
Middleton kept a record of the responses he got in a little notebook. His favorites include a man who looked at the hawk he was holding and declared, “But it’s extinct!” and another who declared, “I just don’t understand how you can get that pigeon to attack the other pigeons.”
“I guess for a certain type, every bird is a pigeon,” Middleton commented wryly.
Unfortunately, the hawks also had a little problem with species distinction, and the program came to an abrupt end when one of them attacked a pet Chihuahua, a mishap that wound up on the Daily News’s gossipy Page Six.
Middleton is now a doctoral candidate in the ecology department at the University of Wyoming, where he is studying the predator-prey relationship between wolves and elk.
He finds it tame by comparison: “In almost three years watching wolves and elk, I’ve rarely seen a kill. In falconry, you see that almost every day — a moment that is extremely rare as an observer of nature.”
As a sport, falconry is a fascinating nexus between the past and present, history and myth, nature and society. In an increasingly digital, digitized and virtual world, hunting with hawks remains vividly, stirringly, actual.
Listen to interviews with Peter Devers by clicking the link above, and with Mike Dupuy and Arthur Middleton by clicking the audio tabs in the body of this article. Plus, see pictures of falconry below.