Animals have been entwined with human survival for centuries. Hunting big and small game helped to feed families, especially in the winter when vegetation was lacking. As the practice of animal husbandry developed, people used species like horses, cows, and chickens, for hard labor or food production. The connection is not always positive, dangers can come from the interactions of humans and animals, like being bit by a snake or attacked by a bear. However, there is a class of animals that many times is forgotten in terms of survival and that is birds of prey, or raptors.
Falconry, the art of hunting with raptors, is one of the world’s oldest sports and was originally practiced as a way of putting dinner on the table. Some speculate that falconry began around 3000 BC in Mongolia, where they still use eagles to hunt deer to this day. The Egyptians were known for breeding, training, and even worshiping raptors. The Eye of Horus, the famous Egyptian symbol, was patterned after the facial markings of a peregrine falcon. Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers, mentioned falconry in their ancient writings. Evidence of falconry in Europe began as early as 500 AD, and over the next thousand years, it spread to the entire continent. In the 1600s, the economy of the Dutch city Valkenswaard was almost entirely dependent on falconry. Valk is the Dutch word for falcon.
Falconry dwindled worldwide after the introduction of firearms and is now practiced more as a hobby by a small number of raptor loving die-hards. In the United States, falconry is highly regulated by the Federal Government. Regulations are different all over the world, with it being illegal to practice in some countries. To become a falconer in the United States, you must find a sponsor or someone who is licensed and qualified to teach you about raptor health and training. You must also pass a multiple answer test that shows you have a basic understanding of falconry laws. All the supplies you’ll need to care for and train a raptor must be attained before being allowed to have one. It is not an easy sport to get into, but it can be done and is very rewarding for those who push through the red tape. Once you have permission from your local agencies, the fun and struggle begin.
There are different ways of acquiring a raptor. One way is by trapping one from the wild, another is having one transferred to you from another falconer, or you can buy one from a breeder. Each has its benefits and limits. Trapping a raptor from the wild is an exciting adventure. You get a raptor that already knows how to hunt, won’t imprint on you, and can easily be released back into the wild if you decide to take another raptor. Buying one from a breeder or having one transferred to you means having a bird that looks to you as its parent. You have to teach it how to hunt while at the same time hopefully not making it so dependent on you that it becomes a nuisance. One of the downsides of captive-bred raptors is they can never be released into the wild. Many times, raptors that end up in zoos started as captive-raised falconry birds. Falconry is truly an art that takes experience and patience.
Once you have a raptor, the training begins. Wild raptors need to learn to trust you. This process is called manning. During manning, you spend a lot of time with your raptor. He joins you when you watch television, talk on the phone, and sometimes on trips to the store so he can become accustomed to crowds. Manning creates a beautiful transition from wild and fearful raptor to one that is willing to work with you.
After the raptor trusts you, the next stage is teaching it to hunt alongside you. Wild raptors already know how to hunt, so this phase of the game is showing them it will now be a team effort. Smaller raptors can be taught to take prey they typically wouldn’t take on their own, like jackrabbits and pheasants. Captive-bred raptors will need to be trained how to hunt in a controlled setting. That means allowing them to take quail that you bred or sparrows that you trapped. These various training sessions will help build their confidence, so they are willing to take prey that are larger than themselves. By being willing to give many hours to training a raptor, you can build a killing machine that works with you to take prey that would be much difficult to get without them.
Many people question the practice, wondering if falconry is cruel. Raptors are very independent by nature, with most species preferring to hunt in solitude. As a falconry bird, their time is not their own. To ensure that a raptor is willing to work with a human their weight is closely controlled, or in other words, they are kept hungry during training and hunting. They are kept in large cages, called mews. Falconry might look cruel to someone who doesn’t understand the sport, but there are benefits of being a falconry bird.
More than seventy-five percent of wild raptors don’t make it through their first winter. The health of wild-caught falconry birds is closely monitored, and they are at their peak performance when they are released the next spring. They come out of training with more determination and confidence to take all kinds of prey. A few years ago, dozens of owls and hawks died in my hometown due to freezing rain that didn’t allow rodents to come to the surface. It was tragic to see their beautiful bodies dot the landscape. However, falconry birds are kept out of the elements and don’t have to worry about finding food. Wild-caught raptors never lose their wildness. They may choose to work with you, but the minute they are released they effortlessly return to their old ways.
Falconry can look very romantic and it’s alluring to see a person hunt with a wild animal. Falconers just look badass. Yet, there is a reality of falconry that will slap you in the face and I mean that literally. As a falconer, you deal with blood, guts, and poop. Lots of poop, or as we call them, mutes. Raptors can’t be trained to poop when and where you want them to go. The fact that they only eat meat makes their poops smell awful. You must be willing to cut up their food, which consists of other animals such as mice, sparrows, quail, and rabbits. Feeding raptors is always an adventure, especially when they sneeze all over you with a mouth full food. One time, while training, I gave my red-tailed hawk a full rabbit as a reward for flying to me from a hundred feet away. It broke into the intestines, and not liking the flavor of the runny poop, began to fling it everywhere. I had rabbit poop splattered all over me, including my face. A falconer must be willing to take the bad with the badass.
Falconry can be an expensive hobby. Most of the costs are in getting your supplies and in traveling to hunting locations. Some raptors cost more to maintain than others, based on their hunting style. Kestrels can be hunted within urban settings, taking doves and starlings. However, peregrine falcons need very large and open spaces to hunt. Red-tailed hawks, goshawks, and Harris hawks can be hunted within smaller areas and allowed to sit on a tall perch so they can see the game that you spook up while hiking. Falconry requires a substantial investment of both your time and your money.
Even though falconry can be a challenging sport to get into and maintain, knowing how to train a wild raptor to help you attain food can be an invaluable skill. A skill that has withstood the test of time. If there is one thing we can count on, that is that life and society are ever-changing. There may come a time again that we rely on the teamwork of raptors for our survival.