Cleared for take-off?
The keeping of birds of prey to hunt and fly on command started over 4,500 years ago, in Mesopotamia and Persia, now Syria, Iran and Iraq; very close to India actually, where until 1971 (when all forms of hunting in India were banned), it remained very popular. For the first millennium or so, it was borne out of necessity – it was always much easier to trap and train a falcon or an eagle <g data-gr-id="62">once,</g> than catch rabbits, gazelles or wolves day-in, <g data-gr-id="60">day-out</g> for a lifetime. Especially in Outer Mongolia, where a fox comes along occasionally, at best; in such a situation, a self-calibrating, head-seeking bird that can chase something down over a kilometre away is better than any archer’s arrow, or trapper’s trap.
After the need to feed oneself was satisfied, next came the enjoyment. The simple joy of watching a bird fly, the sense of fulfillment after seeing it hunt successfully after your own instruction. Falconry had long been the preserve of royalty – they had the time and land to truly enjoy the sport. Once falconry was introduced to Europe and Britain after the crusades, a hierarchy was formed (Eagles for Emperors, Kestrels for peasants, and so on), based almost purely on how much land was available to each class to use for hunting. It became incredibly important: professional falconers were received in court by Kings and Queens, who themselves kept vast numbers of birds for their own enjoyment. Raptor trapping became big business, especially on key migration routes, and rare birds in pristine condition commanded enormous sums of money. Popularity for the sport dropped after the 1750s, with the advent of guns. Guns were simple to use, effective, and comparatively of negligible maintenance. Shooting estates took the place of falconry moors, and the art of hawking was briefly forgotten.
It was outlawed and shunned widely for various reasons that either don’t apply or have never applied. It was seen as brutish and damaging to trap birds from the wild, keeping them in captivity, and training them to a falconer’s whim. These are assumptions made by the uninitiated and <g data-gr-id="68">ill informed</g>. Taking young birds from the wild is their salvation – raptors face a uniform mortality rate of 75 <g data-gr-id="70">per cent</g> in their first year. Falconers are loath to remove adult, breeding birds from the wild: it is unethical, and they are much harder to train anyway! Others took issue with the hunting <g data-gr-id="80">aspect,</g> but failed to take into account that a trained bird kills far less than a wild one – most are fed on domestically sourced meat. I am a falconer (unashamedly), and I know this as fact, as my Augur Buzzard has only killed one lizard in two years – being half blind doesn’t help her at all, despite how hard she tries to succeed with <g data-gr-id="71">hares</g>.
Modern falconry has experienced a massive resurgence since the 1970s in the West, and has both similarities and contrasts to ancient practices: the equipment is almost identical, the enjoyment derived is the same, the birds and each species’ character have not changed, the archaic nomenclature remains happily intact, but the reasons for ‘hawking’ have altered immeasurably. Most falconers are also raptor rehabilitators – birds are only kept, trained and flown prior to their release back into the wild after recovering from injury. Raptors have to be perfectly fit to hunt and fly at their absolute best, and the only way to do this is to allow them to fly, but train them to come back! Releasing an unfit bird, wishing it the best and hoping it can confidently kill its prey after months of convalescing constitutes abandonment, and can be viewed as negligent. One wouldn’t assume a child could survive in this world, alone and unaided, unless first educated to do so, for at least 18 years and raptors are similar: in some cases they must be taught what to hunt, and how to hunt it.
A major difference is <g data-gr-id="65">the modern investment</g> to keep captive birds safe. Telemetry is used to ensure birds are not lost; birds are weighed daily to calibrate diets to ensure they remain in good condition, and the understanding of raptor biology and medicine has improved immensely. Our charges are kept healthy, happy and fit. Regulations in Europe and the USA require that birds kept for a hobby must be captive bred to ensure no loss or disturbance to wild populations.
Captive breeding became essential to <g data-gr-id="66">re-stock</g> wild populations decimated through the folly and wastes of man. The Peregrine <g data-gr-id="67">Fundwas</g> established in 1970 by falconers, and almost single-handedly reversed the decline of the Peregrine Falcon in the eastern United States; so successful was their captive breeding programme that this bird has been taken off the US endangered species list. Critically endangered vultures in India are being captive bred by many organisations, as well as African vultures in South Africa. Mauritius Kestrels were saved from certain extinction, so too the Californian Condor and Ridgeway’s Hawk – all by captive breeding programmes. My colleague has been breeding Crowned Eagles (a huge, forest-specialist, in decline throughout their range) in Kenya for the past 40 years. All young birds from these programmes first need to be trained how to behave with their wild congeners before they’re released, and this is done so using ancient falconry techniques, perfected over millennia.
The fact that the practice of falconry is illegal in most of the third world (unlike in the first) is a great shame and greatly hampers these passionate individuals. It remains illegal despite being awarded the honor of being recognised as a <g data-gr-id="56">UNSECO</g> Intangible Cultural Heritage practice. The few that go ahead and flaunt the rules are true heroes – they realise <g data-gr-id="57">its</g> importance and are willing to face the risk of penalty and punishment, even imprisonment. If falconry were allowed, and regulated, it would be a great conservation tool.
If done with the appropriate constraints, the right methods, adequate land, and a proper purpose in mind, falconry returns full-circle and starts to become a heck of a lot of fun: for <g data-gr-id="58">raptorphiles</g> like myself, and others who are willing to pay huge amounts to see raptors fly and hunt, falconry is a worthwhile way to see this firsthand, on a daily basis.