By Vern and Lori Gieger
The Art of Flying
Falconry is an art requiring long hours of constant devotion and skill. Historically, falconry was a popular sport and status symbol among the nobles of medieval Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia; in Japan the sport is called takagari. Birds of prey were quite rare and expensive, and the process of raising and training a hawk or falcon required a great deal of time, money, and space, it was typically restricted to the noble classes.
In Japan, there were even strict restrictions on who could hunt as well as which types of animals could be hunted, and where, based upon rank within the samurai class. In art and in other aspects of culture such as literature, falconry remained a status symbol long after it was no longer popularly practiced. Eagles and hawks displayed on the wall could represent the noble himself, metaphorically, as noble and fierce. Prints or paintings of falcons or falconry scenes could be bought by wealthy commoners, and displayed as the next best thing to partaking in the sport, again representing a certain degree of nobility.
The falconer’s traditional choice of bird was the Goshawk and Peregrine Falcon. In ancient times, a person’s rank could be told by the hawk he possessed. Bird species used in Western Europe tended to follow specific guidelines, however people often used whatever species they could get hold of.
Through the captive breeding of rescued birds, the last 30 years have seen a great revival of the sport, with a host of innovations; falconry’s popularity, through flying exhibitions at sporting events, fairs, etc. has never been higher in the past 300 years.
Making use of the natural relationship between raptors and their prey, today, falconry is used to control pest birds and animals in urban areas, landfills, commercial buildings, and airports. The most popular and most practical falconry nowadays is done with the Harris’s Hawk, and to a lesser extent with the Red-tailed Hawk. However, Goshawks are excellent hunters, and were once called the cook’s hawk; but they can be stubborn and unpredictable. The acceleration of a short-wing from a stand-still, especially the Goshawk, is astonishing and a rabbit surprised at any distance from its burrow has little hope of escape. Short-wings will dive after their prey into cover, where the tinkling of their bells is vital for locating the bird. In many cases, modern falconers use radio tracking to locate their birds.
In the United States, falconry is legal in most states. Falconry is not a casual hobby; a falconer must have state and federal licenses to practice this sport. First one must pass a written test, have equipment and facilities inspected, and then serve a minimum of two years as an apprentice under a licensed falconer. An apprentice license allows the falconer to possess no more than two raptors at a time. After a minimum of five years at General level, falconers may apply for a Master Class license, which allows them to keep three raptors for falconry. Both state and federal regulations must be complied with by the falconer.
In Mexico, falconry is not popular. All wildlife is protected by federal law, and it is a federal crime to even possess a bird of prey without proper documentation.