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What is Falconry?


Falconry, or hawking, is the sport of taking wild prey, or quarry, in its natural state and habitat by means of trained hawks. It probably originated in the East, but the earliest British record dates from about 750 A.D., since when falconry has had a continuous history. In the 17th century the invention of the sporting gun provided an easier method for killing game, and the enclosure of farming land struck an added blow. Falconry became, and remains, the sport of a few dedicated enthusiasts. Falconers and falconry clubs exist in most European countries, North America and Asia. One of the most remarkable of many books on the subject is De Arte Venandi cum Avibus by Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194- 1250).

The birds flown by falconers fall into three classes:

(1) the long-winged hawks such as the peregrine and merlin;

(2) the short-winged hawks such as the goshawk and sparrow-hawk;

(3) eagles and buzzards. All male hawks are smaller than the females and in falconry the sexes can be considered as separate kinds of hawk and are given different names, for example, peregrine falcon (f) and peregrine tiercel (m), merlin (f) and jack (m), sparrowhawk (f) and musket (m), etc.

Very open country is needed for proper flights with long-winged hawks. Peregrines will take rooks, magpies, gulls and game birds, and are flown at the first three of these from the falconer's fist. As the quarry rises from the ground, the hawk is slipped and both birds then climb into the sky, often in spiral rings. For game birds, the hawk waits on above the falconer, circling at and stoops at the quarry in a headlong dive as it is flushed by a dog.

Short-winged hawks can be flown in enclosed country. The goshawk takes hares, rabbits and game birds, while the sparrow-hawk will kill small birds such as starlings. Short-winged hawks do not wait on and the flight with them is brief, seldom rising far above the ground. Eagles are flown much like the short-winged hawks. If the hawk kills her quarry she is allowed to eat a small portion, and will be ready to fly again after a short pause. If she misses it, she returns to the lure or fist. Hawks do not bring their kill back to the falconer.

Falconers procure their hawks as eyasses, which are young birds taken from the nest; as passagers, which are captured in their first year after they have left the nest and have already killed for themselves; or as haggards, fully mature birds in adult plumage. In recent years great progress has been made in breeding hawks in domestic confinement; wild hawks are protected in almost all countries, and in Britain a special license from the Home or Scottish Office is needed to take a hawk from the wild or to import one.

The eyasses are either let loose in a large shed for two to three weeks until they fly strongly, or they are let free at hack in the open country, returning to a special place where food is left for them. Eyasses which have thus learned to fly, and the newly caught passagers and haggards, are then persuaded to feed on raw meat as they perch on the falconer's fist. The hawk must be taught to fly to the lure, a rough imitation of the bird she is intended to catch with meat attached to it. The falconer swings the lure on a string to attract the hawk's attention and then drops it on the ground. The hawk flies from a post to the lure, this distance being gradually increased. She is then introduced to the wild quarry which she chases with increasing persistence until she makes her first kill. When not being flown , long-winged hawks are tethered to a conical wooden block in the open, where they preen and bathe, a process known as weathering. Shortwinged hawks are weathered on a bow-shaped perch. At night or in bad weather the hawks are tethered to a perch above the ground in the mews, where they are left loose during their summer moult, which roughly coincides with the quarry being out of season.

In addition to the lure, the furniture of falconry consists of the following items: a light leather strap worn on each leg and known as a jess, above which the hawk carries a light bell held by a leather anklet called a bewit. This can be heard from a considerable distance and shows where the hawk has flown to cover (some modern falconers have substituted a miniature wireless 'direction finding' set for the bells). The jesses and bells are carried by the hawk at all times. When she is not flying, the jesses are attached to a swivel and a leather thong called the leash, which is in turn attached to the block or perch, giving her some movement when weathering. The falconer wears on his left hand a glove which, for the larger hawks, should reach up to his elbow. The hawk perches on the thumb, forefinger and wrist, and the leash is wrapped round the other fingers. When the hawk is about to be flown the swivel and leash are removed and she is held by the jesses only.

The hood is a light head covering which allows the hawk to breathe and feed but not to see anything. The old-fashioned Dutch hood with two sidepieces covered with green baize and a plume of wool and feathers has largely been replaced by the Anglo-Indian hood which is lighter and easier to construct.

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