The History Of Falconry
Learn about the history of falconry and how it grew to be virtually a craze in medieval England, for over four hundred years.
The history of falconry can be traced back as long ago as 2000 BC, to the Middle and Far East. It was perhaps most popular in medieval England though, where it was the favoured field sport for over four centuries. The English probably acquired the technique of falconry from the German Saxons or from the Romans, after they had invaded.
Hunting with birds, was popular with anyone who could afford to buy and keep a bird of prey, to the extent of it being a craze. Having your own falcon was seen as a status symbol. It was a particularly expensive hobby to maintain, and this is why it became most popular among many kings of England. These kings were so anxious to have the best birds, and therefore the best kills, that they introduced the Laws of Ownership. This stated that certain birds could only be held by certain ranks, and one couldn’t hunt with a bird that had been assigned to a higher rank. So, the King would have any bird at his disposal, but would choose one that was only available to himself, such as the eagle or vulture. In contrast a knave or servant would only ever be able to hunt with a kestrel.
The men who trained the falcons for the king, the falconers, were very well respected. They held certain privileges, and rewards were particularly good if, when hunting, a heron, bittern or crane was caught. These birds were considered the best kills.
The birds were trained to catch prey both on the ground and in the air, but it is the latter form that was most popular by some way. The falconers would wear a large leather glove, on which the bird perched. If the bird were a large one such as an eagle, the glove would have to be of double thickness and extend further up the arm to reduce the risk of injury. The bird would be hooded, until near the time of release. Hooding a bird helped to calm it down, preventing the falcon from sensing new and/or potentially stressful experiences. Lures were used to train the birds, differing in shape and size to reflect the characteristics of the prospective prey. This was a long and expensive training, and because the game caught from falconry wasn’t enough to feed a large number of people, it was mainly enjoyed as just a sport.
When training a falcon the teacher first had to get the bird accustomed to the presence of him. This is called manning. The next stage was to get the bird used to every piece of equipment. When comfortable, the bird was trained to go to the teacher for food, while attached to a training string. When it had learned to go to the teacher for food from a distance of a hundred yards, it was ready to be set free. These ancient techniques have been used throughout the ages.
Falconry lost its popularity due to the introduction of other forms of hunting, most notably the introduction of the shotgun in the 17th century. At this time forests were also being cut down, to make space for fields for farming, thus reducing the natural habitat for these birds of prey. This form of hunting was also in decline because of the spiralling costs, which were already extremely expensive. By the turn of the 20th century all birds of prey were viewed as vermin, as they were in competition with mankind for quarry. At this time they were at their most unpopular in the history of falconry. Eventually though, the art became more accessible again, and numbers of people practising the art grew, especially in the United States. The popularity of Red-tailed hawks became great in America because of their ease of handling, and ability to look after themselves when lost. Potential hunters who wish to use falcons should remember to acquire any necessary licenses applicable to their country.
These birds of prey have been classified into three categories concerning hunting – short-winged, long-winged and broad-winged. Short-winged birds are generally all hawks. They are quick and adept at flying over short distances. They are also very maneuverable. Falcons are long-winged birds. They are slower over short distances but are are quicker once they build up some momentum, and are actually able to achieve speeds of over 200 mph during a stoop or dive. They also have more stamina than the short winged variety. Broad-winged birds such as eagles or buzzards soar for hours high in the sky. People who hunt with falcons bear these facts in mind, and adapt each hunt to suit their own particular birds.