A couple of months ago I was sitting in my favourite cafe, drinking coffee, and writing a paper - guess you could say I am a regular at this establishment, although still junior compared with a handful of "old gangstas" (OGs) who also frequent it daily (some since the 80s).
On this particular day, I noticed a 50-ish year old fellow out of the corner of my eye, whom I had never seen before - definitely not a regular. He appeared somewhat lost. After several minutes of looking around he came up to me and struck up a brief conversation, then asked me my top picks for places in which to reside in New Zealand. He had just arrived from England and was scouting out the North Island for somewhere to settle with his young family. I gave him a short-list of places to check out, then asked a few questions in turn about what exactly he did back in England. It turned out he was a falconer, which was fascinating to me as I had never met a bona fide falconer before.
Golden Eagle with its falconer; falconry probably originated around 5000 BC, on the steppes of Mongolia.
Falconry involves the hunting of small animals using a trained bird of prey (1). More specifically, a falconer trains and flies a falcon, whereas the closely-related austringer trains and flies a hawk or an eagle. Falconry probably first developed around 5000 BC on the steppes of Mongolia and by 2000 BC had become established in the Arabian world (2). Initially, it was primarily used as a way to find food in the barren desert climate, particularly during winter. However, around 400 AD, the Huns introduced falconry to Europe, where it became a popular sport and status symbol amongst the nobles for hundreds of years, who were the only people that could provide the time, money, and wide open spaces to practice it. Falconry reached the apex of its popularity in the 1600s, but as firearms became widely available its popularity declined...by the 1800s, it had faded to a substantial degree.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, falconry experienced a revival in Europe, and even gained popularity in North America. Today, it is now more popular than it has ever been during the last 300 years.
Birds Of Prey
The various birds of prey (also called raptors) may be classified based on the size and shape of their wings and body, which in turn makes them more suited to hunting in a particular type of territory. There are four categories of raptors (3).
Longwings are the prototypical falconer's bird, as they are all falcons. Longwings have a long, pointed set of wings and tail as well as a short, hooked beak. Given their speed, longwings are best-suited to wide open terrain and are generally used to hunt smaller birds and insects, although some species can also hunt small mammals, such as rabbits and hares. Common examples include Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons, Merlins, and Kestrels.
Red-Tailed Hawk, which is one of the most common raptors used in falconry.
Barn Owl landing on its falconer's hand.
Owls can also be used in falconry, although they are not as popular as the other birds. Owls are fast and have sharp talons and powerful beaks, but they can be harder to train and handle as they are hearing-oriented rather than sight-oriented (they can only see white and black) and require more specialized care (4).
Falconers use hacking, a training method that helps young birds to acquire self-taught hunting experiences before they are formally trained. There are two essential steps to hacking (5,6).
First, captivity, which involves the placement of a group of chicks approximately 2-4 weeks old into a hack box, which serves as a surrogate nest until they grow and can fend for themselves. The hack box is situated on a high site, such as a cliff or a tall pole, and it typically contains a grated door and barred windows so that the young raptors can gaze across the land while remaining protected from other predators. Although the chicks are provided with food on a regular basis, they have little contact with humans.
Young Aplomado Falcons in their hack box (7).
After they grow feathers, the hack box is opened and the chicks undergo release, which gives them a chance to practice flying and hunting on their own. The first flight occurs about 3 days after the hack box is opened, which will normally be a few dozen feet. Food is still provided, but becomes less and less necessary as the raptors learn to hunt and become more efficient at it - eventually, they no longer need the extra food.
Once they are confident and independent, the birds can either be released into the wild, or they can be recaptured and trained by a falconer.
It can take up to 2 years to fully train a bird of prey. Some falconers may only need to train their bird once a week, whereas other may choose to do so multiple times a day (7).
Special equipment is needed to train a bird of prey including a gauntlet, a hood, bells, jesses, and a telemetry transmitter. The gauntlet is thick glove that the falconer uses to provide a perching surface for the bird. The hood keeps the raptor in a calm state and allows it to acclimatize to humans. The bells are needed for the falconer to detect when the bird is nearby. The jesses are strips of strong leather that are used to tether the raptor to the falconer's glove so as to keep control of it when needed. The transmitter allows the falconer to know what the bird is doing from a distance.
European Kestrel landing on its gauntlet.