Birds of prey fascinate us in ways other animals simply cannot. Not only is their method of hunting hypnotic in its beauty, raptors wear an air of languid superiority as comfortably as they wear their feathers. By virtue of their haughtiness, they demand our attention. And we, as spellbound, earth-bound subjects, always give it. But there is a small group of people who take our earthbound fascination with birds of prey beyond passive observation and into a realm few have the opportunity to witness, even fewer the dedication to achieve. These individuals have learned how to fly–vicariously, anyway–by learning how to live and hunt with birds of prey in a way that is at once art, science, history, and lifestyle. But to be successful at falconry, its practitioners say, you have to apply all qualities equally. Falconry is a hunting sport, but one in which the actual taking of game is secondary to the nuance of flight and the subtle interaction of human handler and winged hunter. It’s also a sport that, to the average observer, is as mysterious and visually intoxicating an activity as you are likely to find anywhere. Field & Stream‘s Chad Love has always had an interest in falconry and these photographs, which he hopes conveys the essence of a sport very few see, are from some of the hunts he’s tagged along on over the years. For more info on falconry visit the website of the Noth American Falconers Association.
The mechanics of the sport are deceptively simple and have changed very little over the centuries. Falconers either raise or trap birds of prey and train them to catch a variety of game, depending on the type of raptor used.
Those who fly falcons pursue winged game like grouse, waterfowl and pheasants almost exclusively, since falcons generally hunt other birds.
Falconers who fly hawks can, depending on the species of hawk used, hunt birds as well as ground-dwelling game like rabbits and squirrels.
The accoutrements of the sport are simple as well. Heavy leather gloves allow birds to perch on their handlers’ arms during training sessions and hunts.
Hoods are used both as a training tool to tame birds and as a way to keep birds calm before and after hunts. Lures are leather pouches garnished with meat used to train birds to fly to the handler’s first.
Any falconer will tell you that they’re a little different from other people. They live to live vicariously through their birds. They’re not in it just to catch game. Their passion lies in watching the bird fly, and hunt.
The pursuit of that moment – when training, timing and instinct meld into a perfect flight – is the tonic that sustains the falconer’s world. It is a direct portal into wildness, but the toll required for entry is heavy, and must be paid in the currency of dedication.
Perhaps that’s why there are so few falconers. Not only is it the most highly regulated sport externally, due to a maze of state and federal regulations, but its unique demands are such that anything less than total commitment is doomed to failure. That’s why the one overriding truth of falconry is that there is no such thing as a casual falconer.
To become one, a person must first pass a comprehensive, state-administered written test covering everything from biology to care and handling to pertinent laws and regulations. He or she must then build housing facilities, purchase certain equipment that must be inspected and approved by a state inspector, then purchase all the necessary state and federal licenses.
That’s the easy part. By law, all beginning falconers must be apprenticed to a licensed falconer for their first two years, and if you haven’t made an honest assessment of why you want to be a falconer in the first place, you can be sure that the person you ask to be your sponsor will do that for you.
Apprentice falconers are allowed only one bird and are limited in their choice of species. The overwhelming majority of apprentice falconers start out with a red-tailed hawk due to the red-tail’s trainable nature and its relative abundance.
The bird must then be “manned” which is the process of taming the bird and making it feel comfortable in your presence. The result of all this work is a trust bond between handler and bird, and a mutually beneficial relationship.
The next step is to get that bond cemented and then “enter the hawk to game,” which is falconer parlance for taking the bird on an actual hunt.
Falconers train birds through the reward of food. That’s how handlers train the birds to fly to their fist and stay with the handler in the field. That’s also why an accurate set of scales is one of the falconer’s most important tools. If the bird weighs too much, not only is it too heavy to hunt effectively, there’s no incentive for coming back.
With the regulations, requirements, enormous time commitment, and shrinking habitat, the sheer difficulty of becoming and staying a falconer gives rise to the question, why?
What causes a person to get drawn into falconry in the first place and what about this arcane sport makes almost everyone introduced to it develop an almost monkish devotion to its practice?
Almost every falconer replies, in one fashion or another, that it’s the experience of being able to both witness and interact with something that represents unfettered wildness, and the fascination with and allure of flight.
“It’s not about taking game,” one falconer told me. “Falconry is not a results-oriented sport, and it’s actually a very inefficient way to hunt. It has everything to do with the birds themselves, watching them fly, interacting with them.”
“When you let your bird go, you never really know what’s going to happen,” says another. “They’re wild creatures, and when they leave your fist, they can lead you in the strangest places. Or you may never see them again. That’s just part of the allure of it.”
That connection to wildness is why every morning in the fall and winter, falconers can be found on the prairie and in the woods, sending their birds aloft in search of game and thus perpetuating a cycle as old as history itself.
Falconry is so ancient that its origins are somewhat murky. No one really knows when some enterprising nomadic hunter first lured an eagle or falcon down from the sky, but the first documentation of the symbiotic relationship between man and bird dates to around 1700 B.C.
What is known is that falconry has been and still remains an intrinsic part of human culture, especially in the Middle East and parts of the Asian Steppe, where for over a thousand years Mongolian eagle hunters have trained golden eagles to hunt animals as large as wolves.
Pre-Renaissance Europe is generally considered to be the golden age of western falconry. Not only were the Crusades bringing western religious fervor to the Holy Land, they were bringing Middle Eastern falconry techniques back to the Old World.
However, like every aspect of medieval life, a rigid caste system existed in falconry. What species of bird you flew depended on your station in society. Royalty flew birds such as gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons, and merlins, while birds like goshawks and kestrels had to suffice for the lineage-impaired common folk.
In the Middle East, however, the deep-rooted falconry tradition had less to do with pageantry and more to do with the pragmatic goal of catching game. For centuries, nomadic Bedouin tribes roamed the arid regions of the Arabian peninsula, living by the ebb and flow of the falconry season so rooted in Arabian culture.
The oil wealth and power of the 20th century has done nothing to squelch that passion. Today, more than 70 percent of Arab men participate in falconry, while western falconers make up an infinitesimal percentage of the population
But no matter the nationality, all falconers are joined by the threads of a common bond. “It’s not a hobby,” one falconer tells me. “It’s a 365-day-a-year commitment, but those are the sacrifices you make when you choose to become a falconer. Sure, it’s hard, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything, and I don’t think any falconer would.”
Birds of prey fascinate us in ways other animals simply cannot. Not only is their method of hunting hypnotic in its beauty, raptors wear an air of languid superiority as comfortably as they wear their feathers. Field & Stream_’s Chad Love has always had an interest in falconry.
These photographs, which convey the essence of a sport very few see, are from some of the hunts on which he’s tagged along over the years and provide a basic introduction to the sport and tradition of falconry._