It is likely that the art of falconry first appeared on the high plateaux of Central Asia 4,000 years ago. Falconry (or hunting on the wing) is the hunting of natural game in its environment using a specially-trained bird of prey. From a historical point of view, it is thought that the Kyrgyz people, who were nomadic hunters, were the first falconers. The Ancient Greeks and Romans seem not to have practiced the art, but over the centuries it progressively spread through the Arab, Celtic and Gallic cultures, and then throughout Europe: the Middle Ages saw the height of the popularity of falconry, particularly in France.
In this country, falconry was associated for a long time with the nobility and the exercise of royal power, in particular during the reign of Louis XIII, who was a passionate participant who in 1616 owned no less than six specialised teams – or the equivalent of 300 birds!
However, from the time of Louis XIV onwards, hunting with hounds and the development of firearms resulted in a significant decline in interest in falconry to the point where it was prohibited after the French Revolution because of its symbolic meaning. It was not until the end of WWII that falconry saw a renaissance and was legally recognised in 1954, thanks to the work of the Association Nationale des Fauconniers et Autoursiers Français (ANFA), (the French National Association of Falconers and Hunting with Goshawks), which had been founded several years before by Abel Boyer.
Today, falconry is practiced in many regions of the world (Russia, Japan, the Middle East, etc) including the United States, where it is not an ancestral tradition. In fact, in 1968 a group of European associations set up the International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey (IAF). With branches in 48 countries, it protects the sport, and raises awareness about the passionate interest of its 10,000 members – to good effect, since falconry was entered on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2010.
Without going into all the intricacies of what is in itself a true science, there are two main falconry techniques, each based on the morphology of the bird of prey used and its hunting methods.
Flying low with short-winged birds is hunting forwards, with the bird on your wrist and usually with a dog (pointer, braque, spaniel, etc). When the quarry is flushed out or stopped, the bird is launched in its pursuit and swoops on it and seizes it with its powerful claws. Fast, short, this pursuit continues for a few hundred meters only and can take place in wooded areas for example. This kind of hunting is commonly practiced with short-winged birds such as the goshawk, sparrow hawk and the Harris’ hawk. Potential prey includes pheasant, partridge, quail, rabbit and hare. Roe-deer and fox may also be taken by short-winged birds with the assistance of a golden eagle.
Even more spectacular, long-wing hunting only uses the falcon (particularly the peregrine falcon, which has claimed to be the fastest bird in the world when performing a stoop. The falconer keeps the bird on the wrist (hooded, to avoid stressing it) until the dog starts pointing: then the hood is removed and the falcon takes flight. It climbs in circles to a height of between 50 and 300 metres; then suddenly, when the quarry is flushed out, it performs a vertiginous stoop (from 200 to 300 kph!) towards its prey, stunning it with an incredible force which means the quarry has little chance of surviving. Long-wing hunting requires large spaces, vast plains and only involves feathered quarry (pheasant, partridge and grouse, etc).
Falconry: A lifestyle in the full sense of the word
It’s easy to understand that, short-wing or long-wing, falconry is a real vocation. Obtaining a bird is strictly regulated (some are born in captivity but others – goshawks and sparrow hawks – can be taken from the nest if you have a specific ministerial authorisation).
Then the training requires time, lots of patience and depends on the intelligence of the bird – which has to trust its owner and the dog (everyone working to the same end). Frequent flying – daily if possible – is essential. The falconer must also know how to maintain the bird’s physical condition in the most appropriate way: it should be hungry (to feel the need to attack), without being weak (it would therefore be inefficient).
Furthermore, falconry requires terrain which is full of game and which therefore has to be especially maintained. It is impossible to train such an animal in places where potential prey is becoming rarer which today, alas, is increasingly the case in our latitudes. Finally, this way of hunting which brings many constraints (you work to the bird’s rhythm, and not the other way round) is based on very rigorous and precise ethics, which excludes any form of dilettantism or guesswork when looking after these birds of prey. Falconers are clear about that. So, time-wasters need not apply!
To find out more about this extraordinary ancestral art, consult the excellent ANFA website: www.anfa.net – and the IAF website: www.iaf.org