Masters Of The Skies
Falconry is the art of using trained birds of prey (raptors) to hunt. It has been around for thousands of years. Birds of prey were used to hunt in Mongolia more than 4,000 years ago. Records show that falconry was practiced in Arabia and Persia around the same time. The Greek philosopher Aristotle mentions falconry around 300 BC.
When falconry reached medieval Europe, it became very popular. Back then, falconry was more of a necessity, a way to provide meat on the table. It was taken very seriously and regulated by strict rules: the type of bird that one could fly depended on their rank in society. For example, the King could fly a Gyrfalcon (regarded as an excellent falconry bird) but a servant was only allowed to fly a Kestrel (a small species of falcon). The Queen would only fly a Merlin (a larger falcon than the Kestrel) and a Priest could fly a Sparrowhawk. Mary Queen of Scots was well-known for her passion for falconry and for flying Merlins. However, sometimes the common people were not allowed to fly raptors and only the royal family and the nobility were privileged to do so. The birds were highly sought after and some were even worth a fortune. In Great Britain, the theft of a trained raptor was punishable by death under Edward the 3rd. In other countries, the thief would have 6 ounces of flesh torn from his body by the bird that he stole.
The "golden age" of falconry lasted for centuries in medieval Europe where it remained extremely popular. French King Louis the 13th kept more than 300 raptors in his aviaries and they were divided into 6 different groups, depending on which type of game they would hunt. The "Grand Fauconnier du Royaume de France" (Great Falconer of the Kingdom of France) was hired by the King to supervise everything from the breeding of the birds to the planning of the hunts. It was an extremely honorable title that only a nobleman could earn. During the 16th century, the Spanish "conquistadors" coming back from Mexico reported that the Aztecs were using trained hawks as well.
Around the 18th century, the popularity of falconry in Europe started to decline, mostly due to the end of the medieval system and the use of firearms to hunt. In the early 1900's, the art of falconry began to spread over in America and in 1961, the North American Falconers Association (NAFA) was created. This organization still exists today and has more than 2,000 members. In 1972, the highly-respected Peregrine Fund was established and started to work with American falconers to help the Peregrine Falcon recover from near total extinction due to DDT. Since then, the Peregrine Fund has released more than 4,000 captive-bred falcons into the wild. North American falconers are credited for the amazing recovery of the Peregrine Falcon in the wild as the bird is no longer an endangered species.
American falconry is currently experiencing a significant revival: new technologies like telemetry are adding a new aspect to the sport; trained raptors are now used as natural "pest control" in locations where wild birds are a nuisance; the need for educational programs with birds of prey is increasing as people are starting to reconnect with the outdoors and acknowledge the role that these amazing birds play in nature. In 2010, in the largest nomination in its history, the UNESCO officially declared falconry "a living human heritage", hence acknowledging more than 4,000 years of "unbroken thread of tradition passed down from father to children".
Today, falconry is very strictly regulated in North America. Since all birds of prey are protected by state and federal laws, only an individual who has the proper licenses and permits is allowed to keep a raptor. Falconry is not for everyone as it involves a great deal of time, patience and dedication. The birds require highly specialized care and they must hunt every single day during hunting season, rain or shine. If anyone is interested in learning more about falconry, they should contact their local USFWS agent and check the resources available online.