A t Ta l o n ’ s
L e n g t h .
B y r e a d e t i l l e y.
There’s violence in this. Honest, a priori and necessary, it is awe-inspiring in its sudden-ness, its elegant precision and its stark conclusion:Talons digging into the quarry, a quick snap of a neck, and then tearing... It is captivating, but it is not entertainment. It predates modern bloodlust, predates firearms and the coliseum. It is healthy; perhaps it is honorable. And for a falconer, the moment it appears is as fulfilling as it is privileged.
alconry probably started with somebody looking at a wild hawk and watching it catch a duck or something, and thinking, ‘If I trained that hawk to do that for me, I could be eating that duck.’” Emma Ford told me that. She’s one of the world’s foremost falconers and the woman who, with her husband Steve, started the British School of Falconry at Gleneagles, Scotland. The school offers a look at falconry and a chance to have a hawk land on your arm, among other experiences. I visited a location in Vermont as well, but we’ll get to that later. Emma’s assessment of falconry’s beginnings is as close to an exact history as we’re likely to get. Of its precise origin, all that’s known is that falconry—that is, the taking of wild quarry in its natural state with trained birds of prey—hails from preliterate times and probably started in Asia. It spread west, became immensely popular with European royalty and eventually found its way to the States,where it’s currently practiced by nearly 4,000 people, and many more worldwide.The oldest living example of the tradition might be in Kazakhstan’s falconers (they sometimes call the practice“berkutchy”), who are today offered as many looks at tourist cameras as they are quarry. They hunt with eagles, but in fact most birds of prey can be trained to hunt with a human—if not for a human, exactly. Why the distinction is important and why someone would take the time to train a bird in the first place are interesting questions, with answers that might lie in our very origins. First E ncounter. “For me, from my point of view, I looked over my next-door neighbor’s wall when I was 8 years old and I was eyeball to eyeball with a falcon,” Ford recalls.“The minute I saw this falcon, I was fascinated.” For Emma, it was the falcon next door. For others, she says, “it’s that when they see a hawk they feel a certain kind of affinity... there’s a sudden and real, urgent need to get closer to hawks
and to learn more about them. It happens with some people when they handle them.” [It’s worth noting that in the language of falconry, “hawk” is often used as a generic term to mean any bird of prey. See the glossary in this article for more clarifications.] Standing in Vermont with one of the school’s Master Falconers, Jay Tuttle, I felt no such compulsion toward the Harris hawk to which I was introduced, “Elmer.” However, I was admittedly awe-struck by his wild-ness, and moreover by the amount of interaction he offered.When Elmer landed on my arm—my “fist,” in the parlance, which was covered by a glove—I’m not sure what struck me first: that he seemed to weigh almost nothing but obviously had tremendous power, especially in his talons, or that he regarded a stranger’s arm as a safe perch. It is the latter that begs consideration, for unlike dogs, Ford tells me that hawks do not seek affection nor do they take pleasure in pleasing. So why did Elmer decide to leave his perch for my fist? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because I was impersonating a falconer, and so he believed I was on his team. Teamwork. Falconers hunt game with their falcons, sometimes with the help of dogs.Whether its rabbits, grouse or whatever, the dogs find the quarry and the humans flush it out. To the falcon, the dog and the human are essentially support staff for the main event—the falcon’s event—which is the actual kill. The falcon hunts with a team because it has been trained to understand that teamwork maximizes its chance of success. It also knows it will be fed at the end of the night regardless of what happens on the hunt. It takes months to build this understanding, and the methods used to achieve it are centuries-old, basically involving a series of rewarded behaviors. Step to the fist, reward. Fly to the fist, reward. Fly to the fist from a little further away… And so on. Eventually, the hawk can be “entered,” or introduced to quarry. And then the fun begins.
The Hunt. “A massive amount of things have to happen for it to go right, especially to catch a grouse. The falconer has to make the right decisions, the dog has to play its part perfectly, and then what you’re waiting for is when the falcon, which is very high, shuts its wings and is stooping like a bolt from the blue.The noise... It’s like ripping canvas, quite a loud noise. You can hear the wind just tearing through its feathers... It’s doing its best to catch the grouse and all you can do is watch.”“Stoop” is the term for a falcon’s dive, which can see the bird reach speeds of up to 217mph (and likely faster). Falcons hunt other birds, and their beaks have a special adaptation that facilitates neck-snapping. Plunging through a flock of pigeons, for example, a falcon’s quarry is dead before it knows what hit it. In the case of grouse it’s less easy, making successful hunts that much more rewarding. While the falconer is happy—as much for the fulfillment of the training as for the meal— the falcon also has emotions of a sort, Ford says. “We’re only successful maybe one in seven attempts. [The falcons] are very happy if they catch something and, similarly, if they fail to catch something you can see that they’re not at all happy.“They don’t have the same expressions as a dog, but some get quite stroppy if it goes wrong.” And if what goes wrong is on a team member’s failure, Ford says the falcons don’t hold back.“It’s just us, and our pointers who find the game, and the falcons that catch it. And the dogs have a job to do: they have to hold point, hold steady until the falcon is in position… And if the dog makes a mistake, you can see the falcon is really not too happy about the dog.” If, on the other hand, the falcon is successful, it is then distracted with a lure and a reward while the human pockets the game, and everyone’s happy. It’s a bit like a symphony in that it all has to come together,” says Ford. “But if you put a massive amount of work into it, the hawk has worked really hard, then God yes, you’re thrilled that it’s been absolutely successful.”
Maintenance. The flying weight—the weight at which a bird of prey is both willing and able to hunt— is a crucial measurement in falconry, and it’s different for each bird.Too fed, there’s no incentive to go after quarry nor to return to the falconer’s fist. Not fed enough, there’s no energy to hunt.“A half ounce of difference will affect the hawk’s performance the next day,” says Tuttle. Kazakh hunters feel an eagle’s keel (breastplate) to gauge its weight, while most falconers weigh their hawks on scales.Whichever method, dedicated training is required to understand the subtleties of a hawk’s performance and maintenance. In the United States, it officially takes two years to become a falconer. There are federal and state regulations, exams, fees and inspections to navigate. Jay and another Master Falconer/Instructor at the Vermont school, Dawn DeCrease, have been through it all. Following that, it can take months or years to train a hawk, and only 48 hours or so for that hawk to lose its training,meaning hawks need constant work over their lifetime. As Jay tells it, nearly 70 percent of hawks in the wild don’t make it past year one, often due to starvation resulting from competition, inexperience or lack of knowledge (if they were orphaned, for example). In this, falconers are teaching young hawks necessary skills they ideally would be taught in any case, but they’re also providing a safety net of sorts.The lengths to which Jay, Dawn, Emma and others go to understand birds of prey and to build relationships with them are extreme, and go a long way to helping all of us understand a small part of our bigger world. Of course, not all hawks enjoy such relationships with humans.
Built to Kill.
Man vs. Bird. While birds of prey are almost universally admired from a distance, close encounters can provoke all manner of reaction.When primal instincts kick in (ours or theirs), the results can be lethal—and not just for the birds. Three stories:
In February of 2010, a hand surgeon in Virginia shot and killed a hawk in his yard. As the local NBC Channel 4 reported,Thomas Shepler claimed that the raptor had become fixated on his pet squirrel, Oedipus, which the doctor and his wife had long ago found orphaned and raised,even allowing it to sleep in their bedroom at night.Shepler threw a crowbar at the hawk hoping to scare it off, but that had no effect. Desperate to protect Oedipus, Shepler retrieved an antique shotgun from his home, returned to the yard and killed the hawk.A passing police officer heard the shot and investigated, found the doctor with the gun still in his hands, and arrested him. Shepler was later charged with discharging a firearm in a public place and, perhaps ironically, cruelty to animals.
Superior eyesight: Roughly equivalent of a human reading a newspaper at 300 yards
Nostril tubercle: Deflects airflow/ reduces air pressure in a stoop, allowing the falcon to breathe
Nictitating membranes:Almost like goggles, this third eyelid spreads tears and clears debris to help maintain vision in a stoop
Tomial tooth: Notch in falcon’s beak specialized for severing/ snapping necks
In December of 2011, a pigeon lover in Scotland shot and killed a falcon that had been routinely employed to scare pigeons away from a government building. According to The Scotsman newspaper and the UK’s Daily Record, falconer Ryan Dryburgh was exercising “Naph,” his peregrine-gyrfalcon cross, at a soccer stadium when a gust of wind carried the bird away. Tracking a radio transmitter attached to the falcon’s leg, Dryburgh and two other falconers followed Naph to the house of Andrew Hutchison, an elderly man who kept pigeons. Upon Dryburgh’s arrival, Hutchison reportedly confessed to shooting Naph in the garden—then fled in a car, racing off with the falcon’s body. The falconers gave chase and eventually found the radio transmitter in a stream, still attached to Naph’s severed leg, but the rest of the falcon’s body was never recovered. In court, Hutchison initially disputed the entire incident, telling the judge, “They’re all telling lies. It’s a witches’ coven.” Eventually, however, he relented, admitting that he’d killed the falcon because it was “on the back” of one of his pigeons.“That hawk tried to get away with murder,” he said.
Malar Stripe: Dark feathers under eye potentially work like eye-black for athletes, reducing glare
From the Valentine’s Day, 1922, edition of The New York Times EAGLE KILLS A SOLDIER. Wounded Bird Clutches Captor’s Gun and Discharges It. SANTIAGO, Chile, Feb. 13 (Associated Press).—A curious story of a soldier’s fatal struggle with a huge eagle in a mountain pass near Los Andes last Saturday is told by the newspapers here. The soldier shot the eagle and, thinking he had killed it, approached, but the bird had only suffered a broken wing and furiously attacked him. In the struggle which followed, the eagle’s claws clutched the trigger of the soldier’s gun, which was discharged, the bullet entering the man’s body. He died in the arms of his companions, who took his body and the wounded eagle, to Los Andes.
Type s. In the language of falconry, birds of prey are termed“hawks”whether they are falcons, hawks or eagles. They are divided into three groups: Longwings: Includes falcons, sych as Shortwings: Hawks, including the peregrine, the saker and the gyrfalcon. sparrowhawks and the Harris hawk. Hunt Mainly hunt other birds in flight. ground game like rabbit, hare and groundnesting birds.
Broadwings: Includes eagles and buzzards. Suited for soaring over rolling countryside and mountains. Like shortwings, broadwings hunt ground game.
Furniture. The tools of falconry are known as“furniture.” The most basic include:
to the legs of a falcon so the falconer can find the bird when it’s out of sight. Usually used in pairs, with the pitch of one bell roughly a semitone different, resulting in a sound that carries farther than a melodious pairing would.
ood: Used to cover the eyes of a hawk; with longwings (which
S J G
wing Lure:A lure on a line, often made of a bird’s wing or feathers
affixed to a bit of leather, swung in the air to recall a hawk.
leather straps fastened around the ankles of the hawk, often with a ring to which a leash can be attached.
love: Used to protect the falconer from his hawk’s talons. hunt other birds), it’s used to prevent them seeing other birds flying overhead and then wasting energy trying to leave the All information courtesy of Emma Ford, The British School of falconer’s glove. Falconry and The Encyclopedia Britannica, with which Emma Ford worked.
The Experience. Falconry has shared some language with firearms (including“musket,”which is a male sparrow hawk), but otherwise has little in common with the tools that pushed it into the “enthusiast” column. One of the most important differences from modern hunting methods, as applies to hunter + rifle, is that falconry involves a specific sort of inter-species cooperation. On a hunt involving a falcon, a dog and a human, the falcon and the human are hunting cooperatively with the aim of killing the quarry. The dog is hunting to please the human. It’s an incredible difference. “There are very few examples of any sort of sport in the world where man gets to work in partnership with a predator,”says Ford.“One of the very few would be the Japanese, who have cormorants that catch fish for them and that sort of thing.Years ago, people used to train cheetahs to hunt for gazelle, but that’s the only sort of idea that comes to mind.” As such, falconry involves a sort of relationship to which humans are relatively unaccustomed, acclimated as we are to viewing animals in terms of service or pets. “Yes, that’s right,” says Ford.“It’s not a dog, for example,that has a sense of loyalty which culminates in a desire to please people. Falcons only seek to please themselves; it’s basically a business relationship. You get very attached to them, but they don’t get that attached to you. I mean, they might prefer you to an unknown person, but they only look to you to provide food and the opportunities to put them in the path of game where they’re going to be able to be successful and catch something.” Walking across the field with Jay, Elmer following alongside us in the distant trees, the relationship between falcon and falconer strikes me as incredibly profound. I wonder what other relationships could have been built—or exist to be built— with the natural world. If they’re there, they doubtless would require the kind of complete immersion practiced by falconers, and they would likely stem from the same kind of shared goal between hawk and human that makes falconry possible and so enduring. Primal, privileged and demanding dedication, there is much compelling about falconry. But for all of its mysteries, its lasting appeal for falconers might be more simply put.As Emma has it: “It’s a cliché, but it’s the thrill of the chase.” Visit equinoxresort.com to learn more about The British School of Falconry.
From top: Falcon catching a lure, Harris hawk Elmer and falconer Jay Tuttle, and a list of flying weights
Glossary. A small selection of falconry’s language: Bate: To attempt to fly off the falconer’s glove or a perch while restrained. Cast Off: Pushing the hawk airborne from the fist. Creance: A long line attached to a hawk in training to prevent it from flying away. Eyas: Hawk taken from a nest in the wild or bred in captivity. Falcon: Technically, the female peregrine falcon. Feed Up: To give a hawk its full day’s supply of food. Haggard: Hawk trapped in its adult plumage. Manning: The initial stage of training at which trust is built with a hawk. Mantle: The act of a hawk covering a quarry with its wings. Mews: Indoor housing for hawks. Passager: Hawk trapped in its first year. Quarry: Prey. Stoop: To dive from a height headfirst with wings closed at speed (falcons). Tiercel: Male falcon; from a word for“third,” as male falcons are 1/3 smaller than females.