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Flying a Saker Falcon
Flying a Saker Falcon

Falconry or hawking is the art or sport involving raptors (birds of prey) to hunt or pursue game. There are two traditional terms used to describe a person involved in falconry. A Falconer, who flies a falcon. An Austringer is one who flies a "true" hawk (accipiter). In modern falconry, buteos are now commonly used so a more loosely used term of falconer now applies to all people involved in falconry, because the words hawking and hawker have become so much used to mean petty travelling traders in goods.


Traditional views of falconry state that the art started in East Asia; however, archaeologists have found evidence of falconry in the Middle East dating back to the 1st century BC. Historically, falconry was a popular sport, and status symbol, among the nobles of both medieval Europe and feudal Japan, where it is called takagari. Eggs and chicks of birds of prey were quite rare and expensive, and since the process of raising and training a hawk or falcon takes a lot of time and money and space, it was more or less restricted to the noble classes. In Japan, there were even strict restrictions on who could hunt which sorts of animals, and where, based on one's ranking within the samurai class. In art, and in other aspects of culture, such as literature, falconry remained a status symbol long after falconry was no longer popularly practiced. Eagles and hawks displayed on the wall could represent the noble himself, metaphorically, as noble and fierce. Woodblock prints or paintings of falcons or falconry scenes could be bought by wealthy commoners, and displayed as the next best thing to partaking in the sport, again representing a certain degree of nobility.


  • 722-705 BC - An Assyrian bas-relief found in the ruins at Khorsabad during the excavation of the palace of Sargon II (or Saragon II) has been claimed to depict falconry. In fact, it depicts an archer shooting at raptors and an attendant capturing a raptor. A. H. Layard's statement in his 1853 book Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon is "A falconer bearing a hawk on his wrist appeared to be represented in a bas-relief which I saw on my last visit to those ruins."
  • 680 BC - Chinese records describe falconry. E. W. Jameson suggests that evidence of falconry in Japan surfaces.
  • 4th Century BC - It is assumed that the Romans learned falconry from the Greeks.
  • 384 BC - Aristotle and other Greeks made references to falconry
  • 70-44 BC - Caesar is reported to have trained falcons to kill carrier pigeons.
  • 355 AD - Nihon-shoki, a historical narrative, records first hawking in Japan as of 43rd reign of Nintoku.
  • 500 - E. W. Jameson says that the earliest reliable evidence of falconry in Europe is a Roman floor mosaic of a falconer and his hawk hunting ducks.
  • 600 - Germanic tribes practiced falconry
  • 8th and 9th century and continuing today - Falconry flourished in the Middle East.
  • 818 - The Japanese Emperor Saga ordered someone to edit a falconry text named "Shinshuu Youkyou".
  • 875 - Western Europe and Saxon England practiced falconry widely.
  • 991 - The Battle of Maldon. A poem describing it says that before the battle, the Anglo-Saxons' leader Byrhtnoth "let his beloved hawk fly from his hand towards the woodland".
  • 1066 - Normans wrote of the practice of falconry; following the Norman conquest of England, falconry became even more popular. The word "falconry" is descended from the Norman-French word fauconnerie.
  • c.1100 - Crusaders are credited with bringing falconry to England and making it popular in the courts.
  • c.1240s, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, commissions a translation of the treatise De arte venandi cum avibus, by the Arab Moamyn, and is said to have corrected and rewritten it on the basis of his own extensive experience with falconry.
  • 1390s - In his Libro de la caza de las aves, Castilian poet and chronicler Pero Lůpez de Ayala attempts to compile all the correct and available knowledge concerning falconry.
  • early 16th Century - Japanese warlord Asakura Norikage (1476-1555) succeeded in captive breeding of goshawks.
  • 1600's - Dutch records of falconry; the Dutch willage of Valkenswaard was almost entirely dependent on falconry for its economy.
  • 1660s - Tsar Alexis of Russia writes a treatise which celebrates aesthetic pleasures derived from falconry.
  • 1801 - James Strutt of England writes, "the ladies not only accompanied the gentlemen in pursuit of the diversion [falconry], but often practiced it by themselves; and even excelled the men in knowledge and exercise of the art."
  • 1934 - The first US falconry club, The Peregrine Club, is formed; it died out during World War II
  • 1961 - NAFA formed
  • 1970 - The Peregrine Fund is founded mostly by falconers to conserve raptors, but focusing on Peregrines.

The Boke of St Albans

The often-quoted Boke of St Albans, first printed in 1486, often attributed to Dame Juliana Berners, provides this hierarchy of hawks and the social ranks for which each bird was supposedly appropriate. The line numbers are not in the original.
1) Emperor: The Eagle, Vulture, and Merloun
2) King: The Ger Falcon and the Tercel of the Ger Falcon
3) Prince: The Falcon Gentle and the Tercel Gentle
4) Duke: The Falcon of the Loch
5) Earl: The Falcon Peregrine
6) Baron: The Bustard
7) Knight: The Sacre and the Sacret
8) Esquire: The Lanere and the Laneret
9) Lady: The Marlyon
10) Young Man: The Hobby
11) Yeoman: The Goshawk
12) Poor Man: The Jercel
13) Priest: The Sparrowhawk
14) Holy Water Clerk: The Musket
15) Knave or Servant: The Kestrel

This list, however, was mistaken in several respects.
1) Vultures are not used for falconry.
3) 4) 5) These are usually said to be different names for the Peregrine Falcon. But there is an opinion that renders 4) as "rock falcon" = a peregrine from remote rocky areas, which would be bigger and stronger than other peregrines.
6) The bustard is not a bird of prey, but a game species that was commonly hunted by falconers; this entry may have been a mistake for buzzard, or for busard which is French for "harrier"; but any of these would be a poor deal for barons; some treat this entry as "bastard hawk", whatever that may be.
7) 8) Sakers and Lanners were imported from abroad and very expensive, and ordinary knights and squires would be unlikely to have them.
10) 15) Hobbies and kestrels are of little use for serious falconry.
12) If "Jercel" is a handwriting misread for "tercel" (= tiercel), a poor man would not be able to afford one of those. Or "jercel" might have been an old portmanteau of names of two sorts of hawk, used as slang for a non-existent species of hawk, and thus to mean "no hawk", similar to modern expressions such as "a reel of chalk line" and "skyhook".


There are several categories of raptor that could possibly be used in falconry. They are also classed by falconers as:-

  • Broadwings: eagles, buzzards, Harris hawk.
  • Longwings: falcons.
  • Shortwings: Accipiters.

Osprey (Pandion)

The Osprey is a medium large raptor which is a specialist fish-eater with a worldwide distribution. Generally speaking it does not lend itself to falconry. However the possibility of using a raptor to obtain fish remains an intriguing idea. (Some references to "ospreys" in old records mean a mechanical fish-catching device and not the bird.)

Sea Eagles (HaliaŽtus)

Most species of this genus, to some extent, catch and eat fish, some almost exclusively. However, in countries where they are not protected, some have been effectively used in hunting for ground quarry.

True Eagles (Aquila)

This genus has a worldwide distribution. The more powerful types are used in falconry, for example golden eagles and subspecies have reportedly been used to hunt wolves in Kazakhstan, and are now used by the Kazakh eagle hunters to hunt foxes and other large prey. Most are primarily ground oriented but will occasionally take birds. Eagles are not used as widely in falconry as other birds of prey, due to the lack of versatility in the larger species (they primarily hunt over large, open ground), the greater potential danger to other people if hunted in a widely populated area, and the difficulty of training and managing an eagle.

Buzzards (Buteo)

This genus has worldwide distribution but is particularly well represented in North America. The Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, and Red-shouldered Hawk are all examples of species from this genus that are used in falconry today. The Red-tailed Hawk is hardy and versatile, taking rabbits, hares, and tree squirrels, and given the right conditions can be trained to take geese, ducks, and pheasants. The Eurasian or Common Buzzard is also used, although this species requires more perseverance if rabbits are to be hunted. These birds are mainly ground prey oriented, and since carrion is a large part of the diet in the wild they often require more perseverance to hunt than the hawks or falcons.

The Harris' Hawk (Parabuteo)

This is the sole representative of the Parabuteo genus worldwide. This is arguably the very best rabbit or hare raptor available anywhere. The Harris' Hawk is also adept at catching birds. The Harris' Hawk is remarkably popular in the UK because of its temperament and ability. They are gregarious birds: they are the only semi-social raptor; all others are not social except with their mate, so they can hunt in groups, a behavior that is trademark for family groups in the wild. This genus is native to the Americas in areas with a warm climate.

The True Hawks (Accipiter)

This genus of raptor is also found worldwide. Hawk expert Mike McDermott once said, "The attack of the accipiters is extremely swift, rapid and violent in every way." They are well known in falconry use both in Europe and North America.

The Falcons (Falco)

This genus is found worldwide. Much falconry is concerned with species of this group of birds. True falcons are generally oriented towards birds as prey.

The Owl (Strigidae)

Owls are not closely related to hawks or falcons. There is little written in classic falconry that discusses the use of Owls in falconry. However, there are at least two species that have successfully been used, the Eurasian Eagle Owl and the Great Horned Owl. As in Yeats' Second Coming "the falcon cannot hear the falconer" establishes the belief that once a falcon is lost from the falconer mutiny may break loose. Successful training of owls is very much different from the training of hawks and falcons, as they are hearing rather than sight-oriented (owls can only see black and white, and are long-sighted). This often leads falconers to believe that they are less intelligent, as they are distracted easily by new or unnatural noises and they don't respond as readily to food cues. However, if trained successfully, owls show intelligence on the same level as that of hawks and falcons.

Falconry Around the World

Falconry, defined as the use of a raptor to take game, is currently practiced in many countries around the world.

Tangent aspects, such as bird abatement and raptor rehabilitation also employ falconry techniques to accomplish their goals, but are not falconry in the proper sense of the word.

U.S. Regulations on Falconry

In the United States, falconry is legal in all states except Hawaii and the District of Columbia. A falconer must have state and federal licenses to practice the sport. Acquiring a falconry license in the US requires an aspiring falconer to a pass a written test, have his equipment and facilities inspected, and serve a minimum of two years as an apprentice under a licensed falconer. There are three classes of the falconry license, which is a permit issued jointly by the falconer's state of residence and the federal government. The aforementioned Apprentice license matriculates to a General Class license, which allows the falconer to possess no more than two raptors at a time. After a minimum of 5 years at General level, the falconer may apply for his Master Class license, which allows him to keep 3 raptors for falconry. It should be noted that, within the U.S., a state's regulations may be more, but not less, restrictive than the federal guidelines. Both state and federal regulations (as well as state hunting laws) must be complied with by the falconer.

Owing to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA,) a federal legislation created to enforce the Migratory Bird Treaty (which is an international agreement between the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Japan and England,) no one may possess, kill, or harass any bird appearing on the Migratory Bird list without specific license to do so. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the individual states both claim ownership of raptors which appear on the Migratory Bird list. They extend their claim of ownership to include captive-bred raptors (which may legally be bought, sold, traded or bartered by licensed individuals and companies.) Many feel captive-bred raptors should reasonably be considered Livestock, personal property. This becomes an especially important issue to falconers in the U.S. because the MBTA allows government officials to confiscate raptors without specific cause. Confiscated raptors very often die within a short period of time, and so falconers, who have put hundreds of hours and hundreds or thousands of dollars invested in these birds are understandably upset by the practice. Recent studies show that less than half of one percent of all falconers are ever even investigated, (let alone tried or convicted,) for violations of state or falconry regulations.

The Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) also has a say in matters pertaining to the import and export of certain animals. CITES assign plants and animals to a certain Appendix, and imposes standards amongst the member nations (over 160 at this time). In practice, each nation has its own policies and procedures for issuing the required CITES import/export permits. In nearly all nations, the process takes from a few hours to a worst-case scenario of two weeks, but in the U.S acquiring a CITES permit often takes months.

The Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA), a unilateral legislation put into action circa 1993, prohibits importation of any non-native species of bird into the U.S. Originally intended to lessen the impact of wild parrots being trapped for sale to the pet trade, a supposed oversight leaves raptors under this law as well. While the WBCA does have provision for importation, the process requires membership in a CITES-recognized breeding co-op, and renders importation prohibitively exhaustive and expensive.

Clubs & organizations in the U.S.

The North American Falconers' Association(NAFA), founded in 1961, is the premier national club for falconry in the US, Canada and Mexico, and has members worldwide.

The Falconry Alliance(FA)is a newcomer to the scene, a proactive advocacy organization with no social aspect, focusing exclusively on protecting falconry in the US and the improving regulations falconers must abide by.

Both NAFA and the FA now work to protect this venerable art/sport from an increasing anti-hunting sentiment and what is, by international comparisons, heavyhanded regulation.

Additionally, most of the states have their own falconry clubs. Although these clubs are primarily social in nature, the state clubs also serve to represent falconers within the state in regards to that state's wildlife regulations.

Raptor conservation in the U.S.

Among North American raptors, some of the most popular birds used in falconry are the Red-tailed hawk, the Peregrine Falcon, the Prairie Falcon, the Goshawk, and the Harris's Hawk. Artificial insemination techniques have allowed hybrid raptors to be made in captive breeding projects. These crosses have become popular both in the U.S. and abroad.

Until recently, all Peregrines used for falconry in the U. S. were captive-bred from the progeny of falcons taken before the U. S. Endangered Species Act was enacted. Peregrine Falcons were removed from the United States' endangered species list in 1999 due largely to the effort and knowledge of falconers. Finally, after years of close work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a limited take of wild Peregrines was allowed in 2004, the first wild Peregrines taken specifically for falconry in over 30 years.

An Environmental Impact report prepared by the US Fish & Wildlife service's Brian Milsap and George Allen is expected to be officially released during 2006. This report confirms that falconry has literally no measurable impact on wild populations.

Current practices in Great Britain

In sharp contrast to the US, in the UK, falconry is permitted without a special license, but only using captive-bred birds. All raptors native to the UK are ringed and registered, and can be DNA tested to verify their origins. Anyone may possess captive-bred raptors, though this is not necessarily considered falconry. Falconry is hunting with a trained bird; a bird kept as a pet is not considered a falconer's bird. Birds may be used for breeding or kept after their hunting days are done, but a young, fit bird should be flown at quarry.

Species used

Most practical falconry in the UK is done with the Harris Hawk (found from the southwestern USA, through Central America and into the northern regions of South America), or the Red-tailed Hawk (native to North America). The Harris Hawk, which is the singular exception within the otherwise non-social raptor family, naturally hunts in family units, social packs with rabbits as its main quarry).

Goshawks are excellent hunters, and were once called the 'cook's hawk', but can be willful and unpredictable. Rabbits are bolted from their warrens with ferrets, or approached as they lay out. The acceleration of a short-wing, especially the Goshawk, is astonishing and a rabbit surprised any distance from its burrow has little hope of escape. Short-wings will dive into cover after their quarry, where the tinkling of the bells is vital for locating the bird. In many cases, modern falconers use radio telemetry to track their birds. Game birds in season and a wide range of other quarry can be taken.

Sparrowhawks were formerly used to take a range of small birds, but are really too delicate for serious falconry and have fallen out of favour now that American species are available.

The long-winged falcon usually flies only after birds. Classical game hawking saw a brace of peregrines flown against grouse, or merlins in 'ringing' flights after skylarks. Rooks and crows are classic game for the large falcon, and the magpie, making up in cunning what it lacks in flying ability, is another common target. Short-wings can be flown in wooded country, but falcons need large open tracts where the falconer can follow the flight with ease. Medieval falconers often rode horses but this is now rare.

Escaped or released species breeding in the wild

Birds are inevitably lost on occasion, though most are found again. Of records of species becoming established in Britain after escapes, there are:-

  • There has been a report of escaped Harris hawks breeding in the wild in Britain.
  • The return of the Goshawk as a breeding bird to Britain since 1945 is due in some part to falconers' escapes: its earlier British population was wiped out by gamekeepers and egg collectors in the late 19th century.
  • A pair of European Eagle Owls bred in the wild in Yorkshire for several years. The pair may have been natural migrants or captive escapes. It is not yet known if this will lead to a population being established.

After raptors were mercilessly wiped out by gamekeepers, shooters, egg collectors, and DDT, the numbers of most British species have recovered well in recent times. The Red Kite, the Goshawk and the White Tailed Sea Eagle have all returned as breeding birds, and the techniques perfected in breeding birds of prey for falconry have proved their worth.

Species to start with?

Falconers used to start with a kestrel, but this little falcon is really too delicate for a beginner's hands, and the European Buzzard is similarly useless for taking quarry. The first bird of choice is either the equable Harris Hawk or the slightly more demanding Red-tailed Hawk. The beauty of these birds, easily bred in captivity, is that they can be used to take quarry and can easily satisfy a falconer's demand for a capable bird in themselves. The Lanner falcon makes a good first long-wing, with a Peregrine, or a hybrid containing Peregrine or Gyr genes being the ultimate step.

Falconry today

Falconry is not the preserve of the past, or the lord of the manor. If its simple but inviolable precepts are followed, a well trained bird is a delight for many years. Falcons can live into their mid teens, with larger hawks living longer and eagles likely to see out their middle aged owners. The captive breeding of birds rescued a dying sport in the seventies and has ensured its good health today. It has largely escaped the attention of the anti-blood-sports lobby and its popularity, through lure flying displays at country houses and game fairs, has probably not been higher for 300 years. Flying a raptor is a delight, but entails a great responsibility. A bird cannot be loaned out to a next-door neighbour while the falconer holidays, nor hung up in a cupboard like a gun. One mistake can lose the bird, but the hours of care and attention in training is repaid in full by the thrill of a perfect flight.

Falconry is always associated with the Middle Ages, and many of its terms and practices seem archaic. However, the last 30 years has seen a great rebirth of the sport, with a host of innovations. One of these, stemming from the captive breeding of birds which has rejuvenated the sport, is the creation of 'hybrid' falcons. Falcons are more closely related than many suspected, the heavy northern Gyrfalcon and Asiatic Saker being especially closely related, and they may interbreed naturally to create the so called 'Altay' falcon.

Hybrid falcons

Hybrid falcons have been available since the late 1970s, and enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity in the UK in the 1990s. Originally 'created' to remove suspicions of having nest-robbed peregrines (by demonstrating without doubt that they were captive-bred), hybrids have assumed an important, if controversial role in falconry worldwide. Some combinations appear to lend themselves to certain styles of flight, for example:-

  • The gyr/peregrine is well-suited to game-hawking.
  • The peregrine/lanner has proved useful in keeping birds off airport runways to prevent birdstrikes: peregrines fly too far for this job, and lanners do not fly far enough for this job.

But hybrids falcon are not the panacea that some breeders would have you believe. Proponents of hybrids often cite 'hybrid vigour' as the reason that these birds seem to do so well, despite the fact that crossing two non-inbred lines is more likely to lead to outbreeding depression (i.e., a negative effect), and could never prompt hybrid vigour, a phenomenon that boosts genetic integrity and heterogeneity in lines that have been too heavily inbred by judicious selection.

Artificial selection

No species of raptor have been in captivity long enough to have undergone successful selective breeding for desired traits, thus hybrid vigour is an irrelevance when applied to falcons.

However, several generations of captive breeding of gyrfalcons have resulted in selection for feather color[1] and for better disease resistance, and probably for better ability to breed in captivity.

Falconry elsewhere

In Australia, although falconry is not specifically illegal, it is illegal to keep any type of bird of prey in captivity. The only exemption is when the birds are kept for purposes of rehabilitation (for which a licence must still be held), circumstances under which the practice can be an effective tool used in returning a bird to health.

Most of Europe practices falconry under varying degrees of regulation.

Owls and Eagles are sometimes used in North American and European falconry.

In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia (among Kazakh population), the golden eagle is used extensively, hunting game as large as fox and wolf. It has been reported that a pair (called a cast) of Bergut Golden Eagles (an exceptionally large variation of the Golden Eagle) equipped with steel sheathings over their talons, has historically been used to hunt tigers. .

South Korea allows a small number of people (4 in 2005) to own raptors and practise falconry as a cultural asset.


In Virginia Henley's historical romance books, "The Falcon and the Flower", "The Dragon and the Jewel", "The Marriage Prize", "The Border Hostage" and "Infamous", there are numerous mentions to the art of Falconry, as these books are set at dates ranging from the 1150's to the 1500's.

External links


  • Modern Apprentice: Site for North Americans interested in falconry by Lydia Ash. (Much information for this entry was due to her research)
  • F.L. Beebe, H.M. Webster, North American Falconry and Hunting Hawks; 8th edition, 2000, ISBN 0-685-66290-X,

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