Falconry is an ancient sport, evidence for which started in ancient Mesopotamia around 2000 BC, while images from Central Asia in the 7th century often showed men on horseback with a falcon on their arm.
Falconry is defined as the sport of taking wild prey called a quarry, in its natural state and habitat, by means of a trained hawk. More than any other form of bird keeping, this is not something to be undertaken lightly. To start keeping a hawk, proper training should be received beforehand, so you understand how to keep and handle these magnificent birds.
The first thing to remember is that all birds of prey are carnivores. This means that they will need raw food every day. They need proper accommodation and care but are not pet birds as they will not tolerate being fussed.
The British Falconers Club does not recommend anyone under the age of 16 should have a hawk of any kind unless they have continuous assistance from an experienced falconer. Experience is one of the most important factors in successful keeping hawks.
The recommended species to start falconry with are the Harris Hawk (Parabuteo uncinctus) or the Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). These are great hunting hawks who are happy in our countryside and can take a variety of quarry. Other species such as the sparrowhawk, peregrine and Merlin can be more difficult to train and also need specialist countryside to hunt, such as heather moorland or fen country. A traditional idea was to start with a kestrel, but this is now not recommended due to their small size and pickiness when taking a quarry.
The first thing to remember is a falconer needs to have access to a large stretch of country and permission of the landowner will be needed. Also, the quarry available may be excluded wholly or seasonally by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, so be aware of the legal constraints of this to avoid problems.
Hawks are flown in the autumn and winter as they moult their feathers during the summer. So remember, you will need to have time during the reduced daylight hours to take the bird out.
British Birds of Prey are protected under the Countryside and Wildlife Act 1981 which gives the Secretary of State for Environment the right to grant licenses to remove hawks from the wild for the purposes of falconry or to import them. Few licenses of this type are issued at the moment and to do this without a license is illegal. Another problem across the world is the illegal theft of birds and eggs from the wild in the black market so provisions about ringing, registration and inspection have been imposed to try and stop this.
Most of the hawks kept are now captive bred, and this is the best bet for a beginner falconer.
The Harris’s Hawk, as mentioned above, is one of the most popular birds to start falconry with. It is the only member of its family and is said to be one of the best rabbit catchers of all the raptors. In the wild, it is unusual in that it lives in groups or packs and hunts together, living with a social hierarchy which is reminiscent of that of wolves. They are the only birds of prey who live sociably.
These birds originate from southern Texas and Arizona as well as northern areas of South America. It has adapted to modern technique of car-hawking, where the bird is released from a moving car replacing the original idea of releasing from horseback.
The Buteo family are known as hawks in North America but are found worldwide. The Red-tailed Hawk is another popular start-up falconry bird which is very versatile and adept at catching rabbits, hares and squirrels. Other members of the family common in falconry are the Ferruginous Hawk and the Red Shouldered Hawk. Another member of the family is the Common Buzzard, which is sometimes found in falconry, but is a somewhat lazy bird which requires perseverance to hunt with.
Accipiter is the Latin name for the true hawks, birds which are found across the world. They are described by experts as having an extremely swift, rapid and violent attack and are common in falconry across Europe and North America. The Norther Goshawk has been used in falconry for hundreds of years for hunting birds and mammals, and other common species used are the Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk as well as the Sparrowhawk in Europe and Eurasia. New Zealand falconers are rare as they use a harrier species, the Australasian Harrier.
Birds of the genus Falco are found across the world and has been used in falconry since ancient times. Many of the species are specialised bird predators, such as the Peregrine Falcon and the Merlin in Europe and the Prairie Falcon and Gyrfalcon in North America. One exception is the Saker Falcon, a desert falcon who takes hares. Smaller falcons such as kestrels, merlins and hobbys can be used for bug hawking – using the birds to catch large flying insects such as moths or dragonflies.
The Aquila genus of eagles are found across the world and are some of the most sizeable and powerful birds used in falconry. In Kazakhstan, Golden Eagles are used to hunt wolves while in an area of Mongolia, eagles hunt foxes and other large prey. Most eagles hunt on the ground, but some will take other birds and this niche prey means they are not common in falconry in this country. They are also difficult to train and manage.
This is just an overview of the types of species and considerations which come into the ancient sport of falconry. These noble birds require specialist care and environments and are not to be taken on lightly. However, there are numerous clubs and organisation available to help tutor someone starting in the sport, so advice is readily available if you have a passion for these amazing birds.