My favorite animal happens to be the hawk, although the falcon is a close second. Birds of prey fascinate me. I find myself stopping my car often to take pictures of hawks that I see in the wild. Hunting with raptors is believed to have been initiated in Mesopotamia as early as 2000 BC. Falconry is believed to have been introduced to Europe around 400 AD.
Falconry is an art that requires long hours, devotion, and skill. Training a bird to fly free, hunt for quarry, and return to captivity isn’t easy and there are texts dating back as far as the 12th century that cover the subject. Birds of prey were one of the most sophisticated and sought after means of hunting for food. (A European Goshawk can catch up to 20 game birds a day. Hares and pheasants are the game often taken by raptors.)
Falconry became a popular sport and a symbol of status among the nobles of Medieval Europe, the Middle East, and the Mongolian Empire. The reason falconry became a noble pursuit was due to the time commitment, money, and space needed to house the raptors. Falconry became a status symbol long after the practice fell out of favor. The richest nobles were expected to keep a full falconry, with different birds meant to hunt different kinds of prey.
In the 14th century, falconry was so widespread that inns provided perches for the birds of prey to sit, since some falconers did not wish to part from their raptors. A good falconer was hard to find and noble households likely partook in bidding wars to gain the best services. Henri VIII was known as an avid falconer and his falconry mews were claimed to be larger than his stables. Mary Queen of Scots had loved to fly merlins. Shakespeare also tended to like fitting falconry into his plays. Raptors were often given as gifts to kings. This gift was usually the Gyrfalcons, for they were the most costly.
Perhaps an everlasting gifting custom.
According to The Boke of St. Albans’ in the 15th century, different raptors were assigned to people of different ranks in society. A person could not fly a bird of higher rank than them. The hierarchy seems to have evolved around the price of the raptors and it is not known if this list was strictly followed.
Emperor - Eagle or Vulture (FYI, vultures were not used in falconry and yet they are on this list, I assume this is because they are considered a bird of prey)
Prince - Peregrine Falcon
Duke - Falcon of the Rock (another name for Peregrine)
Knight - Saker or Sakeret
Squire - Lanner or Lanneret
Lady - Merlin
Youngman - Hobby
Yeoman - Goshawk
Priest - Sparrowhawk
Holywater Clerk - Musket
Knave/ Servant - Kestrel
In England, falconry reached its peak in the 17th century, but loss favor in 18th and 19th centuries due to firearms becoming the weapon of choice. It was much easier to look after a gun than a raptor and the gun provided more food. Although the UK did see a rise of interest in falconry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this was believed to be the result of a large number of falconry books published at the time.
In 1801, Joseph Strutt of England wrote, “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.” Seems the ladies of the Regency Period may have been bird whisperers. A lady’s bird of choice was usually the merlin, a small falcon.
Although, I’d love to own a hawk or a falcon, I’m happiest when I see them flying high above. Currently, there are an estimated 4,000 falconers in the US, with roughly 5,000 birds. Falconry, nowadays, refers to anyone who flies a bird of prey. The Harris Hawk is used often today, since this species flies in groups, allowing falconers to fly several at a time. Falconry is also known as hawking.
A special thank you to Joseph Strutt, Sports and Pastimes of the People of England.