The hunting tradition known as falconry (sometimes called hawking) goes further back in time than written history. The proof is in how the earliest written human records have reported a highly technical and organized sophistication that could have only evolved after hundreds, maybe thousands, of years of development prior to their ever having been documented.
Consider, for example, that the Epic of Gilgamesh — an ancient text of poetry dating back to c. 2100 BC and accordingly celebrated as the first great work of literature — mentions falconry. Similarly, the renowned 19th century archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard noted in his 1853 book Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon that an Assyrian bas-relief dating back to around 722-705 BC depicted “A falconer bearing a hawk on his wrist…” Then, too, Chinese records from around 680 BC likewise described falconry. Besides that, a 4th century BC gold coin shows Alexander the Great sporting a hawk on his forearm. And, during Julius Caesar’s time, falcons were often employed to eliminate carrier pigeons.
Nonetheless, falconry is very much alive in the modern world, and yet still maintains many of its traditional forms. The practice of falconry today combines its archival-like embodiments of world cultural heritage as well as the conservation efforts that strive to protect vulnerable raptor species. Indeed, many of the organizations that provide falconry lessons and licensed certification are also centers of education seeking to preserve birds of prey and safeguard the art of falconry for future generations.
In the West, falconry has historically been the sport of aristocrats; it was even an erstwhile requirement for any nobleman’s education. But why? Besides the obvious image of the nobleman having the means to provide for those subject to him, the sport likewise was a gentlemanly pursuit because it helped cultivate endurance and patience – both closely tied with the decorum and chivalry codes expected of those with “good breeding.”
Historians often recount how the Crusades lent a hand in spreading falconry to England, eventuating in its gaining popular traction in the royal court. By the late Middle Ages, sumptuary laws established which social ranks were entitled to which birds of prey. For instance, the English tome known as the Book of Saint Albans (1486) delineated eagles as birds reserved for emperors, the gyrfalcon for kings, the falcon gentle for princes, the falcon of the loch for dukes, the peregrine for earls, the merlin for ladies, the sparrowhawk for priests, the goshawk for yeomen, and the kestrel for servants.
Interestingly enough, falconry became effective as a cultural communication medium because the tradition was shared across cultures, and thereby could be utilized as a symbolic system of diplomacy. Birds of prey were frequently exchanged as a type of currency and form of gift-giving. By extension, the business of falconry in Europe consequently grew into a serious articulation of status and of geopolitical power.
Many European monarchs have been passionately enamored with falconry. Amongst the English they included Canute, Ethelbert II (believed to be the first English king to be a falconer), Edward the Confessor, Alfred the Great (who is believed to have penned a falconry treatise), Harold (who appeared on the Bayeaux tapestry with a hawk upon his sleeve), William the Conqueror, and Henry II. Henry II was even said to have preferred above all the peregrine eyesses (falcons taken from the nest).
As for monarchs of the continent, Charlemagne and Frederick the Great were both avid falconry enthusiasts. Frederick the Great is often held in the highest esteem by present day falconers for he authored a comprehensive book, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds or The Art of Falconry), which took over three decades to complete. Though the book was begun in the 1240s, it was not officially published until 1596 but was forgotten over the centuries, until it was rediscovered in 1788 by ornithologists. Frederick the Great’s falconry oeuvre was particularly pivotal because it was amongst the first scholarly works written in the spirit of modern scientific methodology. In turn, Frederick the Great’s book laid the foundations for the sport of kings. To that end it comes as no surprise that zoologists, especially ornithologists, took note of its historical significance.
Sadly, the 1700s saw the popularity of falconry begin to diminish in Europe. What changed? Land restrictions and the invention of the gun took its toll, so falconry gradually lost its strategic value in military spheres.
And yet, small factions of enthusiasts were still able to keep its history alive. In the United States, the first American falconry club was created in 1934 and dubbed The Peregrine Club. Despite the disbanding of The Peregrine Club after World War II, pockets of falconers still upheld the ancient sport’s traditions. In 1961, the North American Falconers Association was founded to help “improve and encourage competency in the art and practice of falconry; to promote appreciation of the value of birds of prey in nature and in wildlife conservation programs; to urge recognition of falconry as a legal field sport; and to establish traditions which will perpetuate and further the welfare of falconry and the raptors it employs.”
Today in the United States, falconry clubs must operate closely with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that falconry practices meet federal standards. What’s more, falconry organizations strive to build empathy with animals as well as bring awareness to the fragility of natural habitats. Contemporary falconry therefore educates all about the pastime’s rich history and its influence on sustaining wildlife for posterity.