Falconry, an ancient art, privilege, and sport, the exact origins of which remain a mystery. Symbols of power, strength, and superiority, birds of prey earned status among royalty and became a favorite coat of arms motif. The 11th century Norman Romanesque embroidered Bayeaux Tapestry depicts the falcon hunt of English King Harold Godwinson.
Perhaps history’s most romanticized pastime, falconry today is less about hunting as a means of supplying nourishment and entertainment for nobility and more about conservation and a desire to maintain a connection with what has been deemed an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. The sport of kings importantly provides a glimpse into man’s past and remains a powerful tool for studying human behavior and how it can effect positively in the natural world in the future.
Romanticiced in art and literature, falconers appear in work’s as diverse as a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella, William Butler Yeats poetry, Shakespeare plays, and at least one espionage novel. Something about taking wild quarry with a trained bird of prey creates vivid imagery and sparks the imagination. Falconry is, however, a demanding sport requiring patience, dedication, and skill. Raptors never become domesticated. In A Falconer’s Memoir, it is noted that, “A falconer must train a bird of prey to fly free, hunt for a human being and then accept a return to captivity.” Highly regulated in the modern world, it takes years as an apprentice to learn the art of falconry.
While animal rights activists shout concerns over the keeping of these untamable beasts in captivity, falconry provides a real and tangible study of how humanity interacts with the natural world. The hawk flies free and returns to the master not because it is tethered to the earth, but rather because the human to animal relationship is a powerful collaboration. In her work, Why Does Falconry Matter?, Ewa Lukaszyk notes that falconry uniquely allows “the discovery of dependence/independence between human and non-human partners, the notions of “wild” and “tame”, [and] the interpenetration of “nature” and “culture” as factors of human/animal interaction”.
Falconry schools dot the United States. Teaching hawk identification, training principles, how to condition and hunt with a bird of prey, passionate individuals dedicate their lives to the daily needs of the raptors in hopes that their conservation and education efforts help the sport of kings remain a viable and valuable part of American tradition.
Still, when all is said, somewhere one must belong: even the soaring falcon returns to its master’s wrist.