Falconry has been practiced for many thousands of years. Different sources will credit it's beginning to different times and cultures, but suffice to say, it has been around for a very long time. Granted, for many of those years it was practiced only by the elite. However, today, especially in the United States, it is pursued by the common man. With diligence and hard work it can be practiced on a budget. Certainly, there are expenses, but it can be a worthy goal to make young people work hard at summer jobs to afford some of the equipment, and compel them to learn skills, or trade favors, to get equipment made.
Caring for and training a hawk requires a great deal of attention, and under the proper tutelage of a good sponsor, can instill compassion and responsibility in a young person.
Many of the birds that are acquired for falconry either were trapped from the wild, or were bred in captivity specifically for falconry. It is the common practice of many falconers to trap a new bird in the fall, train her and hunt her throughout the entire winter, then either keep her through the summer (intermew her) or release her back to the wild, a wiser, more fit, better experienced hunting bird. We only take first year birds, from those produced the previous summer. Statistics have found an approximate 60% to 70% death rate of those first year birds, in the wild. It's hard to be a predator!! Once your parent stops feeding you, you have to figure out how to hunt and feed yourself. You have to learn to avoid danger to your life from other predators, and power lines, and cars, and jerks with guns. You have to survive injury. Birds trapped and taken into falconry get an extra long training period to perfect their hunting, and they have a safety net in the falconer. If they don't catch prey today, they will still be fed. If they get hurt, they will get vet care. Those are the duties the falconer takes on when he borrows a bird from the wild. Yes, some falconers will keep their birds for many years, maybe even the entire bird's life . . . but MOST don't! Many wild caught birds regain their freedom a year or two or three after their time in falconry, and they return back to their wild nature very quickly. Some birds take their own freedom back. When we hunt . . . they are flying free, and sometimes they don't come back. We fly them with equipment that does not hinder that process if it should happen. (We also usually fly them with telemetry so we DO get them back!)
Restoration of the wild population of Peregrine Falcons in the United States owes a direct debt of gratitude to falconers! The Peregrine Fund was established by Tom Cade, Ph.D, a falconer. You can link over to their web site and read about the multiple conservation programs they have sponsored successfully, and their ongoing work. Falconers provided the birds to breed, and the know-how on how to breed them in captivity, and provided the results of those breedings to be released and restore the wild population. We love these birds, and we want them to have their place in the wild. Here is an article that I found which goes into much more detail about the process of and concerns with raptor breeding.
And here is the Wikipedia entry about the Peregrine Falcon. Be sure to scroll down and note it was falconers that stepped forward to save this American species.
The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine was co-founded by Dr. Pat Redig, a passionate falconer. It is one of the preeminent research and teaching facilities for raptor medicine. The Center's staff have healed and falconry training techniques have rehabilitated countless birds and returned them to the wild. Those which could not be rehabilitated fully survived their injuries, and have become ambassadors for their wild kin, to educate people about the wildlife around us, and to inspire conservation to remove dangers to them, and protect the wild places they live in.
In order to get a falconry license a prospective apprentice must construct a housing facility, called a mews, and also provide a "weathering" area, where the bird may be safely tethered outside in the sunshine and fresh air. The first facilities might be simplistic, utilitarian, but with time, many falconers build very elaborate housing facilities. Even now, I am working on a project to improve my own mews. More on that much later when I have results to report. The goal is to have a home, a Mews, for the bird that they are comfortable in, and safe. They do spend a lot of time in their mews and weathering area, but they do so un-hooded. They are not kept in dark, sun-less rooms, hooded and tied to a perch. In their mews they are often "free lofted", where they can move around as they please, into the sun, or away from the window, or up on the tallest perch.
Hooding - is a technique that is for the bird's benefit. A raptor's primary sensory input is through their eyes. When they cannot see anything that is threatening to them, they relax and are calm. A completely wild, newly trapped hawk that is hooded will sit calmly on the fist. Hooding is a training technique that not all falconers employ, and is not used all the time. It is only used when birds are being transported, if they would be upset by seeing the world zoom by them (some birds get used to being kept on a block or perch in a falconer's vehicle, and don't need to be hooded), or when the falconer is around other falconers with their birds, to keep the bird's calm from their own kind, or to prevent them from flying after prey when another bird is taking it's turn doing the hunting. Bird's are hooded only as needed, and do not spend a great deal of time in the hood. Some falconers don't hood at all.
Hunting! Yes, falconry is hunting! In fact, that is exactly what it is. Falconry is not pet-keeping. In the United States you have to have a license to engage in falconry. In countries like the UK all you need is the money, so pet keeping does happen there. In the US, Falconry is Hunting! Yes, small, cute and furry animals are caught and killed . . . . but Grow Up Already! That happens EVERY DAY in nature. Squirrels and Rabbits and Hares and Mice and Rats and Pigeons and Pheasant and Starlings and European House Sparrows and Ducks and many other such prey species have multiple offspring, every year. The natural environment cannot support all those animals indefinitely, so predators keep them in balance. Predators weed out the sick and the slow and the stupid, so only the healthiest and fittest and cleverest live to the next season to continue their species. Predators pay with their bodies and their lives to keep this balance. They will continue this cycle whether we are involved or not. Falconry is conditioning a bird of prey to let you come along. We don't train them to hunt. That is instinctual! We don't train them to bring prey back to us. We train them to let us come along, help them, improve their hunting success, and watch the eternal struggle between predator and prey. The prey animals get away . . . . A LOT! Sometimes the near misses and escapes are the most exciting to see. Many bird watchers only wish they could see some of the behavior that falconers get to see up close and personal, every day we go out with our birds.
I think I'll bring this post to a close with a fairly famous quote that most falconers know. Aldo Leopold was "influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation." This quote was taken from the Wikipedia entry about him: Aldo Leopold
The following may be found in one of his most famous publications, A Sand County Almanac with essays on conservation from Round River, Oxford University Press 1966. This is excerpted from the article 'A man's leisure time'.
The most glamorous hobby I know of today is the revival of falconry. It has a few addicts in America and perhaps a dozen in England – a minority indeed. For two and a half cents one can buy and shoot a cartridge that will kill the heron whose capture by hawking required months or years of laborious training of both the hawk and the hawker. The cartridge, as a lethal agent, is a perfect product of industrial chemistry. One can write a formula for its lethal reaction. The hawk, as a lethal agent, is the perfect flower of that still utterly mysterious alchemy – evolution. No living man can, or possibly ever will, understand the instinct of predation that we share with our raptorial servant. No man-made machine can, or ever will, synthesize that perfect coordination of eye, muscle, and pinion as he stoops to his kill. The heron, if bagged, is inedible and hence useless (although the old falconers seem to have eaten him, just as a Boy Scout smokes and eats a flea-bitten summer cottontail that has fallen victim to his sling, club, or bow). Moreover the hawk, at the slightest error in technique of handling, may either ‘go tame’ like Homo sapiens or fly away into the blue. All in all, falconry is the perfect hobby.
(As a side note to the above quote, it should be stated that falconers do not hunt herons as they are a protected species. The above quote was written in the early 1900's. Falconers must comply with all hunting regulations regarding target species, hunting seasons, and daily bag limits. Some states do have a 'let it lay' law, where if your bird does kill a target species that is out of season, or worse, not a huntable animal, the bird may feed on the kill, so there is no waste, but the remaining carcase cannot be made a part of your game bag. Not all states have this law, so residents of each state must be knowledgeable of the particular laws of where you live.)