Falconry is an ancient "sport of kings". Widely practised in the Middle Ages, it has fallen out of favor in recent decades, thanks mainly to the expense of maintaining a collection, or mews, of birds. The relentless urbanization of our cities and towns has also led to an overall reduction in the number of predatory birds, and those birds that remain extant have by necessity learned to mistrust mankind.
Falconry in the Middle Ages
Falconry was a popular pastime in medieval England, and in Europe more generally. No nobleman's castle would have been deemed complete without at least one mews, and the office of court falconer was a highly esteemed position. The falconer's responsibilities were to exercise the birds daily, and to tutor young lords and princes in the art of the hunt. A nobleman's son would typically begin his education at age ten or eleven; it might take years to master the sport.
Medieval princes hunted mainly for sport. The procurement of meaty victuals for the banquet table was left to the gamekeepers: professional huntsmen employed by the throne. Venison, of course, would be hunted with bow and arrow on horseback; beef would be supplied by peasant farmers; and fish would be taken from the rivers by hook and line; but the fowls of the air that arrived at the royal dinner table would in all likelihood be the products of the falconer's art. Falcons were as well used to procure rabbits, or conies, and other palatable rodents.
Falconry is rarely practiced in this modern age, due to its expense and the dedication required to train a bird. There is also something of a social pressure: the budding falconer may find himself the butt of jokes by his friends, who prefer to stick to their four-legged pets and store-bought victuals. On the other hand, a perseverant student of falconry will really have something to show off — think of the approbation a well-executed arraché may earn from representatives of the fairer sex!
Catching a falcon
If you are fortunate enough to live near a large city, you may be able to find a falconer's shop nearby; look under "F" in the phone book, or ask your parents. Some large pet stores may also carry birds of prey, or be able to procure one if you inquire politely. This is by far the easiest method of obtaining a bird, but it is also the least satisfying. An adventurous lad, not easily bored, with a week or two of summer vacation to spare, may find amusement in trying to catch a falcon in the medieval way.
The kings of Merrie England would catch their falcons thus: First, make the bait. Since falcons prey on smaller birds, the bait should look like a bird. A dead bird (say, your sister's pet canary, if it should happen to die a natural death at a convenient time) would certainly do the trick. Of course, medieval falconers, who might need to catch several birds every month to keep up with the demand, did not use dead canaries as the lure. Instead, they would whittle a model bird out of wood or some lighter material, feather it with the distinctive plumes of a cardinal or magpie, and then use the same model over and over to catch three or four falcons before it became too worn out and battered for further use.
Take the lure and attach it to one end of a stout cord. Holding the other end firmly in your fist, whirl the lure around your head. (Make sure that it doesn't fly off or come untied.) To a falcon soaring thousands of feet above, the feathered lure will look like a real bird; if the falcon is hungry, it will swoop down and attempt to grapple with its prey. At that point, you can quickly reel in the cord and grab the falcon. Be careful to grasp it firmly by the legs, and keep your arms and legs away from its head. One peck from that razor-sharp beak and you may find yourself wishing you had never taken up the art of falconry! Also be careful not to catch the falcon by its wing. A bird with a broken wing is no fun at all.
You will catch no falcons whirling a lure on Main Street, of course; you must first go where the falcons are. The best places for birds of prey are rolling open fields, such as the downs of England. In a pinch the country boy may make do with a cow pasture, or the city lad with a grassy vacant lot. Ask your parents whether they know where falcons might be found. They have lived longer than you have, and know more about these sorts of things.
If you live near a river, especially in the north-west part of the United States, you may have more luck catching a fish eagle with a bait of salmon. Instead of whirling the bait in the air, set it in the shallows of the river and wait behind some cover for a bird to take the bait. Be careful, too; eagles are fond of a free meal of salmon, but so too are grizzly bears!
Training your falcon
Falcons are natural-born hunters, and therefore require very little training in the actual procedure of catching their prey. The main objective of training is to convince the bird that you are its master, and that it must return to your hand when it has had its fun. To this end, you should procure a length of string or fishing line — about ten yards should do. Tie one end securely to the bird's ankle, and the other end to your wrist. This system allows the falcon to range freely within a certain radius, but forces him to return to your wrist to roost. Gradually the falcon will acclimatize himself to his new condition, and soon he will be sleeping on your wrist even without his fishing-line harness.
It is also important to fashion a hood for your falcon. Like other birds — your sister's late canary, for example — falcons instinctively fall asleep when the sun goes down. Putting a hood over the bird's head serves to block out the light, telling the bird that it's time for sleep. You may buy a ready-made falcon's hood at a falconer's shop, or make your own out of leather or cloth. In a pinch, a black plastic trash bag will do the trick.
To sharpen your falcon's hunting instincts, let him practice diving at pieces of meat you toss on the ground. This activity simulates the action a wild falcon would perform in capturing a rabbit, weasel, or other small creature. Be careful to keep your falcon hooded around other people for the first few weeks, or you may have some awkward explaining to do at the next family cookout!
Hunting with your falcon
After a few months of training, your falcon will be as tame as a spaniel; it will then be ready to hunt for you. Carefully remove the lead from its ankle and point your arm up into the air, which will force the falcon to take wing. It will circle high in the air until it spots a bird or rabbit, whereupon it will dive on its prey with a great show of speed. If you are lucky, it will instinctively bring its prey back to its customary roosting-place — your own wrist — whereupon you can relieve it of its burden. Make sure to keep handy a supply of small tidbits, such as ground beef or sweetmeats, to reward the bird for its work; otherwise, it might decide that it wants to keep its prey — and a hungry falcon can be more than a match for its would-be trainer!
Keep at it. With some luck and a good deal of perseverance, you may find falconry as engrossing, and as much fun, as did the royal falconers of Merrie England!