Skip to main content

7 Facts About the Ancient Sport of Falconry

Falconry, the "sport of kings"

Falconry, the "sport of kings"

Falconry: An Ancient Sport of Man and Bird

Originating in 1700 BC, falconry involves taming a bird of prey and training it to hunt small animals. While not a common sport, falconry still thrives today in many parts of the world. This article will look at 11 facts about one of the world's most fascinating sports.

The reward that comes from practicing falconry is, and has to be, a feeling of your own personal satisfaction; that, and that alone. Chances are no one else will be around when your hawk is at her best. Falconry is a tedious, time-consuming effort with long periods of stress and anxiety punctuated by heartbeats of gut-wrenching visceral satisfaction so intense that it is impossible to put into words.

— California Hawking Club

1. Falconry Originated in Asia and the Middle East

While it isn't 100% known where falconry truly originated, the earliest records of are in Asia and the Middle East. These may have occurred in 1700 BC, though some historians believe the falconry's origin could be much earlier, possibly between 4,000 and 6,000 BC in Mongolia.

It is likely that falconry started out of a need for survival, not as a sport or hobby. As humans observed the falcons innate skill with hunting and admirable speed, the relationship between man and falcon may have been a key part of survival for many cultures.

A falconer handles their bird on a glove.

A falconer handles their bird on a glove.

2. In Mongolia, Eagles Were Key to Survival

One of the most impressive uses of falconry occurs in Mongolia. Families may still use their relationships to golden eagles in order to feed their families. It is a dwindling tradition and practice. Mongolian hunters using golden eagles are known as burkitshi and use their impressively sized birds to hunt prey within the vast ranges. The hunters strongly bond with their birds, keeping them in their homes and hand-feeding the eagles. While rare, it is a spectacle to see, and an important tradition to preserve in the modern era.

A golden eagle perches on a falconers glove.

A golden eagle perches on a falconers glove.

3. Falconry: The Sport of Kings

Falconry and royalty are closely tied in history, but the bond remains today. In the Middle Ages, royalty prided themselves on their luxurious birds and rode among their vast land hunting and drinking. It is also possible that the species of bird was closely connected to one's status, with an ancient text listing these birds and their connection to their owner's status. Eagles represented the highest status, belonging only to emperors, and the small male falcon took the lowest of status, belonging to peasants and children.

The Ranking of Birds of Prey

Emperor: eagle, vulture, merlin

King: gyrfalcon

Prince: gentle falcon: a female peregrine falcon

Duke: falcon of the loch

Earl: peregrine falcon

Baron: buzzard

Knight: saker falcon

Squire: lanner falcon

Lady: merlin

Young man: hobby

Yeoman: goshawk

Poor man: male falcon

Priest: sparrowhawk

Holy water clerk: sparrowhawk

— "The Book of St. Albans" (1486)

A captive bird of prey ruffles its feathers.

A captive bird of prey ruffles its feathers.

4. Falconry Is the Sport of Luxury in the Middle East

Modern falconry has perhaps flourished most in the Middle East, as its popularity has skyrocketed among the rich. The Middle East is home to some of the fastest and most incredible birds of prey, thanks to the unlimited funds going into advanced breeding programs. The saker and gyrfalcon are the favored birds for falconry, with their breathtaking elegance and speed. The rarest purebred gyrfalcons can sell for up to $250,000 on the black market, so it's no wonder why the birds are the prized pets of Arabian Kings and Princes.

A wild hawk perches in the desert

A wild hawk perches in the desert

5. Falconers Use Hoods

Many falconers choose to use hoods on their birds. This is an ancient technique that helps calm the bird during travel and keeps it from flying after unnecessary prey. The falconer's hood is a curious thing to see. It is fashioned out of leather and made to custom fit the individual bird. Many people may see a hood as unnecessary or abusive, but it is an essential part of falconry. Falconers spend lots of time and money on their bird's equipment.

A hooded hawk

A hooded hawk

6. There Are Hybrid Birds of Prey

With the modernization of falconry in Europe, the Middle East, and America, the commercial private breeding of birds of prey has become a larger industry. Many are trying to create experimental breeds that optimize hunting speed and technique, as well as size and appearance. A popular mix is a gyrfalcon and a saker falcon. Another popular mix is the golden falcon, a mix of the large golden eagle and a saker falcon. These breeds are highly controversial, but certainly interesting to see and hunt with.

7. Becoming a Falconer Isn't Easy

In the US, the road to falconry is a long and expensive one. Prospective falconers start with lots of research and taking a state standardized test that challenges their knowledge of husbandry, history, laws, and medical issues. Then, falconers must find a mentor that has been in the hobby for 4+ years. They must work with their mentor to build an appropriate enclosure, called a mew, and purchase equipment.

If they do all of the above, they can apply to be an apprentice falconer, where they will spend the next years working with their mentor and a limited number of raptors, most often red tail hawks and kestrels. If they graduate from apprentice, they move to a general falconer, where they no longer need a mentor and can possess more raptors and more types of raptors. After that, they can move to Master Falconer, a title rarely achieved!

These regulations are put to protect the falcons and the sport's integrity, but it is not an easy hobby. Falconers will often spend thousands of dollars on their birds to have appropriate mews and equipment, as well as the expensive prime meat falcons love to eat.

A hawk perches on a glove.

A hawk perches on a glove.

© 2020 Ava Crawford