Friday, March 7, 2014
By BOB HUMPHREY
I watched with fascination as a pair of black ducks jumped from the narrow salt creek and darted away in an erratic, ground-hugging flight. The falcon, which had been coursing several hundred feet above, folded her wings and fell into a stoop. Nearing the ducks she shallowed her dive, then twisted and turned, mirroring every escape maneuver of her quarry. A few quick wingbeats and a sharp cut to the right were followed by an explosion of feathers as the falcon bound to one of the ducks with her razor-sharp talons and rode it to the ground.
Most folks' image of waterfowling involves a shotgun-toting nimrod with a faithful retriever at his side. There is, however, another form of waterfowling that also pairs man and beast in a very different way. The sport of falconry involves no guns. Hunter, weapon and retriever are one, and human participants are reduced to earthbound coaches and flushing dogs.
The Sport of Kings is an ancient ritual. Its origins predate 1200 B.C., when man trained birds of prey to assist in obtaining food. By the Middle Ages, the heyday of falconry, it had transformed into a sport symbolic of the elite nobility; and birds of prey were a revered status symbol among the aristocracy.
It was not until the 14th century, and the advent of gunpowder and firearms, that the sport declined in popularity. No longer reserved for the ruling class, falconry is still preserved and practiced by a nucleus of faithful individuals who value the aesthetics of the flight as highly as the taking of game.
The sport has changed little over the centuries. Modern falconers still use the same training and hunting techniques, and terminology used by European and Middle Eastern nobility. About the only changes are the advancement of modern veterinary medicine and the advent of radio telemetry, which helps in recovering lost birds.
The specific type of hawk employed varies with the game pursued. While upland hunters may use buteos or accipiters, waterfowlers prefer true falcons like the gyrfalcon or peregrine, and are dubbed "long-wingers" due to the relative physiology of their birds.
Falcons are the jet fighters of the raptor family. Built for speed and aerial attack, they're perfectly suited to hunt winged prey. They are used for hunting predominantly in open areas where they spot game by waiting from a high, soaring position. Then they use steep dives or stoops and long chases to catch their quarry. The smaller peregrine needs altitude and gravity to catch faster prey while the more powerful gyrfalcon can overtake most winged prey in a flat chase. Long-wingers often use hybrids of both species for their versatility.
Preparing a falcon for the hunt takes considerable attention to detail. In addition to being in good condition from a regimen of regular exercise, the bird must be keen (hungry). Falconers are very careful how much they feed birds prior to hunting and usually know their bird's weight to the gram. A bird that is too light will be weak while one that is too heavy will be tentative and lazy, and their relative keenness can be a matter of a few grams.
The hunt begins with the falconer looking for a slip or hunting opportunity. While some hunters will fly an area blind, it is more productive to locate prey before releasing the bird.
Waterfowl have an innate fear of raptors. Upon seeing a falcon they'll hold tight, refusing to fly, or fly very close to the ground or water where they can bail out for a quick escape. When a falcon is waiting on, falconers can sometimes walk right up to horrified waterfowl and even grab them by hand. However the object is to flush the ducks so the falcon can pursue them in flight.
Handlers prefer hunting over small ponds or creeks where airborne ducks have less chance for escape. Even then much can go wrong and most stoops are unsuccessful. Falcons will sometimes blink -- intentionally missing an easy mark. If their attack isn't swift enough, the duck may outdistance them. And like human hunters, they sometimes just plain miss.
When it all comes together it's an unrivaled experience. Merely watching the flight of these magnificent birds and feeling the anticipation as they take chase is a thrill. It's even more rewarding for the handlers when the days, months and years of training pay off, and a falcon successfully stoops and binds to its quarry.
It's not surprising that falconry isn't more popular. The investment of time, effort and money required to train and properly maintain a hunting falcon far exceeds that of a champion retriever. But the thrill of watching a hunting bird using its instincts in concert with rigorously trained skills is indescribable.
A falcon is more than a mere extension of its handler. It embodies the spirit of the wild, and the strength, agility and coordination of a true predator. Falconers are among the most dedicated hunters I have ever encountered, and their success rate is testimony that it is the sport, not the game taken that is paramount.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: