Thursday, October 28, 2010

American Falconry

Yesterday’s class got me thinking about the continuation of falconry in the United States. Frederick II’s insistence that the very act of training the bird was the noblest part of the sport got me wondering how falconers in the contemporary United States view it. It is definitely considered a sport, which is a rather nebulous term these days, with a meaning loosely connected to some form of athletic activity. How many people actually consider hunting a “sport” versus how many consider it a leisure activity or a cruel hangover from a more violent world? Also, is curling a sport? Croquet? Table tennis? Competitive eating? Falconry, it seems then, has been tossed into the mix with these many activities we can’t find a category for. But then again, what was the meaning of “sport” in the medieval ages? It seems to be equally ambivalent and perhaps even more nebulous, encompassing all leisure activity.
            But the “sport” aspect of falconry – condemned by the Church if done in excess and (ineffectively) forbidden to members of the clergy – was not what made it noble. Frederick’s long treatise could have easily been titled “The Art of the Science of the Sport of Hunting with Birds.” As we learn from Frederick, “the actual taking of prey should be a secondary consideration.”[1] The laborious, painstaking method for training birds of prey is the most important consideration. The nobility in falconry is found in the fact that “it is far more difficult and requires more ingenuity to teach raptorial birds the stratagems of hawking than to instruct dogs or wild quadrupeds to hunt.”[2] If, by Frederick’s time, the “art” of falconry was so tied up in nobility and so intent on claiming its status as the noblest of all sports, how does it survive in our (ostensibly) classless and anti-elitist society?
            I didn’t want to drop the money for a modern falconry textbook, but I found this article about a woman starting up a falconry class in New Hampshire. The way some of the aspects of falconry are described betray how drastically different our modern sensibilities have made our views on the sport. The writer of the article feels it necessary to assure us that the falcons get a meal, whether or not they actually catch their prey, and that “the leather hood that fits over the bird’s head actually calms the bird down.”[3] The article also emphasizes that the training techniques employed to prepare the birds for hunting “simply use the birds’ instincts to train them.”[4] This particular tidbit was especially interesting in light of our discussion in class over how bizarre it was that the bird’s instincts seemed to be radically redirected or limited by the training they underwent. Frederick and others of his ilk cared about the birds’ treatment only as it related to their efficiency. “Animal cruelty” would not have struck a chord with medieval contemporaries. Even if it did, should they have wanted to write a moral treatise about it, they would have had to sacrifice a flock of sheep to do so.
            There seems to be very little emphasis on the actual training process in the article. The actual act of hunting with the bird was the star of the show. According to the woman who opened up her falconry school in the area, the most exciting part of falconry was the fact that it involves an unpredictable wild animal, so you never know that might happen. The article does go into detail about the demanding nature of caring for and training the birds – Nancy Cowan, who runs the school, has to spend six hours with them per day and can’t even answer the phone when she is with them! But the main event is that the school offers guided hunts for those who don’t have the time to go through a two-year apprenticeship and become a master falconer. The highlight of these events are the aeronautic displays of the birds themselves – people are incredibly entertained by their grace and break-neck speed. The prey isn’t even mentioned in this part of the article, which, curiously, seems to agree with Frederick that the catching of prey is a secondary consideration.
            This is, however, amazingly different from the exclusive noble nature of medieval falconry. Suddenly it has become a spectacle – a sort of avian dolphin show, which anybody can participate in for a nominal fee. If you want to just see them fly around and kill something, you can go watch it once. If you get interested and want to actually learn how to do it, you can take a class. If you have a child that seems to be lacking in extracurricular activities, you can sign them up for falconry 101, “for younger students, kids aged 13-17.”[5] Falconry is suddenly an all-inclusive, albeit obscure, spectator sport for anyone with a passing interest. Frederick would be appalled, and he wasn’t easy to appall. The noblest feature of falconry has been at best played down and at worst painted as an eccentric waste of time that makes a mildly amusing spectacle possible.
            A quick glance at the Falconry Academy's website seems to confirm this newer version of falconry’s interest in romanticizing the hunt itself over the training. The website’s introduction tries to share the intoxicating feeling of the hunt with some scene setting:
Picture yourself walking through a field hitting every piece of brush, trying to flush out rabbits. Your Harris Hawk is following you from tree to tree, waiting and anticipating the flushing of game. Suddenly a rabbit breaks from the brush, the hawk quickly takes off, and turns to chase the rabbit in aggressive pursuit. Eventually the rabbit out maneuvers the hawk, he turns in mid-air and returns to your glove for a small reward. This is falconry…[6]
Take a moment to resituate yourself in the real world after that piece of riveting prose. Does that sound like Frederick to you? Additionally, the website tells us that, though the sport is practiced by a very small, dedicated population of people, the goal of The Falconry & Raptor Education Foundation is to educate more people on the true nature of the sport so that it will grow stronger, popular, and better understood. Their desire for falconry to be practiced properly is no doubt in line with Frederick’s undertaking, but the websites ideal of exposing “a wide variety of people to falconry,” including local fifth graders, might coax a scoff out of the Holy Roman Emperor.
            Thus, falconry in our modern age is a very different beast (pun very much intended) than its medieval counterpart. The art of training the falcon is assuredly as time-consuming and demanding as it always has been, but it is not by itself the point of falconry. Between Frederick II and Nancy Cowan, romanticism reared its rather attractive head and seems to have stuck around for the long haul. Hunting with falcons is a way to connect with, or marvel at, nature. It is by no means a way to prove one’s nobility. To portray someone with a falcon on his/her arm now would indicate eccentricity, not nobility. The picture of the falconer is that of an enigmatic figure practicing an ancient art for the sake of its awe-inspiring beauty and the connection to nature it provides.

Dan F.

[1] Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, The Art of Falconry, trans. and ed. Casey E. Wood and F. Marjorie Fyfe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1943), 105.
[2] Ibid, 6.
[3] Spencer Baselice, The Heart of New England, October 28, 2010. <>
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid


  1. Very well observed! I like most what you say about the difference between seeing falconry as a way of connecting with nature "in the wild" and falconry (as Frederick describes it) as a way of training oneself and one's bird. I, too, think Frederick would be appalled at the way in which Cowan promotes falconry as a spectator sport (this is his no. 2 reason for falconry, wanting the birds to have brilliant flights). He likewise would be unlikely to take well to her insistence that falconry is exciting because it is unpredictable: the whole point of training the birds as he saw it was to convince them to hunt at the falconer's will. So which version of falconry do you prefer?


  2. Very cool! I think it's interesting that, even though the foundation theoretically wants to expand the number of falconers, it still emphasizes that right now falconry is practiced by a small, dedicated group. The marketing, at least, seems to be trying to give accessible elitism - you too can do something rare and cool! It's an interesting contradiction.

  3. Interesting. Do you think that there are any real "noble" activities that have kept the same sorts of associations and exclusivity into the modern age?