For the past two weeks, I’ve been sharing my house with a wild sparrowhawk. She came to me via an unusual route – I took her from a nest in the local woods under the Irish ‘wild take’ licence for the purpose of falconry. I wrote about this process in a series of blog posts two years ago, and my husband Ed and I kept an audio diary of the process, which we turned into a podcast.
We didn’t manage to obtain a sparrowhawk then because all our nests contained only two chicks, while the condition of the license is that the nest must contain at least three chicks. This year the nest I found had four chicks and so I could fulfil all the conditions of my license. The hawk is now in my home and she is around 3 weeks old.
Many of my friends and relatives are fascinated by this tiny creature and a lot of questions come up including what falconry actually means. Many excellent books have been written on the subject, including H is for Hawk, which beautifully explores the relationship between a hawk and a human.
Falconry is generally defined as an art of hunting with a trained bird of prey wild quarry in its natural state and habitat. It is an ancient practice and no one knows when and where falconry originated for sure, but there is evidence that humans kept trained birds of prey for hunting already in 2000 BC. At the heart of this practice is a relationship between a falconer and a bird of prey and this relationship is based on partnership. Birds of prey relate to humans in a different way compared to dogs for example. The hawk sees falconer primarily as a hunting partner, not as a master, but as someone who provides good hunting opportunities, or tasty food if the hawk has an unsuccessful flight, while the falconer is fascinated with flights and the bond he/she has with the raptor.
Falconers hunt with different species of birds of prey including hawks, eagles, and falcons for example and the choice of raptor is often dictated by what is available to hunt because generally speaking, each bird of prey specialises in a particular type of quarry.
The quarry will be different in different countries/areas, depending on what is legal. In Ireland, we hunt different game species including a small bird called snipe, which is a very challenging and almost impossible bird to catch even with a skilled and fit tiercel, a male falcon.
Many falconers work in pest control on agricultural land and farms, landfill sites, or airports to protect areas from corvids of seagulls. There are falconers working at the Wimbledon stadium, for example, to keep the area clear of seagulls.
In the USA starlings are an invasive species and is a huge problem for dairy farmers, so falconers are invited to farms, to take their tiny falcons called merlins to hunt starlings. Merlins flying at starlings is a spectacular sight. Every year falconers gather in Utah at the Utah Merlin Meet to watch these tiny raptors fly.
It is the flights that these merlin hawkers are after, in fact, they are not concerned with catching starlings as much as seeing the murmuration created by the flight of a skilled falcon. And to orchestrate such flights requires a very fit and healthy bird and an enormous amount of skill and patience from the falconer.
Falconry is also legal and licensed in most countries around the world and UNESCO recognises falconry as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, meaning that falconry is an important element in the cultural fabric of many societies. Falconry remains an important part of many communities in places like Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Have you seen the documentary called The Eagle Huntress?
But here in Ireland too, we have a good community of falconers of different generations and as an immigrant to Ireland, falconry is one way in which I feel a sense of belonging. I’ve made many friendships with people from all over the world through falconry, people who are older or much younger than me, who don’t speak the same language and might have different political views from me. Falconry is like a common language, a bond – we have this love for raptors, and this is what brings us together.
Today falconers not only hunt with birds of prey but are also involved in the conservation of raptors and quarry. Falconers are instrumental in the reintroduction of endangered raptor species. For example, The Peregrine Fund was established by falconers, and it is responsible for the reintroduction of the almost extinct peregrine falcon in the US. Today the fund runs many projects including the reintroduction of the Condor. Falconers are involved in habitat restoration and conservation of grey partridge in Europe as well as the reintroduction of the tree nesting peregrine falcons in Poland. And many many other projects.
Falconers are also involved in the rehabilitation of injured raptors, in the education of youth about raptors, raptor biology and raptor conservation through the various bird of prey centres such as the Hawk Conservancy Trust and the ICBP International Centre for Birds of Prey in the UK for example (among many others). In the UK there is also the British Archives of Falconry, with its excellent collection on the history of falconry in the UK and beyond. The International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey connects falconers of different cultures and represents falconry clubs on an international level.
There are official falconry clubs in most countries where falconry is legal, which formalise the practice and represent falconers, organise hunting meets, educate new members, communicate with government conservation bodies etc. In some countries, falconry is a highly formalised process that involves an apprenticeship and exams.
The sparrowhawk that I am raising now is going to be trained as a falconry bird. Hopefully, we will do pest control on local farms, catching corvids, who are a real problem locally. It is hard to believe that only a few weeks ago she looked like this:
She is growing her feathers fast, and my house is covered with fine white dust. The dust comes from sheathes that protect and supply blood to feathers as they grow. As feathers get longer, the sheathes break up and create this fine powder. My hawk spends a lot of time preening her fast-growing feathers to help break up the sheathes. She looks very alert these days, and today she managed to stand up and walked without falling flat on her face. She is very funny and curious.
In my next post, I will tell you about the Irish Wild Take and what an amazing experience it has been for me personally and for my small community here in the West of Ireland.