Falconry is considered an art form, in which the falconer joins forces with a bird of prey to facilitate and broaden the ability to obtain food by hunting.
Imagine travelling back to the year 1500 BCE and visiting a place in the heart of Asia where dust blows over vast prairie-lands. The silhouette of a rider on a small prairie horse appears on the horizon. The rider carries something in his hand that looks like a trophy, only it moves –it’s alive. The rider gently swings his arm back and launches it into the air, after which its wings unfold and it takes flight… you are witnessing falconry, an ancient hunting method still used today that has earned a place on UNESCO’s prestigious list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010, an accreditation requested and defended by countries such as Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Czech Republic, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Spain, France, Morocco, Mongolia, Qatar, Syria, and two years later Austria and Hungary.
This bird and human joint effort, along with the inter-species hunting team of dog and human, is likely one of the most productive and extensive (both in terms of time and space) forms of symbiosis.
Falconry is considered by many as nothing less than an art form, in which the falconer joins forces with a bird of prey to facilitate and broaden the ability to obtain food by hunting.
Human-bird duos have been in action for over 3,000 years, with periods of lesser and greater activity.
It seems that this form of hunting was practiced particularly early in Mesopotamia, and it is not surprising that one of the Egyptian gods (Horus) had the head of a falcon. Some Hittite tomb inscriptions displayed falconry scenes, which suggests that this art spread westward over two routes. One through the Caucasus in the heart of Europe and the other along the eastern and southern banks of the Mediterranean through the north of Africa.
Falconry is barely mentioned in Classical Antiquity. In the Middle Ages however, the hunting method experienced a great comeback: Marco Polo said that Emperor Kublai Khan travelled with 10,000 falcons. Esteemed nobles had falcons and eagles, which were status symbols of power. The king’s head falconer held one of the most prestigious positions in medieval courts.
Hunting with domesticated birds of prey can be done at two different levels: low-flying hunting, in which birds such as eagles, owls, and goshawks (introduced by northern hunters of the Caucasus) capture their prey by flying low to the ground, and high-flying hunting which was done by falcons. This last form of hunting has its origins in the North African culture that arrived to the Iberian Peninsula beginning in the 8th century. A fundamental feature of this method was the use of a cap to cover the falcon’s head.
With the spread of the use firearms, falconry became a tradition of prestige practiced among European nobility – although in Asia and the Middle East it continued to be widely practiced. Then in the 20th century it experienced a revival. In Spain it was Felix Rodríguez de la Fuente who revived the tradition. This medical student, born in Poza de la Sal (northern Burgos) and son of a notary, spent his free time reading medieval books about falconry. After trapping several young falcons in the mountains near his town, Rodríguez was able to create a connection between falcon and falconer. He then promptly went about fulfilling his dream of popularizing falconry. Felix created the book El arte de la cetrería (The Art of Falconry), a fundamental reference for understanding this art. He would come to gain great popularity in Spain in the 1970s for his nature documentaries which aired on Spanish television.
Falconry has been criticized for its use of confining birds for the benefit of humans. It is undeniable however that today the practice has given us a chance to get to know these birds better (such as the Peregrine Falcon, Lesser Kestrel, Red Kite, Sparrow hawk, eagle, White owl, Tawny owl, and the owl). For many years, these birds were considered pests, and hunters were often offered rewards for killing them. In the practice of falconry, while the birds are raised in captivity, they are never removed from their natural habitat. In the case of some bird species, falconry has helped to nearly eliminate the high risk of extinction that they once faced.
Image by José Ángel Morente Valero