Roaming Southern England's Countryside with Trained Birds of Prey
When Paul Manning treads through the trees and fields of England’s New Forest, calling for his hawks and falcons, he is walking in ancient footsteps. This haven of unenclosed Hampshire pastureland, in the country’s southeastern lowlands, has been used by falconers since it was designated a royal hunting ground in the 11th century.
Though embedded in English culture as an elite sporting tradition, falconry did not originate there. Man first used raptors for hunting on the high plateaus of Central Asia, some 6,000 years ago. Waves of human trade and invasion brought the aerial birds of prey westward during the medieval era. By the early modern period, these swift and willful predators had become recognized status objects for aristocrats across continental Europe and the British Isles, where the sport arguably reached peak refinement on England’s sprawling, semi-wild country estates.
Owners were eager, no doubt, to align themselves with the superlative fierceness and superiority of their prize animals. The birds used in falconry belong to a category of creature that has “made itself the nobility of the air since man first strove to make himself the master underneath it,” T.H. White observed in The Goshawk. White’s book, published in 1951, cast the age-old sport in heroic terms: “One master against another older one; a worthy enterprise.”
Despite its associations with an outdated social order, falconry is now more popular in England than it has been in the past three centuries. Behind this phenomenon lies no small amount of nostalgia. Few sports rival falconry for its implied sense of historical continuity; the animals that Britain’s falconers fly today—and the essential pleasures and challenges of working with them—have not changed since the Middle Ages.
Nor has the jargon of the sport, which will sound familiar to readers of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. A new bird might bate, or dive from the owner’s gloved fist in terror. The restrictive leather strips that hang from its ankles are called jesses. A contented bird will rouse, or shake its feathers. You might say the world of hawks and falcons deserves a separate language. It moves ten times faster than ours, and its perceptible spectrum encompasses everything from ultraviolet colors to the earth’s magnetic field. When he slips a leather hood over a bird’s head, a falconer temporarily shrinks this broadened world down to nothing. Assuming he or she is capable, the darkness has a calming effect on the animal.
Falconers must have a far-ranging knowledge of predatory birds and their behaviors. It begins with basic distinctions, such as the fact that falcons hunt in open spaces while hawks launch into their prey from tree branches. Modern advantages make their way into falconry, but never as as a full-on replacement. A 21st-century handler will, for example, attach a radio transmitter onto his bird’s anklet to supplement the brass bells traditionally used for tracking. And although he will have an intuitive understanding of a bird’s ideal flying weight, he will use a precise scale to double-check it.
There is no substitute for the patient skill required to train, or man, a hawk. The falconer must show consummate kindness, rewarding the bird with food and gently proving himself an impassive and humble hunting partner, rather than an enemy. Gradually, the falconer learns to understand the hawk’s moods, to predict its movements and reactions, to understand the intimate interaction between predator and prey. Without strong bonds of habit, hunger and partnership, the bird will refuse to return to captivity. The falconer cannot create these bonds without feeling them. To train a bird, then, is also to train oneself—to sharpen the senses and to become, as White wrote, “half bird.” In effect, to touch the wild.