By Dr. Ben W. McClelland
Man has emerged from the shadows of antiquity with a peregrine on his wrist. Its dispassionate brown eyes, more than any other bird, have been witness to the struggle for civilization, from squalid tents on the steppes of Asia to the marbled halls of European Kings in the seventeenth century. —Roger Tory Peterson
Falconry is the sport of hunting game with a trained bird of prey. Federal and state regulations guide the sport in the United States to protect the birds and to ensure high standards for practicing the sport.
Longtime local Falconer Harvey Leslie enjoys duck hunting with his falcon and a strike dog. At a recent Wildrose Handler’s Workshop Leslie and his falcon, Hata, gave an action-packed demonstration of the sport. This article discusses the history of falconry, falcon training and hunting, and dogs as prey flushers.
Ancient peoples trained birds of prey for hunting. While the dog and the horse bonded with our ancestors, becoming domesticated companions, no such sentiment mollified the fierce heart of the hawk. The savage bird was trained to hunt for humans without impairing the fierce spirit that made the hawk a useful hunter.
Some experts place falconry’s origins between 4,000 and 6,000 BC in the steppes of Mongolia. Other historians believe that the practice could be even older, with its beginnings in Arabia or the Middle East; in Iran, records have been found of a king using birds of prey who may have lived as much as 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. Wherever it began, falconry, which was originally used for subsistence and not sport, was well established in both Asia and the Middle East by 2,000 BC, and gradually migrated westward to Greece, Italy, and the rest of Europe. (www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/raptor-force-history-of-falconry/110)
During the middle ages and up through the Renaissance period, falconry flourished in
nearly all cultures of the old world. Known as the sport of Kings, falconry’s history is peopled with royal bird handlers, including Ghengis Khan (1162-1227) and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250). The Emperor Frederick was an expert falconer and a gifted naturalist. His comprehensive book-length study on the birds and the sport of falconry became the definitive guide for centuries.
Using innovative scientific methods of experimentation, Frederick is credited with discovering that the hawk finds prey through sight not smell. Moreover, he developed many training innovations, such as using a hood rather than suturing the bird’s eyelids shut. An enthusiast for Arabic culture, Frederick maintained widespread contacts to develop a collection of African and Asiatic hawks.
TRAINING AND HUNTING
Harvey Leslie, a dentist and resident of Grenada, MS, is one of Mississippi’s few hunters licensed to employ a bird of prey to hunt wild game. In a recent conversation he provided a number of insights about obtaining, training, and hunting with a falcon.
During his college years at Ole Miss, Leslie flew hawks after rabbits as a diversion from his rigorous studies in organic chemistry. One day, as he was studying in the University library’s book stacks, Leslie came upon an informative reference book on falconry with an impressive picture of a falcon and a bird dog. That moment began his earnest study of the sport. He apprenticed under a mentor from Memphis, TN, to develop his hunting and training techniques. After completing dental school, Leslie captured a red-tailed hawk, with which he hunted rabbits and squirrels for several years.
Today, after several years of working with hawks, Leslie flies Hata, a Tundra Falcon that he snared as a yearling on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Falcons migrate seasonally between countries in and around the Arctic Circle and countries in Central and South America, using a primary flyway that passes through our Gulf Coast.
Training a captive hawk involves keeping it in the dark, hooded and/or in a mew, regulating its weight so that it’s hungry for hunting, and beginning to initiate flight—first flying to a lure of raw meat, then in low semi-circles, later in full circles, and finally high flight. Throughout this weeks-long process the hungry bird returns to the handler to feed, is hooded, and returned to its resting place.
Falcon handling requires special equipment, including a hood and leg bells for the bird, a handler’s whistle, and weight scales.
To control the falcon the handler hoods its eyes and attaches a jess and a leash to the bird’s leg to move it or keep it on a perch. The hood is essential from the beginning. Even a trained falcon has such an excitable temperament that it must be hooded to give it rest from any sights or sounds while it is being transported, handled, or perched prior to a hunt.
Weighing the bird from the first day and throughout its life is an essential practice. Only a hungry hawk will hunt. So, a handler works to reduce the bird’s weight by ten percent prior to a hunt.
When the falconer takes a hawk hunting, he locates some ducks on local ponds. Releasing the bird in the vicinity of the pond, the falconer hides below a levee until the bird is circling high overhead, and then he runs over the levee towards the ducks, flushing them into the air. Alternatively, the falconer will send a dog to flush the ducks. The falcon dives and hits one of the ducks in flight, carrying it several yards. Because hawks don’t return prey to hand, as a gundog would, the falconer follows his bird to where it begins eating the downed duck. If he wants to harvest the duck breasts, the falconer occupies the bird with eating parts of the duck, including the heart. Then, he takes the rest of the prey for harvesting. The falcon will eat all parts of the prey, later regurgitating pellets of indigestible matter. When the hawk is full, the falconer hoods it and returns home.
DOGS AS FLUSHERS
Because a falcon will not strike a bird that is hidden in cover or is sitting on the water, the prey must be flushed. A falconer can flush the birds off the water or use a trained gundog as a strike dog to push the prey airborne for the falcon to hit.
In late January of this year a filming crew from “Mississippi Outdoors,” joined Leslie and Hata to film a falcon hunt. “Mississippi Outdoors” is a television show sponsored by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, aired on Mississippi Public Broadcasting or online at www.youtube.com/c/mdwfponline. Mike Stewart accompanied the TV crew, along with Wildrose Deke, the Ducks Unlimited mascot. When Hata was at the right height and position above the pond, Stewart sent Deke over the levee to flush the ducks off the water. Hata followed through and dispatched one of the ducks. The falcon’s take of the prey was so fast and furious that the cameraman may have to return to catch a complete picture.
Hunting ducks with a Falcon:
- As the falconer releases the falcon near the duck pond, stay a short distance behind the falconer, keeping the dog at heel.
- As the falcon flies in a circle and gains altitude over the duck pond, keep the dog at heel as you walk with the falconer to a point near the ducks on the water, all the while staying out of the ducks’ sight. (A good vantage point is below a pond levee or in a thicket nearby.)
- The falconer will signal when the falcon is in the optimum hunt position. Upon his signal send the dog into the water to flush the ducks in the air.
The falcon will strike a duck, carry it a few yards, land with it, and begin feeding on the prey. The falconer will approach the falcon, and divide up the quarry, giving the heart and other parts of the quarry to the falcon, and taking the rest of the duck to harvest.
Two major differences for the dog as it hunts with a falcon are, first, there is no gunfire and, second, the dog does not routinely retrieve the downed duck. That’s the falconer’s job. So, it is essential that the handler keep the dog steady at heel after the dog has flushed the ducks and the falcon strikes one. However, in some instances the dog may need to retrieve the duck. If, for instance, the falcon’s hit puts the duck back in the water, the dog may be sent to retrieve it. Or, if the duck gets knocked down in tall cover or grass, the dog may be sent to find and retrieve it.
Working with a falcon will be a new hunting experience for your gentleman’s gundog, one that’s sure to bring ample opportunities to exhibit its skills afield, including heeling, staying steady, flushing birds, and—perhaps—an occasional retrieve.
Ben W. McClelland
American Hawkeye’s School of Falconry (www.americanhawkeye.com)
Bruce A. Haak, The Hunting Falcon.Blaine, WA: Hancock House Publishers, 1992.
Harvey Leslie. Personal Interview. Oxford, MS. March 21, 2019.
Mike Stewart, Sporting Dog and Retriever Training The Wildrose Way: Raising a Gentleman’s gundog for Home and Field. New York: Universe Publishing, 2012.
Robert K. Burns. Book review of Stupor Mundi et Immutator Mirabilis The Art of Falconry of Frederick II Hohenstaufen. Casey A. Wood, F. Marjorie Fyfe (trans. and ed.) in The Quarterly Review of Biology. Pp. 144-146. June 1,1944.
Roger Tory Peterson, Birds Over America. New York: Dodd Mead, 1948.
The Falcronry School (http://thefalconryschool.com)
The Ohio School of Falcronry (www.ohioschooloffalconry.com)