Monday, January 20, 2014


Asian and Arabic Falconry
         Although the true beginning of falconry remains unclear, the traditional time period is about four thousand years ago in Central Asia.  According to Asian tradition, the King of Persia was the first falconer.6 This king’s fascination with raptors developed no differently than the falconers that would follow the king. J. E. Harting describes this fascination in his essay Hawks and Hawking:
During one of his excursions, he became deeply interested in the unobserved actions of a wild hawk. He saw it perched upon a bough “with the air of a sovereign upon his throne,” where he watched for an opportunity to seize a passing bird. He was struck with admiration at its majestic appearance, its wonderful patience, and its power over other birds, which it seemed to take by sovereignty of nature, and was, seized with a desire to posses it. He learned many of its (hawk) good qualities – so much so, it changed him from a violent to better and wiser sovereign.7
In this story, the King of Persia was likely talking about a falcon but the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) has made its place in history and culture in Central Asia. This living tradition continues as the falconer in Central Asia rides horseback with a Golden Eagle trained to take down quarry as large as a wolf. This falconer, a berkutchi, is of noble birth and perceived as not just a hunter but as a spiritual symbol as well.8
The high social status of the berkutchi developed because of the local cold climate and the demand for warm, strong and durable clothing for the people during the winter seasons. From ancient times, berkutchi-falconers had the role of preserving and stocking furs and held the secrets of curing hides and pelts. The most valuable were the pelts of wolves and foxes so, the use of Golden Eagles to obtain them is a continued tradition today.9
Golden Eagle taking a fox
The traditions of the berkutchi-falconer as well as other Golden Eagle falconers were passed down through stories and experiences. One such story by ‘Ctesias the Cnydian’ a court doctor to the Persian King Artexeises II (Mnemnon) in the early fifth century BC provides details of how these Golden Eagles were trained to catch such large quarry:
They catch young eagles and bring them up and train them for hunting. The procedure is as follows. They hang meat on a tame hare or a tamed fox and let it run; then they send the birds after them and permit them to take hold of the meat. The birds try this with all their might, and when they have caught up with the one or the other, they may take the meat as a prize and this for them is a great lure. When they have been brought to precision in this type of hunting, the Indians let them loose on mountain hares and wild foxes. In hope of the usual meal, they chase after the prey which appears, and catch it very quickly.10
Thousands of years later, the fundamental concepts of these techniques are still used today to train a raptor for falconry.
In Middle Eastern (Arab) falconry tradition, the falcon plays a vital role in culture. The traditional falconry bird used in the Middle East has been the larger desert-type falcons, the Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug) and hybridized with the largest falcon the Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), mostly because of the topography and quarry hunted. For hundreds of years, Arabic falconers have trained these falcons to catch quarry such as hares and Houbara which has been a major food resource for Arabic locals due to the high number of these birds that migrate from Central Asia each winter.11 Arabic falconers release their falcons from gloved fists after targeted quarry resulting in a tail pursuit. 

      6. J. E. Harting. “Hawks and Hawking.” Essays on sport and natural history. London: Horace Cox, (1883), 69.
         7. Ibid.
         8. Anon. Golden Eagle.
         9. Ibid.
         10. Anon. Ancient Falconry.
         11. Tom Bailey, Jaime H. Samour, and Theresa C. Bailey. “Hunted by Falcons, Protected by Falconry: Can the Houbara Bustard (Chlamydotis undulata macqueenii) Fly into the 21st Century?.” Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery 12, no. 3 (September 1998): 190-201.  

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