by SC Reporter Teresa Vazquez
Dating as far back as 2000 BC, falconry — the practice of hunting wild animals with a trained bird of prey — is the oldest field sport in the world, General Class Falconer Mike Sawicki explained in a Sanibel Captiva Audubon virtual lecture. It is an enduring tradition that has withstood the tales of time.
“The United Nations has designated it a living human heritage,” Sawicki said. “There’s a really nice proclamation that the UN came out with that explains falconry and its worldwide significance both historically, and even today, culturally how it really binds people from all over the world together.”
Sawicki discussed the origins of falconry, the steps it takes to become a falconer, what is is, and everything in between.
The sport of falconry is estimated to extend as far back as 2000 BC in Mesopotamia. Nonetheless, the first bits of physical evidence– ancient carvings which closely resemble present day falconers– date back to the seventh century BC in the Assyrian bas-relief.
In Asia, the earliest signs of falconry began in China around 680 BC. The sport continued to spread throughout the continent. Now, there are falconers in places like Vietnam that aren’t considered traditional, Sawicki explained. “It’s an activity that is gaining momentum in a lot of parts of the world,” he said.
During the same time the practice spread in China, it spread toward Arabia and Persia where it has become a part of the culture and remains popular.
In Europe, the practice was first seen in 400 AD, but the golden age began in 500 AD. The sport was popular amongst higher class individuals and the clergy, including the Pope himself, explained Sawicki. It was a status symbol until its popularity dwindled.
“Once you start getting into the 17th century there’s a proliferation of guns and gun hunting, along with fragmentation of large open spaces by agriculture, and ultimately industrialization,” Sawicki said. “It really kind of put paid to the popularity of falconry and made it a little bit of a relic of the past.”
Despite that, England has retained many great falconers till this day.
In this hemisphere, John and Frank Craighead pioneered North American falconry. During the same time Harold Webster and Frank Beebe wrote “North American Falconry and Hunting Hawks” which, Sawicki said, has become the Bible of North American falconry.
Besides being a sport, falconry is attributed with helping save the peregrine falcon that in 1970 faced extinction. This was possible thanks to a group of falconers and scientists who teamed up to use falconry techniques to increase their numbers.
Nineteen years later they were removed from the endangered list.
Becoming A Falconer
There are three classes of falconry licenses in the U.S.: apprentice, general, and master. At the age of 14, aspiring falconers can begin their training in the highly regulated sport.
The first license is a two-year apprenticeship completed under a mentor belonging to the general or master class. They will walk the apprentices through falconry methods, the proper care of the birds and help with trapping a bird.
Then, after a mentor recommendation, the apprentice will upgrade to a general class license. Once upgraded, five years must be completed as a general class falconer before becoming a master.
The entire process begins with an apprentice license application with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. The application includes a rigorous written test, facility inspection, and a letter from a falconer vouching to be your sponsor which Sawicki says is hard.
“You think, you know, asking somebody out on a date or something like that is stressful,” Sawicki said. “Ask somebody to be your falconry sponsor, way more stressful than asking my wife to marry me, but I was pretty sure she’d say yes.”
With an apprentice license, a falconer can own one raptor for falconry. The particular species allowed is restricted — in Florida, four species are allowed. As a general falconer, you may hold three raptors at a time and have more species to choose from.
The master class offers more than both, but none of them are allowed to fly bald eagles in the U.S.
Training, Hunting and Bird Care
Sawicki and his Melvin Falcon, go out hunting on Saturdays, but a lot comes before the hunt. To start, Sawicki had to trap and train his bird.
Falconers are required to trap “passage birds” which are under a year old thus not a part of the breeding population. Once trapped, the bird is weighed and hooded.
“It keeps the bird kind of thinking it’s in the dark, so a bird that’s hooded will calm right down, and that is the origin of the term hoodwinked,” Sawicki said.
Once a trap weight is established, falconers work on incrementally bringing that weight down, and at the same time are spending time with the bird. Sawicki explained this allows the bird to learn to see the falconer as a partner, then training begins.
They start feeding off the fist, then the distance is increased little by little with leash length flights and creance flights. A creance is a bit of line, like a kit, that allows the bird to fly around without tugging it down or allowing it to fly off.
Sawicki says that once you move on to bigger steps, you may be bitten when you remove a bird’s hood but “it’s not that bad.” Once they fly off and come back, they are ready to start hunting.
A key part of hunting is slip management which is the process of releasing the bird with the effort to capture something. Setting up easy slips is essential because “success breeds success” in raptors. They are catching prey reliably and begin to enjoy the process.
“They understand, it clicks very quickly with them,” Sawicki said. ”‘Hey man, this is a good gig right here, I’ve got a good thing. I’m catching stuff all the time. You know my monkey Butler is doing a great job. I’m gonna keep him around. I’ll get back in the box and go on with them.”
Falconers work to keep their athletes in the best shape. Their enclosures are designed to best serve their needs. Sawicki’s birds live inside with him and have Astroturf to sit on, that’ll keep them safe from a condition known as bumblefoot.
Foodwise, Sawicki noted the best option for the birds is to eat what they catch unless it’s a pigeon which can carry disease. His falcon eats a mostly bird-based diet fueled by her hunts and frozen food from a raptor food supplier.
Hunting together, falconers and their birds build a special bond. When Sawicki and his falcon aren’t hunting you may find her watching TV with him.