Falcon Quest

What could possess a man to want a bird of prey to land on his hand? Michael Hainey checks in at The British School of Falconry to find the answer.

Falconry changes the way you see the world. Take me, for example. Remember that scene in Cinderella where all the little birdies come together to make her a dress for the big ball? Well, I always considered that the most amazing display of animal-human teamwork I'd ever seen. Then I tried falconry. And now I know there is no way a sparrow could have stitched that dress. There are a lot of things you can get a bird to do, but sewing ball gowns isn't one of them.

As I said, falconry changes the way you see the world.

But then, the transformative power of falconry has been appreciated for a long time—a good 4,000 years, in fact, making it one of the world's oldest sports. It's also the only one in which humans use a trained wild creature for hunting. Across centuries, cultures, and continents, falconry has been a constant. To participate in it, even for a day, is to insert yourself into history in a small yet powerful way. Imagine it: There are records of Julius Caesar having used falcons to destroy pigeons carrying the messages of enemy generals. According to the Bayeux tapestry, Harold II carried a falcon into battle in 1066. Shakespeare practiced the sport.

Stand in a field with a falcon on your arm, and you can't help but feel a link, not just with nature but with the sweep of civilization. Here is a pursuit that has remained virtually unchanged since it originated somewhere on the rugged plains and steppes between the Near and Far East, slowly making its way along trade routes into the Western world. (After visiting Asia, Marco Polo reported in 1276 that Kublai Khan's hunting party consisted of 10,000 falconers attending more than 500 falcons.) From a.d. 500 to 1600 falconry boomed throughout Europe. It was most popular among the upper classes, including the clergy. Many nuns practiced the sport, and there are reports of their being scolded by bishops for bringing the birds into chapel and disturbing services. This clearly is a sport that leads to obsession, with consequences both bad and good. Consider the case of perhaps the greatest falconer ever: Frederick II, Holy Roman emperor, king of Sicily and Jerusalem in the 1200s. While his passion sometimes overruled his good sense (there are tales that he lost a military campaign because he called off a siege in order to go hawking), it also led him to spend 30 years writing one of the first scientific books on birds, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Falconry). Today he is regarded by some as the founder of ornithology.

By the 1540s falconry was firmly entrenched in Western society, especially in England, where it was considered a felony to keep a falcon that was above one's station. The Boke of Saint Albans (1486) details which of the 15 classes of raptor is appropriate for each social class. Typical punishment: Offenders' hands were cut off. In accordance with ancient tradition, at the time of coronation the king or queen has been presented with a falcon by the Duke of Atholl and Lord Derby. And the office of royal falconer, Master of the Mews, still exists.

Through the centuries, however, the fortunes of falconry have ebbed and flowed, as it evolved from a fundamental means of survival to the sport of kings to one teetering on the verge of extinction. While it managed to endure with some degree of nobility in Asia and the Middle East, by the end of the 18th century it had suffered a severe decline in the West, mainly as a result of the growing popularity of sporting guns. But then along came the newly curious, even obsessive sportsmen and women. People like Britons Steve and Emma Ford determined to save the sport and the birds, many of whom were then threatened with extinction from the one-two punch of DDT and overhunting.

In 1982, eager to introduce their passion to a wider audience, the Fords—both falconry prodigies (Emma has been hawking since she was eight, Steve since he was 12)—established The British School of Falconry in Kent, England. Ten years later they relocated it to its permanent base at Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. Here was the first school where people could not only learn about the sport but have a hands-on encounter with creatures they'd previously only seen soaring far above them. In 1995, after huge success in Britain, and with interest growing in the United States, the Fords opened a branch at The Equinox in Manchester, Vermont.

I ended up there because I resigned myself long ago to the fact that I will never achieve mankind's eternal dream of flight. And to me the next best thing to flying is having a wild bird alight on my hand. Falconry, I discovered, taps into something primordial in all of us. It is the closest we can come to mastering nature.

Day One

At BSF, which uses Harris hawks (in modern falconry, hawks are employed as frequently as falcons), I chose a two-day course that not only teaches the fundamentals of the sport but culminates in an actual hunt. Falconry is easy to learn, but before you can get a bird to land on your hand you must persuade it to sit there. This is where falconry begins: learning to be a good perch. Rob Waite, who runs the Manchester school along with Scott McNeff, guides me through this process in a matter of minutes, thanks to the cooperation of Clint, one of the 12 Harris hawks at BSF. I put a leather glove on my hand, and Rob tells me to hold my arm out and make a fist. He transfers Clint to my hand, and there the hawk sits. That's when I feel it: Here I am, with a gorgeous bird of prey resting on my arm. We're nose to beak, eye to eye. There is nothing in modern life that can prepare you for—or equal—the powerful feeling of looking into the black eyes of true wildness.

Encouraging the bird to leave your hand is also pretty easy. It's known as casting. In one movement you bring your arm back, then forward; on the forward push, the hawk flies off. As I do this, Clint makes for a perch 30 yards away. Once he lands, Rob sneaks me a small piece of raw meat, which I place atop my outstretched, gloved hand. Immediately, Clint swoops down and lights, gobbles it up, then stands quietly, regally.

This is how falconry has been practiced, more or less, for the past four millennia. In a world without rifles or even bows and arrows, the best weapon for catching dinner on the wing was one nature had created for the purpose. And what could be more perfect than a bird of prey? The peregrine falcon—one of the first birds groomed for the sport—is the fastest creature on the planet: When diving from the sky, it reaches speeds in excess of 200 mph. With incisive inch-long talons and a beak sharper than many knives in a post-Bronze Age world, these birds were made to hunt. Somewhere on the steppes of Asia, where falconry is believed to have begun, a hungry man mastered the art through a basic system of work and reward.

This process has remained unchanged. In America hawks and falcons are trapped in the wild or (as with all the birds at BSF) captive-bred. Generally speaking, they grow to their full size and weight in two months and learn to hunt with humans in half that time. Birds of prey have no great fear of man. Once they understand that humans are not going to harm them or take their food, they're fine. Nor do they need much training. Mother Nature and instinct have already done the hard part. All they need to understand is that you are not a threat but an ally in the hunt.

Which is not to say a bird won't leave you. Losing one is the sport's main hazard. Yet this likelihood can be limited. Unromantic as the truth is, getting a bird to hunt for you is based not on loyalty, or on any great mystic bond, but on sheer bribery: an institution as old as the sport itself. If a bird is hungry it needs to hunt. Which means it needs to be with you. However, if you cast it off with a full stomach—when it doesn't need to hunt—there's a good chance it won't come back.

"What you need to understand about falcons and hawks," Rob tells me as I practice casting Clint off my arm and having him return, "is that they are creatures of great efficiency. They like to expend the smallest amount of effort for the largest amount of food. Once these birds have a full crop, they can sit in a tree for days digesting it—and once up there, they might never come back to you but simply fly away."

That's where the grocer's scale comes in. Inside BSF, which is headquartered in a beautifully renovated century-old dairy barn (each stall has been converted into a private aerie for a bird), sits a modified scale. As we go in, Rob places Clint on the scale and notes his weight: one pound six ounces. He then enters this number on a chart that has each bird's name and two columns— morning weight and flying weight.

"Before a bird is taken out for a hunt," Rob says, "we weigh it to see if it's hungry. Since it can't tell us if it has an empty stomach, this is the safest way."

"Truth is," Rob adds, "every time you go out you're in danger of losing a bird. Every time you cast one off, no matter how many precautions you take, you never know. Falconry is a temporary relationship. It's an act of faith, a gift, and nothing is promised."

So, devastating as it seems to lose a bird, it's part of the sport. Many falconers return noncaptive-bred birds to the wild within several seasons, then trap a new one; in doing so, they've contributed to one of wildlife conservation's great success stories. By 1970, peregrine falcons in the United States had been pushed to the brink of extinction by hunting and DDT. Fewer than 100 were left in the wild, and the bird was placed on the Endangered Species List. By 1998, thanks to a cooperative effort between the private sector and the government and to falconers who'd been breeding the birds and releasing them to the wild, there were 1,650 pairs in the Lower 48 and at least 1,000 more pairs in Alaska. In 1999, peregrines were removed from the list.

Day Two

We head into the wild. Having spent the first day learning the fundamentals, then taking Clint on a "hawk walk" (he followed us in the air as we walked a field), we're ready for the big hunt. Rob picks up our group at the inn early in the morning. Seven of us pile into the Land Rover with him: four people, two Harris hawks (Mycroft and Moet), and Rusty, a Brittany spaniel. We drive out of town and high into the Vermont hills. Though it is late spring, the trees are just beginning to bud and the fields are brown with last year's dead grasses. No new growth has emerged. Save for the warmth of the sun, it could easily be an early November day. Which is historically appropriate, since falconry, though it can be practiced year round, was traditionally done in fall and winter, when trees had dropped their leaves and ground cover was at a minimum, making it easier for the birds to hunt.

After 30 minutes, we arrive at the 800-acre Tinmouth Hunting Preserve. This is what I've been waiting for. The first one out of the Rover is Rusty, so eager he's shaking like a boy on his first date. Rusty's job is to run ahead of us and point game. Next we take Moet and Mycroft from their crates. Native to the American Southwest and used in falconry for 35 years, Harris hawks (named for Edward Harris, a friend of John J. Audubon's) weigh about 1.25 pounds and can bring down birds more than twice their weight. This is possible not just because of their speed but because they are the only truly social bird of prey: They hunt in groups.

As Brandon, one of the other students, and I carry the birds on our fists, Rob walks ahead of us through the field, following a bounding Rusty. No more than ten minutes into the walk, Rusty locks onto a spot in the grass some 20 yards ahead of us. As he stays pointed, Rob casts off Mycroft, then Moet. Mycroft flies to a tree ahead of Rusty; Moet flies to a perch behind us. With the birds perched and waiting, Rusty rushes the spot. In a flash, a partridge explodes out of the grass and takes wing for the treeline. Too late. The moment it bursts from cover, Mycroft and Moet swoop down from the trees, like surface-to-air missiles bearing down on the same target. Before I can process it all, Moet has torn the partridge from the sky. Only the clutch of feathers drifting down on us reminds us that but a few seconds ago a creature was in the space above us.

Ten feet away, Moet has landed with the bird in her talons. Before we can reach her, she has killed it. Rob gets her to step off her quarry. He hands her to me, her yellow talons red with blood. She is quiet. The only sound now is the wind. All of us are quiet. I look into her black eyes. The moment is beyond description.

Flights of Fancy

The British School of Falconry is part of the historic Equinox hotel and resort in Manchester's Hildene Meadowlands. Students work with Harris hawks. The school also has one lanner falcon and two eagles (tawny and Russian Steppe) for demonstration purposes.

It offers eight courses of falconry (including group outings)—something to suit every taste. Recommended are:

• The simplest experience, a 45-minute introductory lesson in which participants are taught to handle and fly a Harris hawk ($85).

• The 60-minute "hawk walk," which lets you fly your Harris hawk along the inn's scenic trails—it does not involve hunting ($145).

• The half-day (four-hour) session, which includes the introductory lesson and a two-hour hunt at the Tinmouth Hunting Preserve—perhaps the best way to go ($299).

Barbour jackets and boots are provided for all lessons, as is transportation to the hunting ground by Land Rover. The school is generally open from mid-March through mid-November. In winter, it sometimes opens if the temperature is above freezing. Indoor lessons are also offered.

The 183-room Equinox is a member of the Historic Hotels of America. Route 7A, Manchester Village, Vermont; 800-362-4747; fax 802-362-4861; www.equinoxresort.com. For information on The British School of Falconry, call 802-362-4780; fax 802-362-4817.

Member of Fine Hotels, Resorts & Spas.