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Falconry is more a part of your everyday life than you realize

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One of my favorite books growing up was “The Golden Hawks of Ghenghis Khan,” written by Rita Ritchie. It is an adventure story about a young boy from the ancient trading city of Samarkand. 

The centerpiece of the book is falconry — using a trained bird of prey to hunt animals in their natural state.

Recently, I was reading a mystery by C.J. Box, “The Disappeared.” During the story, the author introduces a minor character, a falconer, who casually observes that many falconry terms have made it into the English language. And behold, an article is born!

From the name “falconry,” one might think that the only birds flown for hunting were falcons. This is not so. Falcons are members of the family Falconidae, and some include the word “falcon” as part of the bird’s name. These include the peregrine falcon, the gyrfalcon and the saker falcons. 

However, some falcons do not include “falcon” in their common names such as the Eurasian hobby and the kestrel. All are from the genus Falco. 

Then there is the family Accipitridae, which includes the hawks (Harris hawk and Eurasian sparrowhawk), the common buzzard and the golden eagle (flown mainly in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan). Those genus names include Buteo, Parabuteo and Aquila. 

Owls, including the great-horned owl and the Eurasian eagle-owl, family Strigidae, have also been flown.

Falconry has a long history. There are pictorial records from 1700 B.C., although there are earlier materials, which are the subject of debate. Falconry was very popular in Medieval Europe (between A.D. 500 and 1500), and up to the time of the French Revolution in 1787, at which time the sport plummeted. 

It was revived in England in the 1800s and crossed to the United States in the early 1900s. In 1941, the Falconer’s Club of America was formed and subsequently dissolved in 1961 when the North American Falconers Association was formed.

NAFA supervises the training of new falconers. This is not an endeavor to be undertaken lightly, nor is it realistic for urban dwellers. This is a seven-year program, the first two of which must be under the supervision of a sponsor, leading to the title of “master falconer.” 

A bird requires daily care as well as intensive training in a large, open area. Since “all raptors — birds of prey — are protected by state, federal and international law, all potential falconers must obtain necessary permits and licenses before acquiring a raptor or practicing falconry.” A written exam is also required. Each state has its own association, and New York’s is the New York State Falconry Association at NYSFA.org.

UNESCO is well known for its World Heritage List which lists humanity’s treasures — environmental and cultural — including such disparate sites as Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia which “has global significance for the conservation of marine mammals” and Denmark’s Jelling Mounds and Runic Stones, which is an example of pagan Nordic culture. 

There are presently 1,092 UNESCO-designated sites worldwide. 

What is less well-known is UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. This is intended to recognize cultural practices and material objects, knowledge and skills, that are seen as part of a group’s cultural heritage. Today there are 470 listings in 117 countries. Included in this listing is falconry, designated in 2012 for various countries in the Far and Middle East and Central Europe.

Below, I will list a number of words you will recognize that originated with falconry:

“Callow” refers to inexperience because of youth. It originally meant “bare” or “bald,” describing a young bird without feathers.

“Haggard” is to look exhausted, but originally referred to a bird caught in the wild as an adult.

“Hoodwinked” refers to a bird’s head when it’s covered with a small hood to prevent distraction or to calm it. It morphed into blindfolding someone, and finally into tricking someone.

“Lure” is to tempt with promise of a reward, but originally was a device on a long cord used to train a bird to return to the handler.

“Pounce” is jumping forward to attack something. Originally, it referred to the bird’s claws, later meaning to swoop and catch prey.

“Under his thumb” and “wrapped around his little finger” indicates undue influence. Both are derived from the jesses (ankle leashes used to control a bird) which the falconer wrapped around his hand.

“To turn tail” still means to fly away.

My personal favorite is “bated” because I have often wondered about this obscure word, but never troubled to check it out. Used only in the term “bated breath,” it means that when a bird is restrained, it is bated, leading to the same meaning as “holding your breath.”

If you are inclined to follow up on falconry, I recommend the interesting movie, “Eagle Huntress.”

Have a thought or comment for Sura Jeselsohn? Email her at greenscenesura@gmail.com.

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