Susan here, researching a new medieval novel and looking through my bookshelves and files for research notes and books on falconry and hawking–I’m returning to those scribbled handwritten notes, books on falconry and some new books on the subject, putting together a plot spin. I love revisiting old research and adding new to it, wandering a bit to see where it goes–so I’ve been peregrinating through the falconry notes. The new book, part of my new Highland Secrets series, involves a white gyrfalcon, considered the most precious and valuable of birds in the Middle Ages, the privilege of kings to own and fly–but the Scottish hero finds a gyrfalcon, a royal bird, and decides not to return it, putting his very life at risk. The first book, The Scottish Bride, will be out in April. More about that soon! (photo – Ladyhawke, fabulous movie)

In renewing my research, I came across some photos taken several years ago when a friend and I flew hawks for a day, and when I visited a local falconer to meet his trained goshawk as part of my research. The photos brought back the feeling of what it’s like, even briefly, to fly hawks and be around birds of prey. The research filled out the story for The Hawk Laird (my newly revised edition of the original Laird of the Wind) and other medieval stories. Later the falconry research added detail and content to Lady Macbeth and Queen Hereafter and other  books.

Experiential research is a great way to add layers to the writing of a story–I’ve flown hawks, shot arrows (and caught them!), trained with swords and weapons, taken harp lessons and more. I love the chance to try for myself what I’m researching for characters and story, discovering details I might not learn otherwise. (Susan with a Harris’s Hawk)

Falconry, the skill of keeping, training and hunting with falcons, hawks and other birds of prey, has been around a long, long time, developing in the ancient world in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Egypt, Rome, where sculptures and paintings show birds of prey in hunting and domestic scenes. In Egypt, thousands of mummified falcons and hawks have been found in tombs, showing the great significance of the birds in culture and religion. The falcon-headed god Horus, with his dominion over the sky, over war and hunting, lent falcons and hawks an aura of magic, mysticism and mythology — and that layer of meaning has stayed with the birds.

In Europe in the Dark Ages through the Middle Ages, falconry became an essential part of hunting, as birds could be trained to pluck game birds out of the sky, hares out of the fields, and more. Among the Saxons and Normans and later British and European cultures, falconry evolved into more than a hunting sport, becoming a form of art requiring consummate skill, years of training, and deep insight into the nature of the birds and their relationship to the falconer. Today, in order to be licensed, falconers must fulfill years of apprenticeship.

Medieval treatises such as The Boke of St Albans as well as modern techniques of falconry show that the keeping, training and flying a bird of prey requires utter dedication and total focus, particularly in the training phase. They are not pets; they are always a challenge, wild, instinctive, highly intelligent; capable of leaving a trainer in the blink of an eye and never looking back.

Birds of prey are raptors (though considering Jurassic Park, “raptor” reminds me of the many plastic velociraptors and other dinosaurs that populated our house for years) and some of their characteristics and instincts support the theory that some species of dinosaurs, including velociraptors, evolved into birds. The range of species is wide, from falcons to hawks, eagles and owls. Falcons typically have sharply pointed wing profiles and fly very fast (peregrines can reach well over 200 mph and have been called the fighter jets among birds) and are capable of very steep dives, a flying style suited to wide sky and open areas over field and desert. Falcons include falcons, peregrines, gyrfalcons, kestrels, merlins, lanners and sakers (just a few!). (photo – the goshawk I observed for a day!)

Hawks have broader, “fingered” wings and tails, great strength, and their beat-and-glide flying pattern suits them to flying through forest and wooded areas; species include goshawks, sparrowhawks, red-tail and Harris’ hawks, and they’re related to buzzard species; other birds of prey that can be trained and flown include owls and eagles. The hawk we all loved in Ladyhawke looks like a Harris’ Hawk, large, dark, powerful–and though not a historically accurate hawk for the film’s setting, a gorgeous bird nonetheless.

Throughout history a special sense of royalty has been accorded falcons, hawks, eagles and owls, with deep symbolism and iconography associated with them, and the art of falconry. Shakespeare, when he needed ready symbolism understood by his audiences, often used falconry terms – Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings/I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind/To prey at fortune. (Othello)

Over the centuries these birds have been treasured, valued, revered, even worshipped. A hierarchy of ownership and privilege developed in medieval and Renaissance Europe and Britain. Kings and princes flew gyrfalcons and peregrines, the larger and rarer sort, and the list went from there—ladies flew merlins, children kestrels, while lanners and sparrowhawks, smaller and less challenging, were more often owned by priests, gentry and commoners.

Goshawks, being high-strung and a real challenge to train and maintain, were quite interesting to serious falconers; sparrowhawks were more biddable and common, ranking a bit lower on the social bird scale, and so on. Hawks and falcons occupied perches in throne rooms, bedchambers, great halls and dedicated mews; kings and noblemen, gentry too, employed falconers to train and care for the birds. Men and women, too, could be experts in caring for their birds, or they could merely fly them for hunting or leisure sport and let the household falconers do the rest.

In my novel, The Hawk Laird, the hero trains a very temperamental goshawk; the struggle and bonding between them has a mythic and mystical aspect, creating a powerful relationship that parallels in some sense the dynamics between the hero and heroine. I had so much fun playing with those ideas. (photo: same local goshawk)

When I went on a hawk walk at the British School of Falconry in New England (it’s since changed its location), we were given Harris’s Hawks—closer to a buzzard than a true hawk, these large birds are highly trainable, tend to be calmer and not as high-strung as goshawks, infamous for their temperaments as well as intelligence and true challenges to train. When I wrote The Hawk Laird, where training a misbehaving hawk is one focus of the story, I read T.H. White’s The Goshawk and learned how recalcitrant and downright bratty these brilliant birds could be—I wanted the bird in my book to be badly behaved, and Gos in White’s memoir was a great model for that. And I was fortunate to meet a local falconer with a goshawk kept in a mews in his backyard; I saw up close how a master trainer worked with a high-strung, beautiful, clever and independent bird.

Spending a few hours with a hawk after some basic training is a far cry from the work of a falconer, but even then it’s easy to see how your focus must be intent yet relaxed, how lightly and calmly and beautifully the bird sits on your glove, how easily it lifts and flies off as you turn your hand, how quickly it returns when you lift your arm—or how it will sometimes do what it pleases and not what you want (when I raised my gloved hand for my hawk to return to me, the shortest person in the group, the bird sat in a tree ignoring me until I walked away from the others so that my raised hand was the highest thing in that otherwise empty area).

The birds are taken out for sport when they’re not very hungry, else they might hunt for themselves; and not too full, or they can be lazy and replete and disinterested. Falconers measure their birds’ weights carefully, testing the fullness of the crop/breastbone to gauge the hunger range.

Getting a bird to the point of cooperation in training is a long process of stubbornness, persistence, consistent stimulus/reward, and can take a good long while. A common medieval practice was to keep a bird awake, and the falconer with him, for days, on the fist, walking, constantly in touch with the trainer, dependent on the human for food, for a moment even to rest, until the bird realized that the human was the source of food and creature comforts. Birds of prey like life to be easy, and so after a while they imprint and allow what the trainer wants and the bird needs. A form of this, while not so extreme, is still used today by some falconers, as in H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

And some of the books written about falconry are stunning examples of nature writing, going deeper into the meaning behind the whole experience—White’s Goshawk, which in turn inspired Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, and also the work of J. Baker, The Peregrine, are so beautifully written that—even if I wasn’t writing another novel that includes falconry—I’d be reading just for the sheer delight in the prose and the story of the struggle and the bond between the raptor and the falconer.

Have you read books about falconry, fiction or nonfiction? Are you a fan of Ladyhawke (who isn’t!)? 


8 thoughts on “Peregrinations”

  1. FWIW there is a Christmas novella/HR involving falconry by Cecilia Grant, “A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong” that I enjoyed (and it was/is free on kindle).

  2. What a wonderful blog, Susan. Full of fascinating information and those lovely images of hawks. We have quite a few raptors living wild around here including a sparrowhawk that uses our bird table as a buffet! The are all such elegant and awe-inspiring birds to watch.

  3. Thank you for the post. Ladyhawke is such a lovely film and I appreciate the reminder. I admire anyone who can train a creature that is so independent by nature. I have been to a bird show where a man had a trained buzzard… that is a large creature. It was smart and curious and absolutely intimidating. Very nosey about humans. In my neighborhood, we have red tailed hawks. I found it amazing that when one got too close to some mockingbirds, the mockingbirds were abusive to the hawk. The hawk never flinched. It also did not leave. I felt so sorry for that poor hawk. I spoke to one of our Texas wildlife rangers. He said that the hawk would find the assault annoying but not worth getting upset. He also said hawks are well aware of who they are in the great scheme of things. I guess they realize they are powerful, wonder if they also know they are beautiful?

  4. Fascinating post Susan! I was at a Birds of Prey Sanctuary here in Ireland some years ago. They asked for volunteers to wear a glove and let a bird fly back to you and land on your hand. I had a go even though I hardly ever take part in anything I visit but I thought the birds were wonderful creatures. Being so close to one was fantastic!! We also have a hawk flying round where I live. I see it most days. Owls are a huge favourite with me and there were some of all sizes at the Sanctuary.
    I adore Ladyhawke!! My brother introduced me to it many years ago.

  5. Wonderful post! Birds of prey are a mini fascination with me and with no access to modern day falconry, I can only read about it! Living in a migration zone for large birds of prey, I find the hierarchy of medieval ownership of birds fascinating. Watching the individual hunting styles and differing forms of prey unique to each species, tells a story about who would want to possess certain birds. (and why you wouldn’t want others to have the same privilege).
    Side note: To my shame, I have never seen Ladyhawke. I hope my local library will soon remedy that!

  6. This is such a fascinating blog, Susan. Thank you for presenting the personalities of hawks, and what they feel like doing.

    I remember seeing swashbuckling films like “The Three Musketeers” showing falconry. It shows up in these kinds of films. “Ladyhawke” is one of the best of them.


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