Susan here, researching a new novel, 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 now some new books on the subject, putting together a plot spin for my newest novel. I love revisiting old research and adding new to it, wandering a bit to see where it goes–so I've been, uh, peregrinating through the falconry notes. <groan>
And I came across some photos taken several years back when a friend and I flew hawks for a day, and when I visited a local falconer to meet his trained goshawk. 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 my Laird of the Wind and other medievals, and later added detail to Lady Macbeth and Queen Hereafter. 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.
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 stelai, mural paintings and sculptures 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 (austringers use hawks, falconers falcons, but the term falconry is used for both) became an essential part of hunting, as birds could be trained to pluck game birds out of the sky and hares in the fields. Among the Saxons and Normans and later British and European cultures, falconry quickly developed into more than sport, requiring high skill and years of training; today, just to be licensed, falconers must fulfill apprenticeship years.
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 (in this age of Jurassic Park, raptors conjures another meaning that reminds me of the many plastic velociraptors and other dinos that populated my 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!).
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, Laird of the Wind, the hero was training a very temperamental goshawk; the struggle and bonding between them had a mythic and mystical sense that was as powerful a relationship in some sense as that between the hero and heroine, and became a story that I very much enjoyed writing.
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 Laird of the Wind, where training a nearly untameable hawk is one focus of the story, I immersed myself in T.H. White’s The Goshawk to learn just how recalcitrant and downright bratty these brilliant birds could be—I wanted the bird in my book to be badly behaved, and Gos 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?!)?