With the origins of falconry elsewhere in the world going back at least to the third millennium BC, North American association with the sport cannot be termed anything but brief. We can find no tangible evidence of any practice of the sport by the native peoples here. Even though Columbus had at least one falconer in his party who reportedly hunted with his hawks prior to 1500 in what is now Haiti, falconry here long remained a rarity. Brief practice by Spanish conquistadores in Mexico and even an early New England pilgrim-falconer really had little if any lasting influence. North American records of those attempting to practice the sport, through the 18th and 19th centuries are rare indeed and those to whom we have been able to find reference were widely scattered both geographically and in time. Although we may have missed some records, such general absence in the historical record more likely reflects both a lack of any significant measure of interest as well as participation in falconry on the continent during that period.
A handsomely illustrated article in the National Geographic magazine for December, 1920 aroused an interest in some and provided ready reference in an era when falconry books were both expensive and hard to find on this side of the Atlantic. By the 1930’s we find a growing interest in the sport, especially among young men associated with eastern universities. Significantly, without the long hawking tradition that existed elsewhere in the world, falconry here found an appeal not so much within the North American hunting fraternity as among those with an interest in nature and natural history. It is noteworthy too, that stemming from a natural history rather than hunting background, most North American “falconry” of that era consisted far more of possession than of actual hunting. Much of that trend can be traced to the glorification of the Peregrine in the then-available literature and the comparatively ready access to those birds which commonly, for a falcon, nested in the eastern U.S. The drawback: neither the terrain nor the quarry readily available in that part of the continent were suited to active hunting with Peregrines, hence much more having than hawking.
Late in that decade discovery of Peregrines migrating along the barrier islands of the eastern U.S. caused a significant shift in American falconers’ approach to their sport. From an orientation pointed almost entirely toward the use of eyess falcons, many American falconers began to trap their own passage hawks, not just Peregrines but, with lessons learned on those eastern barrier islands, migrants of a variety of suitable species. In contrast, where passagers were used in Europe for the most part they were obtained from professional trappers, resulting in few local falconers actually participating in their trapping. The result was a circumstance differentiating North American falconers from their European brethren which continues to this day.
By the end of the thirties and early forties a series of articles by John and Frank Craighead, themselves destined to gain fame in a variety of natural history and conservation venues, fueled an increasing interest in the sport. Their account of a trip to India and the falconry they encountered there was the thing of which American falconers could only fantasize. Still, by the beginning of World War II, the number of falconers known in North America was less than 200.
Travel resulting from that war, along with the ensuing advances in communications, attracted increased numbers to falconry and facilitated contacts among them. That expansion was further enhanced by the appearance of numerous – if sensationalistic – articles in popular magazines. While many of those initially enamored with the sport through that media fell by the wayside when faced with the realities of keeping, much less hunting with a raptor, the number of serious devotees expanded.
Up until the 1950’s falconry had received little legal attention. In most states and provinces the majority of raptors were unprotected and in some instances bounties were offered for their killing, their possession thus being unrestricted. Falconry was commonly omitted from regulations listing “means” legal for taking game -- not due to any opposition to the sport but simply because falconry was too little known even to be considered. To their credit, falconers took a proactive role in seeking legalization of their sport and its sensible regulation. In these early efforts we see a distinct if not unique advantage North American falconers enjoyed, an advantage stemming from their natural history orientation already noted. With such origins many falconers had become professionally involved in ornithology and wildlife management and hence were in a position to credibly represent the sport from a biological point of view. They were simultaneously motivated to work toward a scientific appreciation involving the long-needed conservation of raptorial birds. In both aspects their efforts and representation are reflected in current laws and regulations.
Almost from its beginnings, and despite the tendency of falconry to attract individualists, local falconry clubs began to appear. Often begun on a strictly informal, social basis, many evolved into a means by which to influence falconry-associated legalization and regulation, and a few extended to national level. Nationally these organizations, though often short-lived, were a reflection of the personality (and ego) of strong-minded adherents to the sport. The most notable of these was Captain (later Colonel) R. Luff Meredith. A retired military (Air Corps / Air Force) officer, Meredith had developed an active devotion to the sport early in the twentieth century. With his age and experience, he was admired by many coming later. Directly involved in two of North America’s earliest national falconry organizations -- one before and a second following World War II -- he is, today, considered the “Father of American Falconry”.
By 1961, with numbers of American falconers considerably expanded (at least comparatively) and with Meredith aging and ill, the North American Falconers Association (NAFA) was formed. While on occasion enmeshed in some of the same personality issues as its predecessors, NAFA has weathered such issues and is today a solid, permanent, continent-wide, representative of the sport. The current, enviable status of falconry nationally, can be traced directly to efforts orchestrated by this organization. One immediate impact on the sport here and directly attributable to NAFA occurred at the organization’s first “field meet” in Reno, Nevada in 1962. Over the period of the meet and before its assembled membership two young California falconers, Louis Davis and Jimmy Adamson, flying a west coast Peregrine and European Goshawk respectively, consistently took wild quarry with their birds, Davis even taking three California quail over a single point. While scattered others had taken wild game in our past, the hunting instead of just having that Davis and Adamson demonstrated before so collected an audience convinced many who witnessed it that indeed, beyond all the books and all the talk, falconry could be, truly, a hunting sport. Few single events have had such a profound and long-lasting effect on the practice of falconry on the continent.
The 1960’s saw other events however, that had major significance on how the sport was practiced here. First falconers and then scientists became aware of marked declines in nesting populations of our native Peregrine falcons, a situation most especially evident in the East. A 1965 scientific conference on this population disaster called upon those most familiar with the species to seek to document and then discover the cause (eventually determined to be the result of persistent pesticides) of and solution to the problem. Initially unrecognized by its organizers, many of those participating “experts” were falconers.
Despite the fact that by then most falconers’ Peregrines were passagers taken on migration, to some “knee-jerk conservationists” the falconers were to blame: falconers take Peregrines, Peregrines were declining, ergo, falconers must be the cause of the decline! In contrast, falconers were unwilling to accept the extinction of the species – and they did something about it! Again our natural history origins played an important role. Falconer-scientists, chief among them Prof. Tom Cade, then Director of Research at Cornell University’s prestigious Laboratory of Ornithology, gathered together in search of a solution.
Aided first by a dedicated group of graduate and post-doctoral students -- falconers all -- and then with the support of three others best described as “hard-core falconers”, Cade formed The Peregrine Fund. Using falconers’ birds, techniques and money -- but most of all falconers’ passion -- that group learned to breed the species in captivity, to breed them in numbers and then to successfully release them into the wild. In so doing they played the major role the most significant endangered species recovery of the 20th Century, the return of the Peregrine falcon in North America. The importance of The Peregrine Fund’s role was exemplified by the fact that when time came to remove the Peregrine from the endangered list the U.S. Secretary of the Interior flew some 2,000 miles from Washington D.C. to announce that recovery at The Fund’s interpretative center. The importance of the role of falconers in this conservation effort cannot be overstated. Recognition of that role, particularly in circles previously opposed to the sport, did much to enhance the status of the sport and to elevate falconers to a position well above just “users” of wildlife.
It seems likely that along with the growing appreciation of the overall value of our bird of prey populations, the attention drawn to the Peregrine and to ospreys and bald eagles in that pesticide crisis, helped influence a U. S. governmental decision to assume federal (as opposed to the former state) jurisdiction over raptors by their addition to the Migratory Bird Treaty in 1972. That change was particularly significant for falconers’ (NAFA’s) efforts toward legalization of the sport, by providing a single, federal point upon which to focus efforts rather than having to work as they had previously, piecemeal, state-by-state.
By the time that raptor jurisdiction went from state to federal hands NAFA had already been active in developing a model state law / regulation aimed at developing better and more consistent raptor management and falconry regulation, country-wide. With NAFA’s recommendations accepted in essence by the International Assn. of Game and Fish Commissioners it was not surprising when, upon assuming jurisdiction over raptors, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service used the NAFA / International proposal upon which to base its proposed new, federal falconry regulations. While it took some four years to eventually come up with a final rule, the falconry community under NAFA shepherding did an exemplary job in expressing itself to the federal authorities. They generated more comment letters supporting those proposed regulations than “The Service” has ever received on any single issue, before or since. Those regulations allowed considerable development of the sport and, despite being admittedly stringent, they are highly, and indeed enviously, regarded internationally.
Henceforth NAFA has assumed the role of formally representing the sport with federal officials while providing guidance and assistance to its various state affiliates in support of their efforts aimed at legalization, regulation, seasons and the like at the state level. With such an arrangement NAFA was able to facilitate local clubs in utilizing lessons learned in similar efforts throughout the country. The success of such an approach was exemplified by 1998 in the legalization in all 49 of the states in which the sport might be practiced. (Hawaii, with its only indigenous hawk on the endangered list and with imports of non-native raptors prohibited, is the one state where conduct of the sport is not feasible); but we get ahead of ourselves.
An incident culminating in 1984 at first appeared to threaten the good standing of the sport in the United States and Canada. The Law Enforcement Division of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service became convinced that there existed a multi-million dollar illicit trade in falcons conducted between North American and Middle Eastern falconers. A major “sting” operation was undertaken but, unable to find any falconers they claimed were offering illicit birds, the Service itself took a number of gyrfalcons and then-endangered Peregrines from the wild to use as “bait” in what amounted entrapment actions. Culminating in numerous arrests, charges and publicity, The Service was unable to substantiate its claims of such a market since none existed except of their own making. In the long run, the Law Enforcement Division suffered more than considerable humiliation. Unfortunately, falconers still suffer in the aftermath of this federal debacle. Given the spectacular nature of Law Enforcement claims when it “revealed” our imagined transgressions there remain those who still today, despite all the evidence to the contrary, view us as representing illicit commercial motives.
Because of their lack of long-established, historic traditions, North American falconers have been inclined to “push the envelope” rather than simply follow past practices in lock-step. Perhaps for that reason five of the six major advances in the sport occurring in the 20th Century originated in North America, specifically:
- The development of captive breeding techniques, to include the creation of hybrids, as a source of birds for use in the sport as well as a technique valuable in raptor conservation efforts.
- The development of radio telemetry, both facilitating recovery of lost hawks and enabling falconers to fly their birds in higher – and, thus, healthier and more effective – condition. The results of the latter have had significant effect on the quality of the sport to be seen here today.
- Development of the “American hood”, with its thin leather, exceptional workmanship and a beak-opening conforming to the natural contours of the falcon’s head – the most significant advances in hood making in the preceding half millennium.
- Discovery of the cause of, and then cure for the ancient, lethal falcon’s disease of “frounce” (trichomoniasis).
- Introduction of the Red-tailed Hawk and Harris’ Hawk into international falconry.
The sixth such major 20th Century advance was the development by British falconer Guy Aylmer of the “Aylmeri jess”.
Through the period following final establishment of those first U.S. federal falconry standards in 1976 falconry in North America has continued to expand and improve significantly, not so much a matter of numbers (the very nature of the sport is itself self-limiting) but more in quality. The 1970’s saw the onset of a revival of the sport in Mexico where ensuing decades have seen a steady expansion of its practice with a number of local clubs now in established, meets held and with the undertaking of efforts toward improved raptor conservation and falconry regulation. Without federal oversight Canada has remained fragmented with considerable variation regarding the sport, province to province from outright illegality to provisions as generous as any in the U.S. Certainly the improvement of quality in hawking to be seen in the United States has been equaled in Canada, if only on a smaller scale given a much smaller population of falconers. In all three countries, example, regulation, peer pressure and opportunity have combined to produce a standard of falconry of which all its participants can be proud. Overall we have as fine a state of falconry in North America as anywhere in the world.
As we close the first decade of the 21st Century we find falconry in North America in a healthy and encouraging position. A lengthy review and revision of the federal falconry standards has been accomplished and approved and awaits state compliance, due by 2014. Not only has the Peregrine been removed from federal endangered designation and eyess take now sanctioned but more recently passage Peregrine take has been approved, with implementation beginning in the autumn of 2009. The role of falconers in conservation becomes increasingly appreciated and NAFA, approaching some 2,000 members, is on a solid foundation as it continues its representation of our sport.
- A special thank you to S. Kent Carnie, Founder / Curator Emeritus, The Archives of Falconry for this article -
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