Anatoly Tokar caught his first sparrowhawk on instinct. Spurred on by the birdsongs and tales from the bird markets of his hometown, Kiev, Ukraine, he had started trapping songbirds in the wild by age 12. When one day he saw a hawk swoop down on a calling bird he’d captured, he just decided to try slinging a bow net over it as well. As Tokar says, “that’s probably how [the invention of falconry] happened thousands of years ago: you just try it.” With no community of falconers in the Ukraine, he trained himself as a falconer using only scarce lore and a 10-page, 19th century Russian language manual on catching quail with sparrowhawks. When, later in life, Tokar became a herpetologist and moved to upstate New York, he expected to be similarly isolated in his raptorial concerns.
As it turns out, the United States government is also interested in falconry. It cares enough that in 2008 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a 64-page report with eight potential rules limiting the capture of wild peregrine falcon nestlings by falconers. (Of the alternatives, they settled on this: 116 nestling and first-years may be taken west of 100° West, including Alaska, and 36 first-years east of 100° West.) Among several hundred other pages of falconry-related legislation and regulation, federal and state authorities have required that hybridized raptors, cross-breeds of peregrines, sakers, gyrs, and others mixing and matching their best qualities to create super-birds, be flown with two radio transmitters affixed to their bodies, and that state-accredited Master falconers keep no more than three golden eagles. And various state agencies, like the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, care enough to monitor all of this, requiring that all falconers submit a yearly report on all the birds in their possession; all the birds bought, captured, released, lost, or killed (within ten days of an incident); and all their dispositions and falconry uses.
Peregrine eating on fist. Photo by Lars Sego.
Falconry is an ancient sport, practiced by humans for between 3,000 and 12,000 years (depending on your choice of lore and evidence). In its medieval heyday, even English peasants kept sparrowhawks and goshawks; entire volumes, like the Boke of St. Albans, were composed on the types of birds permitted to the various classes of English society. And though it’s often associated with medieval Europe or the Central Asian steppe, the craft has a fair history in America, where immigrants brought falconry into the frontier in the 1800’s as a useful supplement to hunting. With the passage of time, however, it got harder to hunt by falcon. The social distinctions and values associated with falconry declined and disintegrated, and by the end of the 19th century the art of hawking had become an obscurity in much of the West. It became such a relic that, in the early 1930’s T.H. White, the Once and Future King author, trained himself to hunt with a goshawk using a 1619 manual, Bert’s Treatise of Hawks and Hunting, in a fit of medieval, primal fancy.