"HERE'S TO THEM THAT SHOOT AND MISS"
by Lynn Worth ....... The Falconers! Toast
A truly successful falconer has one abiding passion in his (or her) life -- birds of prey. And to refine this even further -- birds of prey that hunt during the daylight hours. Thus, falconers who work with dogs and birds, had the passion for birds before a secondary passion for dogs developed. And it might be fair to say that the word "passion" as it relates to the dogs in this instance might not be a passion as much as a hunting practicality.
The ancient art of falconry developed over four thousand years ago in China or Persia and spread westward into Europe where it became popular in the Middle Ages. Not only was falconry used for garnering game for the table, but it was a highly competitive sport with each hunter demonstrating his best bird's spectacular flight and well-honed killing capabilities. Take, for instance, the following passage from T. H. White's "The Once And Future King" -"It was the second half of summer and the amateur falconers in Camelot were bringing their peregrines to the last stages of their training. If you are a clever falconer, you get your hawk on the wing quickly. If you are not, you are apt to make mistakes, and the result is that the hawk does not finish her training for some time. So all the falconers in Camelot were trying to show that they were the clever ones -- by getting their hawks entered as quickly as possible -- and, in all direction, if you went for a walk in the fields, there were atrabilious hawk-masters stretching out their creances* and quarreling with their assistants. Hawking, as James the First pointed out, is an extreme stirrer up of passions. It is because the hawks themselves are furious creatures, and the people associate with them catch it." (*creances are lines tied to a stick at one end which is about a foot long. If the bird tries to fly away, the stick drags on the ground slowing the flight and enabling the falconer to retrieve the bird. Atrabilious means surly - in a black mood.) Picture, if you will in your mind's eye, such a field and it can almost be translated into the arena of any dog competition today with spectators and trainers milling around -- waiting and bragging. And - to continue . . ."Lancelot was pleased with his present <a falcon> and settled down busily in competition with the other angry falconers, who were hard at work criticizing each other's methods and sending each other messages of sugary venom and getting yellow about the eyeballs."
When the gun was introduced to hunting, falconry suffered a serious decline. But today, falconry, as a sport, is on the rise in the United States and Europe. It has always been a pursuit for women and presently there are numbers of them taking it up overseas - especially in France. It is the most regulated field sport in America and The North American Falconers Association (NAFA) with 3,000 members, an associate member organization of the National Wildlife Federation, is open to "persons of good moral character having a serious, positive interest in falconry and sharing our dedication to the welfare of birds of prey in nature and their careful employment in the sport, following sound wildlife management and conservation principles."
The kinds of hawks normally trained in falconry are the true falcons -- the peregrine or duck hawk, the merlin or pigeon hawk, the kestrel or sparrow hawk, the gyrfalcon and the prairie falcon. Historical tradition designated the gyrfalcons for the use of kings, the ladies flew merlins and the kestrels were for the pleasure of the commoner. Occasionally an eagle was available as a special gift to an emperor. But the peregrine was - and still remains - the bird of choice among the majority of falconers. They have great powers of flight and attack and are readily trained. Other hawks used today are the red-tail goshawk and Harris hawk and captive-bred, artificially inseminated, hy-brids.
Falconry has its own particular vocabulary which has been handed down through the mists of time. I will only touch briefly on some of the words and what they mean..... wait on (soar above until prey has been produced below); quarry (prey); hacking (allowing young birds to experience the wild); lure (line with bait attached); creance (given); jesses (thin leather leg straps often with bells attached - a leash is fashioned to the jesses); manning (training the bird to become accustomed to humans); bate (jump from the perch); flying to the fist (obvious); ringed up (spiral climb); pitch (maximum flying height); passage birds (birds caught in the wild on their first migration); stoop (falcon's dive at prey); haggard (full-grown and tamed hawk); and brail (strip of leather slipped over wings to prevent fluttering -used in conjunction with the hood).
Behind what appears to the casual observer to be a spectacular show lies unlimited patience, time consuming work, persistence and dedication. Then, after training a falcon, the falconer who wishes to work with both bird and dog must use additional care and training so that the falcon will learn to trust the dog. The falcon recognizes and agrees to hunt with a consistent producer of prey. The dog becomes the consistent producer. A hunting dog that "courses" and is too big a runner will not be as satisfactory as a closer working gun dog. This makes the Vizsla an ideal falcon dog.
"A good pointing dog makes a big difference when hunting with a falcon. It is extremely important to know the quarry's location so the flush can be timed right. We usually carry the falcon hooded until the dog goes on point. The bird is then unhooded and released to climb to the desired altitude. When it is in proper position, we flush the bird and the falcon stoops to the quarry. The dog should be steady to flush so as not to scare up any birds that may be holding tight. If the falcon misses, which is more often than not, it will hopefully remount for another try.
It is an interesting show!....We moved to Nebraska in 1990 to pursue prairie grouse. Many consider them to be the most challenging quarry in this country for a falcon, and we agree. "The falcon must give its all to catch one of these little rockets! " (from January 1994 AKC Gazette - German Shorthaired Pointers breed column contributed by Jill Graves, Stapleton, NE.)
"I have seen Spaniels, Labradors, Terriers and an assortment of mongrels used with varying degrees of success <in aiding the falconer>, but my own preference has been the pointer/retriever breeds (although no retrieving is required) -- I exclude pointers and setters for use in enclosed ground with a true hawk. In all branches of falconry where a dog is used, there is an inestimable value in the time a <dog> gives one to move into a suitable position prior to the <flush>; a tremendous advantage when flying a hawk and a 'sine qua non' when flying falcons at game...Very few falconers are able to afford the luxury of a separate dog handler, therefore, steadiness and complete 'handability is essential as the falconer will tend to concentrate on his bird... Although I had not seen many Vizslas, the breed had impressed me. They did not appear too headstrong. The need was for a dog that was gentle, co-operative, willing to please, yet not too much of a "potterer". (Martin Jones, English falconer. By the way, Jones did start to hawk with a Vizsla and from all reports, it was an extremely successful partnership.)
There are falconers working with Vizslas on the East and West Coasts -- and in between, I'm sure. I would love to hear from some of them so I can relate their experiences to our readers.
"Animals are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with us in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners in the splendour and travail of earth." -- Henry Beston.
(Bibliography: "Bird of Jove" by David Bruce, Texas A&M University Press; "Falcons Return" by John Kaufman & Heinz Meng, William Morrow & Company; "The Peregrine Falcon" by Carl R. Green & William R. Sanford, Crewswood House, Mankato, Minnesota, "The Hungarian Vizsla" by Gay Gottlieb, Nimrod Book Services, Hants, England)