Falconry, A Sport Among Kings
Falcons, the majestic birds or prey have been patronized by royalty for the thrill of sport and to add splendour to the cour. The sport of falconry which spread throughout the world was especially popular with the Indian nobility.
Falconry, a sport among kings, princes and nobles started way back in 2000 B.C. in China. It started not as a sport but simply out of a necessity for food. From China it spread to Japan, India, Persia, Arabia, Turkey and finally to Europe. By 700 A.D. falconry was well established as a sport. By the middle of the 18th century there were hawking clubs all over Europe. Many tapestries and paintings all over the world depict battle scenes of kings and nobles with their favourite falcons as falconry was also a form of relaxation during long battles. King Richard, Coeur de Lion, took his hawks with him to the crusades. The kings Frederick Ii and Henry VIII of England and the Emperor Napoleon were all keen followers of this magnificent sport. Among the ladies, Mary Queen of Scots loved to be out hawking and Empress Catherine of Russia had her favourite falcon, Merlin.
The Mughals in India were also keen falconers. The sparrow hawk was the favourite of Emperor Akbar. He often used these remarkable birds for hunting. They also added splendour to his court. For them many mansabdars ( commanders), ahadis (single man) and other soldiers were employed. The birds were fed twice a day and towards the close of each day they were fed on sparrows of which the baz, jurrah and bahri got seven each.
Man’s special favourite, the falcon possesses several unique characteristics and exhibits qualities of individuality and royal personage so desirable to man. Falcons are birds of open country, solitary in habit and prefer to fly freely scouring the countryside with their acute sight and pausing in their majestic flight to stoop down at a hundred miled an hour on their unsuspecting prey.
The peregrine falcon, the finest bird for training in India, migrates along the east coast of Bhavnagar in Gujarat on the boarder of the Gulf of Cambay. It is an aggressive and fearless bird, a superb flier with complete and easy mastery of the air. The peregrine is also known as the duck hawk and is found throughout the world. There are about 18 different species described from different areas. They are medium sized falcons with short tails, sharply pointed long wings and stocky bodies. These birds are able to lift heavy prey as their primary wing feathers are long and slender facilitating speed in flight, the inner secondary are broad and can give tremendous amount of strength. The adult male has a blue grey back and the head is a dark flush slate. The area around the eyes is black and the upper breast is white or buff with black spots and the rest of the under part is dark. The tail is grey, blackish towards the end, tipped with white and heavily barred.
When hunting it is the fastest bird on earth both in stopping or straight pursuit. It can kill its prey in midair with its long hind killing toe. Often the impact of landing itself renders the prey immobile as while stooping the peregrine reaches a speed of 150 to 200 miles per hour. This is one or the reason why a peregrine can kill prey twice as heavy as itself like teal, partridge, grouse. Other falcons found in Bhavnagar are the desert falcon known as the lugger and goshawk or baz which can be trained very successfully.
In Bhavnagar the royal family continued to cherish the sport of hawking till the 40s. the late Maharaja, Shri Krishna Kumar Singh’s two brothers, Maharaja Nirmal Kumar Singh and Maharaja Dharam Kumar Singh were very enthusiastic sportsmen. They each had their own trainers and falcons. The falcons were caught on the coast of Bhavnagar or brought from Punjab. According to Maharaja Nirmal Kumar Singh, it is customary for these falcons to hunt in pairs. Regarding capturing and training of these wild birds, he says a decoy is fastened on an upright net and on seeing the decoy, the falcon stoops down to catch its prey and gets hopelessly entangled. Falcons were caught and kept for just one season and then set free.
After it is caught the falcon is securely bound in a handkerchief and its eyes are sealed. This is done by slipping a needle through the lower edge of the eyelid and putting the thread over the head. Apparently the falcon shows no sign of pain. In this manner the eastern falconers seal the eyes of their hunting birds. This keeps them quiet for the rest of the training days and prevents them from becoming excited and scared. The bird also gets used to the human voice and touch. Maharaja Nirmal Kumar also added that buying a hawk is like buying a horse. The colour phases, marking, shape, size of beak and middle toe, spirit, age and weight are a few points worth considering Indian falconers would never buy a falcon whose eyes were not sealed. Sealed eyes were an indication that the hawks had not been tramed.
Asked about the training of these birds, he says the new hawk never leaves the gloved hand of its trainer for four to five days. Day and night they are handled carefully by speaking to them softly and stroking them gently and constantly for only then can these wild birds be trained.
As soon as the hawks lose their fear and become docile, their eyes are unsealed and the training days begin. The trained swings a lure at the end of a short stick and the falcon stoops but the bait is jerked away before the bird can strike. After 40 to 50 attempts the falcon is permitted to strike and bring the lure down to the ground. It is indeed a wonderful sight to see these hawks starting to respond to their trainers. After this lesson the birds are hooded and well fed. Before a contest or a hunt the birds are given secret Indian drugs to stimulate them to have the utmost powers of speed, courage and endurance. Falcons, being good hunters with keen eyesight, can bring down big birds like ibis, cranes, big heron and among animals, hares. When the game rises, the falconer throws the hawk to catch its prey just like an athlete hurls a goal forward. But vigorous training is absolutely necessary to teach the little fighters how to chase such a quarry. In game hunting, pointers and setters are used and not until the game is found is the falcon unhooded.
Sometimes it is interesting to observe how an old hoody crow tries to outwit a falcon. The crow will try its best to get cover under bushes, ledges or anything in sight but if it is unfortunately on open ground the quarry must then try to beat the falcon in the air and keep above her. Once he does this he tries above her. Once he does this he tries to stoop downwards to take cover twisting and turning. This is a dramatic and exciting sight with the crow not always being the lucky one.
In India falcons and hawks constitute two thirds of all species of birds or prey. The uncommon goshawks and the perennial favourite, the peregrine span the Indian sub-continent.
However, the sport of falcony has been fast losing popularity not only due to the expenses involved but also due to wide criticism and an increasing awareness of preserving nature and wildlife. There has been a dwindling of the species. In fact the king of falcons, the bullet-headed, steel grey peregrine became almost extinct due to excess DDT in the environment causing the bird to lay eggs with fragile shells leading to greater prehatch mortality. However, people were quick to champion this much loves bird and save it from imminent peril.
In the Indo-Pakistan sub-continent, falconry appears to have been known from at least 600 years BC. Falconry became especially popular with the nobility and the Mughals were keen falconers. Surprisingly, the humble sparrowhawk was the favourite of the mighty Emperor Akbar. In the Indus Valley, falconry was considered a life-sustaining instrument for the desert dwellers, while those from the green belts considered it as a noble art and used the falcons as symbol of high birth and luxury. Organized hunting parties would go out for game. Richard Burton, the famous 19th Century historian and translator, wrote extensively about falconry in the Indus Valley, citing the interesting practices of its communities in his book “The Valley of the Indus.”
In India, in the Rajput States - in Jaipur, Bhavnagar etc. the royal families continued to cherish the sport of hawking till the 1940s, but then partition and subsequent political problems did for falconry in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nowadays, while there are many people who have paper knowledge of the birds, there are very few with practical knowledge left.In India there appear to be only three persons who possess the traditional skills. One of them is Col. Osman (Brother of King Zaeer Shah of Afghanistan); the others are Shantanu Kumar and Shahid Khan, both of Jaipur whose ancestors were professional falconers to Kumar Shree Dharmakumarsinghji, brother of the Maharaja of Bhavnagar.
Modern Pakistan, since partition from India and the loss of royal patronage, has had no falconry. The new state’s modern laws of the 1950s banned falconry to Pakistanis. However, hunting tourism is permitted and since the 1960’s wealthy foreigners have paid for the privilege of hawking there. This has led to problems– when commercialism enters common sense exits, but regulation has finally come and trappers must be licensed and are restricted to 15. Conservation groups like Falcons International (itself funded by Arab falconers) are now demanding a zero quota. The Environmental Agency of Abu Dhabi and Falcon Foundation International Pakistan have joined hands to work for the conservation of falcons, including the annual release of falcons into the wild under the Falcon Release Programme. These annual releases include falcons from several Gulf States that have spent a season hawking legally as well as illegal birds confiscated from smugglers. The confiscation of those illegal birds is part of the country’s efforts to implement stricter wildlife trade regulations.
Many thanks for all these beautiful photos, it must be amazing hunting with hawks , falcons and eagles.