Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/October 1895/Hunting with Birds of Prey



AMONG the animals that man has in different periods of history forced to serve his purposes, none are now so much neglected in western lands as birds of prey. These creatures, however, at a time which is not yet far away from us, constituted the essential factor of falconry, which was a few centuries ago held in the highest honor. This sport, although it has fallen into decay in Europe, is still practiced in northern Africa and some parts of Asia, chiefly central Asia. Having had occasion to indulge in it much on my own account in both these regions, I am able to speak from personal experience of the manner in which it is practiced there. Falconry in Africa, where it has come down from the Arabs of the middle ages, has been described many times, especially from the picturesque point of view. I shall speak especially of the sport in central Asia, where, while it is less known to Westerners, it is practiced more perfectly than in any other country. It has entered completely into the habits of the people, and it is not there, as in Africa, limited to a small number of wealthy proprietors.

The exhibition at Tashkend in 1891 included a department of the chase, in which the most distinguished falcon teams of Turkistan figured prominently. The Khan of Khiva was an exhibitor, and was represented by his best birds and his most skillful falconers. Instead of allotting the prizes, according to the most usual plan, to the best-looking birds, matches were instituted and the relative merit of the competing birds was determined by the test of what they could do. I had an opportunity on this occasion to make a thorough study of the technical details of a sport which I had already practiced under different circumstances.

Such large birds as the eagle are trained for falconry in Turkistan, and are used for the capture of foxes, gazelles, antelopes, and even, it is said, deer. They are so heavy that the falconer is not able to carry them on his arm alone, and has to support it on a wooden prop, the base of which is attached to his saddle.

According to the Arabian traditions, the training of the falcon to hunt was first accomplished by an inhabitant of Mosul; but the training of the eagle has been practiced by the Chinese and the Mongols from an antiquity much more remote than the Arabian period, and falconry was probably introduced into Turkistan from the north of China, and then into Persia, perhaps by some Hunnish people.

Falconry is so deeply established in Turcoman life that people in modest conditions and even children engage in it. A favorite winter game of the children in the streets of Samarcand and other large cities of central Asia consists in setting in flight crows which are held by long strings tied to the hand, and practicing the exercises of falconry with them.

Female birds are preferred in both Asia and Africa, as being larger and stronger than males, and are more readily trained; but males are also sometimes used. Among the great variety of birds of prey in Turkistan, those which are habitually domesticated are first the falcons and hawks. The common goshawk

PSM V47 D837 Golden eagle aquila chrysaetos.jpg

Fig. 1.—Golden Eagle {Aquila chrysaetos).

(Astur palumbarius) and the sparrow hawks (Accipiter nisus and Accipiter virgatus) are most usually employed and most valued. They are used principally for taking pheasants, partridges, and quails. Most of the buzzards are trained. The kites, which were supposed in ancient European falconry not to be susceptible of training, are used with success. The Milvus melanotic, which has been identified by Pallas with the black kite of Europe, but is probably distinct, proves to be quite tractable.

The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaëtos), Aquila daphnea, and Aquila clanga are habitually trained, and are mentioned by travelers, and other varieties or species of eagle are employed. Owls are sometimes trained, but are good only for hunting at night.

Every Turcoman has at least one of these trained birds, of breed and size corresponding with his fortune. They may be seen sitting on their perches in the rear of the bazaars and in the meanest shops, where they are made as much of as any other domestic animal. Whenever their owner goes out for any long distance over the plains, he takes his bird on his wrist or on the horn of his saddle, and if any game crosses his track launches the falcon out against it, as surely as a European or American would shoot at it. The falcon, let loose, flies till it is directly over the game, and then pounces down upon it in a dizzy fall which requires to be directed with the most exact precision, for, with his wings folded, he descends in the perpendicular line, by the sheer force of his weight, and may strike the game or not. If he fails, the hunter draws him in and holds him ready to be sprung at the next victim.

Birds intended to be used in falconry are taken from the nests when very young and trained from the beginning. They are easily found, for, there being no trees in the steppes, they are obliged to nest on the ground or in bushes. Adult birds can also be captured and made useful, and this is done among the Arabs as it formerly was in Europe. One of the methods of catching them is ingenious and curious. Pebbles as large as the bird can swallow without great inconvenience are dipped in blood, which is allowed to curdle on their surface, and are put in places which the hawks frequent. The birds swallow them greedily till they are so weighted down that they can not fly away. The hunters then come up and take them by hand.

As the purpose of central Asian falconry is different from that which was sought in European falconry in the middle ages, different qualities are prized in the birds. Originally, indeed, the purpose was the same in both regions—namely, to capture game which could not be reached with the imperfect arms in use. But falconry became a fine art in Europe, and the skill acquired in cultivating it caused it to be kept in practice long after firearms became common. It was practiced as a matter of pastime and a method of showing off accomplishments; and there was an aesthetic pleasure in watching the lofty flight of the birds and the precision and swiftness with which they would light upon their prey. Those birds were valued highest which, when they missed their mark, would spread their wings before they reached the ground, and soar up again, trying to recover by the speed of their flight the advance which the game made in the interval, and then dash down again and again until they succeeded or the game got out of their reach. On the other hand, those birds which flew directly from the falconer's hand to the game and seized it were regarded as ignoble and of base flight. The Turcomans, Chinese, and Kirghiz, being more practical in their views, especially esteem these birds of direct flight, and have carried their training to a high degree of perfection. The Turcoman nomad, hunting his game as a matter of business, does not want his falcon to attack it too savagely; that would be a waste. His bird PSM V47 D839 Goshawk astur palumbarius.jpgFig. 2.—Goshawk (Astur palumbarius). should strike the animal as a bullet or an arrow would, and, if he misses it, should stay upon the ground within reach of his master. In the oases like those of Samarcand and Tashkend, wooded with large trees and intercepted by high walls and wide and deep canals, a bird making long and circuitous flights would be often out of sight and sometimes hard to find. Hence birds that fly low are preferred to those that soar aloft.

Under these conditions the manner of dispatching the bird is of considerable importance. It is not usual to dispatch it for the game when it is still, but it is unhooded when the game is first seen and while it is yet in motion, and it should be started in such a way that the game shall be the first thing to attract its attention.

The only special articles in the costume of the falconers are the glove and the bird's hood. The glove is of white goatskin, and is armed with a gauntlet for the lower arm. The hood is a little sack of leather or padded cloth, furnished with a running string at its lower part and a leather or metallic ring on the upper part. To put the cap on, the bird is offered a piece of meat, while the owner holds the hood in such a position that it can be slipped over the bird's head as it stretches it out for the morsel. The meat is not given to the falcon, because if it were he would not be so eager to pursue the game. It might be supposed that the falcon would not be drawn to its master by such deceit, but he comes to know his proprietor very well. Decoys are used in training the birds—a piece of stuffed rawhide so fixed as to resemble a hare or other animal sitting on the ground, or some feathered object which when thrown into the air falls with motions like those of a wounded bird. Falconers further provide themselves with a tambourine to call the bird back, a wooden prop fixed to the saddle and forked at the other end to sustain the arm on which the bird is carried, and perches and cages for use at home.

As a rule, the smaller these birds of prey are, the more ardent and brave they seem to be. Very small sparrow hawks and hobbies will attack ducks six times as large as themselves, while most PSM V47 D840 Sparrow hawk accipiter nisus.jpgFig. 3.—Sparrow Hawk (Accipiter nisus). of the larger falcons are only moderately eager for the hunt. Eagles, notwithstanding their size and strength, have very little interest in the sport, and have to be very hungry before they will attack game, and then the game must not be very far away, else they will simply look at it with a philosophic air calculated to make the hunter frantic.

The falcons of Africa are competent to capture chiefly hairy game, while of feathered game they are effective only against small birds and young bustards running along the ground. A good Asiatic falcon, on the other hand, is efficient against every kind of game bird except pigeons. Quails are almost a sure prey to them, and they can catch three fourths of the partridges and half the ducks which they attempt. Ducks, if they are missed at the first descent, often succeed in escaping, either by their cunning or by their power of flight. Pigeons are never taken unless they are surprised or have been wounded. In general, the Asiatic falcons have greater powers of flight than their African congeners; but the African birds are more trusty than the Asiatic. They are in the habit of hunting together, of assisting and re-enforcing one another, and will often answer when their name is called. In chasing a hare, for instance, these birds will fly in a circle, on the lookout for game, in the direction toward which they are dispatched by command, or by the course of the horsemen. When one of them perceives a hare, he aims for it, in order to fall headlong upon it, trying to strike it with his claws or with his beak. If the animal does not remain still and the dash is therefore a failure, the bird re-ascends and tries his manoeuvre over again, calling at the same time to his comrades. They respond, and dash in turn at the game till it is dispatched. If it escapes after it has been missed and succeeds in hiding itself, the birds describe circles as dogs do on similar hunts, and the one which finds it first calls to the others.

The Turkistan birds hunt each on his own account, and are indifferent about seeking game that they have missed. In a few instances, where wealthy proprietors have large packs, the birds have been taught to hunt together and to rally to one another; but such cases are exceptional.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.