Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Thrills of Falconry

When my wife announced we would take the train to Kranichfeld (Field of Cranes)to hike around the mountains of Southern Thuringia—to look at two abandoned castles, my heart skipped a few boring beats, relieved only by the prospect of seeing another squadron of cranes taking their fall flight South. (My first glimpse of their annual migration in Germany almost made a birder of me, so majestic was their deployment.)

Actually, those two castles had enough history to appease my muscles strained by the semi-vertical hike. And the 360 degree ocular sweeps in the tiptop castle lookouts were tantalizing. It also seemed every dog within 20 kilometres barked themselves silly at our invading their terrain, pausing as we did to catch our breath. At one such pause the handsomest ram I’ve ever seen strode over from his distant “house” to check us out. Soon his ewe joined her ram to gawk too. Followed by a perky new lamb mewling happily. There the two friendly trios murmured and mumbled at each other: the sheepish trio-- and Hilly, Danny and me.

It was then that my wife’s vague allusions to “birds” began to make sense. One fiftyish autodidact falconer, one Herbert Schütz, had moved his birds and their perches to Niederburg Castle in 2005, because its heights and broad vistas there energized his birds. Paradoxically, ”the perfect” fall day, blazing sun and not a whisper of wind, is not “perfect” for them. They want to soar to windy heights.
Schütz explained that he found his first bird with his grandfather—a small buzzard in the woods, and carefully carried it home. He then succumbed to a passion for them, buying more and different species whenever he earned pocket money. He passed the falconer’s exam in 1975. His first choice was Dame Anja. His second he named Ralf, only to be embarrassed when Ralf started laying eggs!

His performance now exhibits six different species. Most interesting to my eye were the white or American eagle (my first!), a buzzard, a condor and an owl. The ten level bleachers faced a huge field on two corners of which were raised platforms for the birds to show off on. Schütz has the gimmick of identifying Americans in the audience and teasing them with his birds! I had the rare (and I fondly hope unique) experience of having a condor zoom at my head and settle on my shoulder!

We were worried that Danny (who sat alone on the first row) would panic when he got birded. Heh, Schütz chose a white owl to zoom at Danny. He bravely stroked the bird and got a white owl feather for his courage! He proudly displayed it on our train trip back to Weimar. It now holds a place of honor above his bed.

Schütz is a talented performer, explaining the diverse personalities of his avian tribe as he deftly toys with each breed that has its own character and then rewards them each with flesh or seeds. The elegance of these animals has to be seen to be believed.

I was curious to see how this entertainment began as a method of human survival. “Falconry” is defined as “the taking of wild quarry in its natural state by means of a trained raptor.”What is now an elegant entertainment began as a means of survival. It appears that the art probably originated in Mesopotamia or Mongolia. The story picks up about 2000 B.C. The Falcon was the symbolic bird of ancient Mongol tribes. And falconry figures in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The art was probably introduced into Europe around 400 A.D, when the Huns and Alans invaded from the East.

Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250) is generally acknowledged as the most significant wellspring of traditional falconry knowledge. He probably got his knowledge from the Arabs in a war between June 1228 and June 1229. He got a copy of Moamyn’s manual on falconry then and had it translated into Latin by Theodore of Antioch. Frederick II himself made corrections to that translation in 1241 for “De Scientia Venandi per Aves”. Toward the end of his life he wrote “The Art of Hunting with Birds”.

It became a popular sport and status symbol for European nobles. Not so with the nomadic Bedouins. They hunted small game in the winter months to supplement a meager diet. The genre flourished in Europe in the 17th century, but slowly perished in the 18th and 19th century when firearms became the weapon of choice. In the early twentieth century there was a revival in England and North America as a posh pastime. Veterinarian advances and telemetry (transmitters attached to birds) have lengthened the falcons’ life spans. But it remains with benign addicts like Herbert Schütz to bring the thrills of this ancient art to the masses.

Another version of this essay appears at Broad street Review.

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