Even though I used a hawk in Tower of Obsidian, I’ll be using the term falconry for this article, because everyone knows what I’m talking about. An austringer refers to a human human hunting with hawks and eagles, whereas a falconer relates specifically to someone who works with falcons. It is also important to note that it is not unheard of for an individual to have different birds within the same aviary. Generally speaking, the birds are captured and raised as fledgelings by the falconer.
Raptors have a long history with people. The earliest record of falconry is claimed to be in Assyria around 720 BC, though the first proven record was around 680 BC in China. There is some evidence that humans have been hunting with birds since around 2000 BC. As of today, it is thought that falconry was introduced in Europe is around 400 AD. It was an important mark of aristocracy in throughout the medieval era, and was a mark of status and continued on after its decline. The much contested Book of St. Albans stated which birds were appropriate for which rank throughout Europe, with the larger and more grand birds being reserved for nobility, however there were rules for what sorts of birds could be used by members of the clergy, commoners, and women as well.
Birds used for falconry are generally of the Falconiformes (which is in constant flux, as these creatures are hard to classify). Owls can be trained similarly, however owls are nocturnal in nature and present unique challenges – I have only seen limited information on the training of owls in this manner. It is important to remember that there are birds that are considered very similar in size, but are not predators in nature. So even though a vulture is still technically very close to a falcon or a hawk, in nature, it lacks that much-needed hunting response as it is a scavenger by nature.
The gender of the bird is very important in falconry – unlike in mammals, with falcons and hawks, the females tend to be quite a bit larger. The size of a bird usually indicates the size of prey it is capable of taking down – for example, a Goshawk is quite large, capable of taking down prey as large as geese. In Tower of Obsidian, I used a sparrowhawk, which is quite small, and capable of taking down smaller creatures, such as sparrows and voles.
The male of the same bird is referred to as a Tercel. The size of the bird also determines on how long the bird can go without eating. For this reason, it is important to acknowledge the specific needs of the variety of species – the Sparrowhawk, for example, is considered one of the most difficult birds to train, and it is so small, that if it doesn’t hunt and consume prey, it can die within a few days. Generally speaking, those who consider taking up the sport of falconry are encouraged to begin with birds that are generally considered easier to train.
The nature of raptors is to hunt in a given territory. With the exception of the Harris Hawk, they tend not to be social creatures, and can attack smaller animals they perceive as prey. Generally speaking, the reason for the blinders is because the bird’s site is much stronger than a human’s – if the human sees potential prey, odd are, the bird had seen it long ago and has potentially locked onto a different target. The equipment of falconry is very necessary – the talons and beaks of even the smaller birds can be very damaging to humans and, it is not uncommon for the birds to become lost.
If you’re considering including falcons, hawks, or eagles in your novel as a companion to your main characters, the best thing to do is contact your nearest zoo and see if they have any birds that they are willing to show. I live in an area where the birds are plentiful, but my zoo occasionally shows how they fly and capture prey before a large audience. These are living creatures that require a considerable amount of time – although I like to encourage hands on learning for other research, this is one of those activities that is probably best left to talking to individuals already involved in the sport. If you have a local falconry club or there is an professor who studies raptors and you fall in love with the sport, you will be in a better position when the magic wears off. The time commitment is considerable. At the very least, if you seek out more information on these magnificent creatures and get to watch a demonstration, you can witness their incredible abilities at flight. If possible, request to see a Peregrine Falcon – the fastest known creature in the world, clocking in at around 200 mph. To put it into perspective, the land-based cheetah maxes out at 75 mph.
There are many companions you can use in your fantastic fiction – and some, like raptors, give a sense of majesty and can help portray a character. It is important to remember that when you’re doing research that if you’re doing something that effects living creatures, to do as much book-based research prior to committing to the real creatures. They’re wonderful – and even if you decide to create a magical counterpart to the real thing, it’s a great building block in your world-building to learn about our real-world equivalencies.