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The History of Falconry with Bird Dogs

The age-old hunting alliance between man, raptor, and dog.

The History of Falconry with Bird Dogs

This partnership between species is ancient—and it is built upon one shared desire: hunting. (Photo By: Jacob Lytle)

As the cold November November air starts to move into my home in Pennsylvania, I can see the black arrows of ducks shoot through the sky towards the safety of the open river.

I have always loved waterfowl hunting. To convince late season mallards to set down their icy gray wings takes a lot of skill and a bit of luck. It also requires a good set of convincing decoys. It is a game of foolery to an extent. You put out a number of floating, plastic imitations in a convincing manner—something that is as realistic and natural as possible. You hide in a blind brushed in to disappear into the natural elements and vegetation seamlessly. And then, you call, and you call some more, hoping to sound like a real mallard duck. You then wait. You wait and hope that your entire presentation fools the birds into making a mistake.

If there was ever an antonym for classic waterfowl hunting, it may just be falconry. In falconry, a hunter walks with a leather fisted glove covering his or her hand, while a bird of prey perches on top, waiting to be released upon its quarry. There is no hiding—the bird needs a vantage point. There is no decoying—this hawk is as real as they come. And on a leather fist, from duck to rabbit and everything in between, it strikes fear on a chemical level to all beneath its gaze.

The Timeless Tradition of Falconry

“A quail reacts much different to you than a bird of prey. They will fly through your legs with a natural predator present. Ducks will fly straight into the ground. There is such an innate, instinctual fear,” Tyler Sladen says as I speak to him over a landline phone somewhere in New Mexico.

Tyler has fifteen dogs in his home in Albuquerque and hunts over 180 days a year. Tyler has killed Mearns, scaled quail, gambles, bobwhite, snipe, California quail, pheasant, Huns, rails, various waterfowl species, and all types of furred game with his birds of prey through the years.

Tyler started the multi-year process of becoming a falconer over a decade ago after he went to a falconry meet. “I watched dogs and hawks work together—it was dog work but on another level,” explains Tyler. “The dogs and birds were communicating and understanding each other. I was hooked instantly.”

In falconry, the bird, dog, and man all desire the same thing. Long before there were shotguns, the bird was the bridge between man and dog to pursue game that they never could before.

man holding falcon on his wrist
Tyler Sladen is one of approximately 4,000 falconers in the United States, and among only a small percentage of who dedicate their time to hunting upland birds. (Photo By: Jacob Lytle)

In the Beginning

In 1958, German archeologists found pottery shards in northern Syria dated roughly to 3000 BC. Of the many shards, one fragment included a scene with what appeared to be a falconer holding a raptor and quarry, with two dogs at heel. According to researchers, this could be the oldest documented artifact of falconry. However, there is much debate around this theory when compared to a set of petroglyphs found in north central Iran depicting falconers mounted on horses and massive elephants, using both dogs and trained cheetahs in their hunting. This set of petroglyphs could be as old as 9000 BC, but scholars have not concluded their ongoing debate. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that the roots of falconry, and the partnership between raptor, hunter, and dog started in the Middle East and Asia.

In 2000 BC, the Gilgamesh Epic—a poem from ancient Mesopotamia, regarded as the earliest surviving notable literature and the second oldest religious text—clearly referred to hunting with the use of birds of prey, as well as hunting with the use of dogs. These canines were likely sighthounds who were ancestors of the modern saluki.

The Arab poets wrote many poems among the dunes praising the falcon. All Arab social classes—kings, sheikhs, and humble cavalry practiced falconry and passed the tradition on to the proceeding generations. The Arabian Gulf region, over time, became famous for its falconers and deeply rooted falconry traditions as old as the sand itself. As a matter of fact, even the Holy Koran includes a falconry-related verse.

To this day, falconry is considered a glowing symbol of tradition and culture in the Middle East, which holds fifty percent of the world’s falconers, many of whom still own the same breed of sighthounds that their ancestors did thousands of years ago. These dogs are revered, respected, and treated as equals in the hunt.

Falconry in Central Asia & Beyond  

Many scholars still contend that the central steppes of Mongolia were the actual birthplace of falconry, although as discussed, the archeological evidence suggests the Middle East.  

Falconry was practiced in Mongolia in high favor by 1000 BC, with its origins in the region far earlier. It is theorized that the ancestors of the Mongols, the great Hunnic Empire, were the ones who brought falconry to Europe through military conquest in the fourth and fifth century AD. At this time, falconry was well established and documented in all of Asia, including China, Japan, and Korea. The Huns brought their falconry dogs with them, floppy-eared and descendants of the modern Hungarian pointer, also known as the vizsla.

Under the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century AD, Mongolian influence expanded at an astounding rate to swallow nearly the entire Eurasian continent, excluding only western Europe. Falconry from horseback was always a centerpiece of Mongol culture and their conquest not only delivered new falconry knowledge throughout the continent, but stable Mongol rule further permitted and supported falconry pursuits throughout their occupied territory.

ancient mongolian man with falcon and sighthounds
Vast Mongolian historical rule had a large impact on the spread of falconry across the world. (Photo courtesy of The Archives of Falconry)

Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant and explorer, travelled through Asia between 1271 and 1295 and curiously recorded details of the Mongol Leader, Genghis Khan’s falconry trips: "When the Emperor Kublai Khan goes thus a-fowling with his falcons and other hawks, he is attended by full 10,000 men who are disposed in couples…. Every man of them is provided with a whistle and hood, so as to be able to call in a hawk and hold it in his hand...there are also a great number of eagles, all broken to catch wolves, foxes, deer, and wild goats, and they do catch them in great numbers. But those especially that are trained to wolf-catching are very large and powerful birds, and no wolf is able to get away from them…”

To this day, falconry with the use of large raptors and sighthounds is a tradition in Mongolia, where they often target fox and wolves from horseback with a fisted golden eagle.

Falconry in Europe & North America  

By the Middle Ages, falconry was widely practiced by the nobility of Europe. It was the sport of royalty for centuries, with the possession of falcons and other birds of prey considered a high-status symbol. In England, falconry was governed by a strict set of customs called the “Laws of Ownership,” which dictated the birds of prey that were allowed to be flown by citizens of various social ranks. A king could fly a gyrfalcon; a duke a rock falcon; an earl a peregrine; a yeoman a goshawk; and a servant a kestrel.

But when the Puritans took over England in the late 17th century, field sports such as falconry were attacked. During this time, the flintlock was also introduced, which drastically changed popular hunting culture in most of Europe. Hunters were now able to shoot game on the wing for the first time behind their gun dogs.

As a result, falconry in England was quite inactive until the late 19th century when a British resurgence was led by a group of wealthy sportsmen. These men utilized predatory birds and worked behind relatively new stylish breeds such as the English setter and pointer, who were at home in the big open moors of England and Scotland. They also still used more traditional flushing dogs, who had long been used by falconers hunting hedgerows and thickets.

In 1911, Russell Luff Meredith, known as “The Father of American Falconry,” wrote a magazine article about falconry that marked the spark of its formal practice in the United States.

National Geographic also published an article in 1920 titled “Falconry, The Sport of Kings,” which grabbed much attention and only further fueled its allure amongst American hunters.  

In the 1960’s, after the founding of the North American Falconers Association (NAFA), true game hawking exploded across the United States, with the red-tailed hawk becoming a favorite, and a decade later the Harris hawk began to see the glove of many American hunters and their gun dogs.

old photo of men with falcons and an english setter bird dog
Modern falconry is highly regulated and practiced by dedicated individuals across North America. (Photo courtesy of The Archives of Falconry)

A Timeless Communication

Long-wingers, or falconers who hunt with peregrine falcons, hunt wide-open prairies, usually behind big running dogs like pointers. Their peregrines can hit sage grouse at over 200 miles per hour on a free dive.

Imprint birds, or hawks raised by humans from when they are young, spend time in close proximity to their handlers, often in the middle of their living room. It is a much longer process than handling a wild-caught bird of course, but shockingly, wild birds can also learn to hunt relatively successfully with their handler in a short period of time.

But the relationship and ultimate partnership with a bird dog takes time for the raptor. The bird learns to communicate with the dogs, and the dog communicates in return to the hawk and hunter. A hawk, with exposure, will even learn what a point indicates.

“Birds will actually stand up higher on the fist when the dogs are on point,” Sladen tells me.

The bird will keep an eye on the dog, and the dog keeps an eye on the hunter—indicating the presence of quarry with a genetically instinctual point.  The dog also learns to respect the hawk’s kill when it occurs, distinguishing the hawk very clearly from a pursued bird species. It is an incredible communication and connection between species—hunter, dog, and raptor.

Sladen says that out of his fifteen dogs, his vizslas, red as the desert sunset, are undoubtedly his best falconry dogs. When they roam the sands of the Southwest, dodging cactus and passing through thick cat claw, you will get a glimpse of modern falconry. But if you look closely when the dog locks on point, eyes looking back as Sladen approaches, with a hawk standing higher and higher, you will witness thousands of years of evolution and partnership.

What has always connected our species is the hunt. And this ancient thread, carved in petroglyphs thousands of years ago that ties hawk, dog, and hunter together is one that is still woven strongly in culture and tradition across the world. And, as long as quail fly and rabbits run, may it always be that way.

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