As Featured in Western Tanager, Vol. 85 No. 1, Sept-Oct 2018
While visiting Ireland a few years back, I fully expected to dance an Irish jig, sip a Guinness, and kiss the Blarney Stone…, but I never expected to walk a hawk!
It was during a stay at the historic Ashford Castle in Cong, Ireland that we learned of the Castle’s nearby Ireland School of Falconry. Always up for an adventure, we investigated and found that not only did Ireland’s oldest school of falconry accept visitors, but it actually offered a chance to get up close and personal with a hawk in what they call a "Hawk Walk.” Without hesitation, we booked a session.
At our appointed time for our visit, we arrived at the medieval entry to the school, and were greeted by our guide and Falconer Damian. He showed us around the school, introducing us to the more than 30 different birds of prey housed there, from hawks and falcons to owls. After allowing us to interact with Dingle, a spectacular, orange-eyed Eurasian Eagle Owl, he pointed out the two magnificent birds we’d be taking on our hawk walk. Aptly named Swift and Wilde, the young Harris Hawks, it turned out, were not named for their individual character traits; they were named after two of Ireland’s most iconic writers, Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde. They looked strong and formidable.
As we observed the hawks, our falconer introduced us to our bird-handling equipment: a jess, or thin leather strap used to tether the hawks; a gauntlet, a thick leather glove extending to the elbow, upon which our birds would perch during our walk and land when we called them in from flight; and a pouch of meat that would be used to encourage the birds to come back when we beckoned them.
It was then time to receive our birds. Our instructor lifted each bird from its perch and placed it on our gloved hands. Looking directly into the eyes of a bird of prey only an arm’s length from your face can be a humbling experience. Raptors are one of the swiftest, strongest predators on earth, with sharp, curved beaks, massive talons, and powerful feet and wings. A hawk can spot prey from 100 feet away and, in a hunting dive, can achieve speeds of 120 miles per hour. They are fierce creatures and must be well-trained and trustworthy to get close to humans. Fortunately for us, Swift and Wilde were born and raised at the school, and learned early on to rely upon humans for training, food and shelter.
Departing the confines of the school, the hawk walk took us through acres of lovely wooded land. As we strolled we got a feel for the birds and learned a bit about the history of falconry. Falconry, the sport of hunting with a trained bird of prey, is said to have originated in Mesopotamia (today known as the Middle East), with the earliest accounts of hawking dating to approximately 2,000 BC. After the first known book on falconry – “De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus,” ("The Art of Hunting with Birds") -- was written by King Frederich II in the 1240’s, the sport made its way to other countries. In Britain, royalty became so enamored with falconry that kings kept royal falconers, who trained and hunted with the birds, in what became known as the “sport of kings.” We could relate. We sort of felt like kings with these regal birds.
After a short walk, it was time for some action. Our instructor showed us the basics of releasing the bird, which meant untying the jesses at the birds’ feet and pointing up with our free hand. Wilde wasted no time in lifting off from my gloved hand and within seconds he was sailing up to the treetops, searching the ground for mice, rabbits or other potential prey. Swift followed and the two hawks were a magnificent sight flying together.
After they landed in a high treetop, our falconer explained how to call a bird in. I was to take a small piece of meat in my gloved hand, and sweep my hand up to show Wilde there was food, then extend my arm out parallel to the ground to signal the bird to come to my arm. The first try took a bit of coaxing but then, suddenly, Wilde dove from the treetops and was sailing toward my hand. This was a moment I’ll never forget. Watching a large, powerful raptor swooping down straight towards you is a huge thrill, if not a bit nerve-wracking. My heart was pounding as he came in low and close to the ground, then suddenly pulled his large wings backward, lifted up to the height of my arm, and landed lightly right on my glove. I quickly put my thumb on the jesses to hold him as he ate my offering. After some celebratory squeals of delight, we continued to walk with our hawks, releasing them periodically to watch them majestically fly over and through the treetops. At one point, Swift spotted a small bird and tore through the trees in pursuit. Though he didn’t return with a prize, our falconer explained that the pursuit was good training for the young hawk. More and more often, the two hawks were spotting and obtaining small game, and returning it to their Falconer.
Our hawk walk has long been remembered as one of our most cherished birding adventures. It’s one thing to see birds in the wild through binoculars or a scope, and a very different thing to have one perch on your arm and look you in the eye!
Ireland School of Falconry Falconer Damian adjusts the jesses as Wilde looks me in the eye as if assessing me.
Falconry has not only had an impact on man’s relationship to birds, but also on our language. Here are a few examples of words and phrases purportedly derived from the sport of falconry:
The term “hoodwinked” comes from the practice of putting a hood over a hunting bird’s head to calm him.
Having someone “under your thumb” is an expression that originated from the falconer’s thumb-hold over the bird’s leather strap to control it as it perches on the falconer’s gloved hand.
The phrase “fed up” also originated with falconry, meaning the falcon had eaten enough and would have no interest in hunting.
Today, the Ireland School of Falconry has 10 falconers and 38 birds, ranging in age from 1 to 19 years old. According to Debbie Knight, who with her husband founded the school in 1999, their institute is somewhat of an anomaly in that they never sell any of their birds.
“We maintain the highest quality of life for our birds and staff,” says Knight. “The birds come first and everything else is second to that. They are part of the family and will remain at the school for life.” Dingle, the gorgeous owl we met several years ago, is still there, and the senior raptor at 19.
Besides the once-in-a-lifetime chance to get up close and personal with a large bird of prey, the falconry experience increased our knowledge of and appreciation for these birds in nature, and why we need to protect them.
“Falconry is an important tradition to continue worldwide, not just in Ireland,” Knight says. “It has recently become a UNESCO intangible living heritage, which will hopefully secure its future worldwide. The more attached people become to the natural world, the more they will understand it, appreciate it and learn how to protect it. Our mission has always been to provide the highest quality Hawk Walk experiences for our guests, so they feel closer to nature.”
For those who dream of having their own hawk walk experience, there are about a dozen falconry schools or bird of prey centers in the United Kingdom. In the U.S., the North American Falconers Association is devoted to encouraging the sport. And there are a handful of schools and resorts in the U.S. that offer various kinds of falconry experiences, including schools in California, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
For more information on Ireland's School of Falconry visit www.falconry.ie.