With this article, Mary Ellen Rooney again takes up the tale of her late-life passion for falconry. Ms. Rooney, who writes on a diverse range of subjects, was on a U.N. mission to Krygystan when she was galvanized by the sight of a hunter on horseback with a huge eagle on his arm. (See Part One.) She knew at that moment that someday she, too, would be a falconer. Her story as it unfolds demonstrates all that can happen when we actually act on the kind of inner knowledge that began for her one day in the Tien Shan Mountains. —Ed.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” My falconry journey often echoes the Tolkien theme.
After a huge amount of study and hard work persuading falconry masters to share their knowledge with me, by November 2008 I had succeeded in acquiring hunting licenses, landing one quarry on my own (a pheasant captured by a Harris’s Hawk in Quebec), with the promise to watch a master falconer trap a Red-Tailed Hawk. Although I had built my own trap according to regulations, I was in no hurry to go trapping on my own.
If I was to be taken seriously in the field, it was now time to buy my own gauntlet (protective glove for falcons to land on). I had a riotous conversation with a young salesman at Northwoods Outfitters, in Washington, about color. There are many reasons a male falconer chooses gauntlet color, but wardrobe coordination is not among them. I mean, I had a brown wax Barbour jacket, and might it look contrived if I also had a dark brown gauntlet? Should I think in terms of contrast? I was definitely doing a masculine activity in a very female way. That’s been a leitmotif throughout this endeavor; it makes me smile as much as it perplexes some of the males in the field.
The commitment to own a gauntlet was just the beginning of my association with Northwoods. They supply leathers, swivels, snaps, nooses, lures, and all the other accoutrements for falconry, including the entire collection of famed British falconer Nick Fox’s videos on breeding, training, anatomy, health care, and nutrition. I have learned so much from those videos, and love to browse the Northwoods catalog . . . go figure.
During that time I read and read and joined the North American Falconers Association, which gave me access to its website, professional journalism, and news of what was going on in the field. More and more I wanted to expand my knowledge to include conservation of birds of prey and their quarry. I also needed to meet other falconers.
An article about the International Festival of Falconry to be held in England in July 2009 set me on a new road. The festival website disclosed that falconers from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia would also be participating. I simply had to go. I needed to complete the circle that had launched me on this path.
I packed my glove and a pair of light boots just in case there was an invitation to go hunting while in England.
The festival opened a new world to me. I felt like a soaring bird that gains a wider and wider view as it flies higher and higher. Everything and everyone was there: equipment for, and devotees of, a sport that has barely changed in more than 4,000 years.
Local attendees mixed with falconers in native dress. There were Arabian horses, exotic hunting dogs such as Salukis, British gentlemen with walking sticks, and enthusiastic children. Tents were set up for visiting falconers from exotic locales. Many wore native garb for the occasion, and when they participated in the Parade of Nations that ended each day. There were falconers from Central Asia (where it is believed the ancient art began); Europe, displaying falconry’s medieval/royal aspects; Japan; China; and especially the Arabic countries. Fifty-five countries were represented at the elegant Englefield Estate in Berkshire. Here are some impressions from the three-day event.
On the first (preview) day, lo and behold, there was Nick Fox buzzing around in a golf cart, pretty obviously in charge of everything. Hesitatingly I told him how much his falconry education courses had meant to me. It was like meeting a movie star. To me, Nick Fox is the Jacques Cousteau of falconry. He laughed, quipping, “When I started this I had dark hair.” I told him I had a wonderful colorist in Quebec City, but the trouble was that once you started, you had to keep it up. Later I would sit at the table with his wife (I had been VIP’d by the pubic relations director once he heard about my U.N. connections, and in light of plans underway to have falconry declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage).
That afternoon, following my heart, I sought out the Kyrgyz tent. I stayed a long time, shedding a few tears behind my sunglasses. Language was still a barrier, yet I basked in the comfortable, warm memory of the Tien Shan Mountains, the people, and the songs I had sung there.
Falconers from Central Asia hunt almost exclusively on horseback, with eagles. A falconer from Yorkshire appeared with his own eagle for the Central Asians to use for demonstration purposes. One of the falconers, Zarnaev Sagymbai (shown in the photos within this story), invited me to come to Lake Issyk-kul in Kyrgyzstan to join a hunt in the fall. I am an elementary rider and certainly can’t sit a horse for four hours. There are limits to the chances I am willing to take with my chassis at this juncture. I can’t afford to have the tiniest thing jolted or broken. Still, the invitation was so genuine. He knew how I felt about Kyrgystan. The heart has its own language.
From the impressive UAE contingent I learned much about Arab falconry. In particular, I discovered the Saluki, an ancient hunting dog dating back to Egyptian times and never called “dog,” because as such it would not have been admitted into a Bedouin tent. I ask someone in the Arab Cultural Heritage tent for a hat to shield me from the sun. I am immediately weighed down with pounds of gifts. I learn about Arab generosity and sign the book supporting the UNESCO initiative to designate falconry as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
In these times, when global cooperation is evasive and power politics and bureaucracies are so obstructive, this initiative is truly remarkable. It appears that traits leading to becoming a successful falconer have been utilized to the fullest in the UNESCO endeavor: discipline, patience, persistence, and perseverance. An instinct for hunting quarry doesn’t hurt, either, when dealing with a diverse group of cultures and languages.
While in England I gained some insight into some personal reasons that had directed me to this very ancient and sparsely populated sport. I have always liked old technologies that endure. When I worked at a pond fishing school in the Czech Republic I loved that the engineering technology conceived long ago was working just fine today. The same is true for falconry. Except for advances in telemetry that are an improvement over using bells to find your bird, very little has changed in methods used to trap, train, and hunt with a bird of prey in 4,000 years. It appeals to me that someone got it right in the beginning.
While at the festival I learned firsthand that our environmental problems are the same as those of other countries. For example, even the Houbara (desert quarry) in the UAE are threatened by rapid development and urbanization.
I recently realized that I was born under a flyway, and throughout my life I have always lived under one. It may be the reason that, despite the hurdles, I continue to pursue this age-old sport.
In England I was awestruck to see Red Kites where they had been extinct for generations and only recently had been reintroduced by a release program. Now they are plentiful. What a beautiful, small miracle.
Next posting: Ms. Rooney digs deeper into her love of falconry, nature, and birds of prey. She follows the UN initiative all the way to Abu Dhabi for the UNESCO celebration in 2011.