It is late morning in Fabens, Texas. Low-lying scrub gives way to a lake on which a raft of ducks paddle in the winter sun, seemingly unaware of the hunter hiding nearby. But for a gauntlet—a leather glove that covers his hand up to the wrist—Bill Meeker is unarmed. His weapon—or perhaps more aptly, his hunting partner—a peregrine falcon, is circling 1,200 feet above, imperceptible to the mallards below. Meeker suddenly “flushes” the ducks, which fly off the water. The peregrine dives and then begins to “stoop,” tucking its wings and assuming the shape and speed of a bullet as it closes in on the ducks. Plunging at more than 100 mph, the falcon isolates a target and, flattening out, strikes. The force of its razor-sharp talons kills the duck instantly. “Dinner and a show,” says Meeker admiringly as he walks over to recover the falcon and its prey. “The thrill never gets old.”
Apparently not. The ancient art and sport of falconry—utilizing a trained raptor to hunt wild game—has survived for millennia throughout the world. The first tangible records of humans using birds of prey for hunting come from an Assyrian bas-relief dated in early seventh century BC, although the practice is believed to have originated some 4,000 years earlier. As trade increased between Arabia, the Far East, and Europe, so too did the enthusiasm for falconry.
But perhaps “enthusiasm” is too mild a word. “Falconry is the biggest passion of my life, and I think it always will be,” says Scott McNeff, a thirty-four-year-old master-class falconer from Maine. “If you’re interested enough to become licensed”—a commitment involving a two-year apprenticeship, written exams, inspections, and permits— “you’ll never quit.” McNeff was in his early teens, fly-fishing in Vermont when he saw a man with a peregrine falcon on his wrist. “I was completely mesmerized. I decided then and there to become a falconer.” Bill Meeker, president of the American Falconry Conservancy and a falconer for more than forty years, agrees. “It’s an obsession. You’ll leave everything else—marriage, career, family—before you leave falconry, and I’ve seen it happen to folks who can’t find a balance.”
The intense allure of falconry is evident throughout history. Arguably the most dedicated falconer of all time, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen lost an important military campaign when he made the decision to go falconing rather than continue the siege of a fortress. A pioneer in ornithology, Frederick II took more than thirty years to complete De arte venandi cum avibus (The Art of Falconry), a definitive text on the anatomy of birds. During the Hundred Years’ War, Edward III took thirty falcons with him—a highly impractical endeavor—when he invaded France. Meeker can relate: As a U.S. Army Captain stationed in Germany in 1972, he trapped and trained a European kestrel to get his falconry fix, keeping the bird in his office on base. “It definitely wasn’t for the chow,” says Meeker of the kestrel, which hunted mice.
Falconry evolved from a method of procuring food to an elite sport and a feathered currency of immense value. Falcons (and other species of raptor) connoted social status and were also employed as peace offerings, reparations, and ransoms. In the late fourteenth century, the son of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, was captured in battle by the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I. An offer of 200,000 gold ducats for his release was declined in lieu of something infinitely more valuable: twelve white gyrfalcons.
The sweeping social changes wrought by the agricultural, industrial, and French revolutions, the decline of the aristocracy, and the increasing prevalence of firearms led to a decline in the popularity of falconry, but the sport has endured. For its adherents, it continues to provide a profound and unrivaled experience.
McNeff, who traps and trains a raptor in the fall, hunts with it in the winter, and releases it in the spring, explains the eternal draw of falconry this way: “You’re outdoors, in beautiful country, working in tandem with the most majestic, incomparable predator that’s responding to cues from you. It’s communication, strategy, patience, respect—and the rush of the hunt. It’s still incredible to me that you can catch a wild bird and within three to five weeks it is working with you, putting food on your table. They’re not pets—they’re wild animals that you hunt with before returning them to the wild.” McNeff pauses. “My pursuit in the sport is spiritual,” he says, and there’s an unmistakable reverence in his voice, like a man who has touched the hem, or rather the tail feathers, of the divine.
Claire Fricke has been wandering in the wilderness for years. She now wishes she had done said wandering with a falcon. Currently based in New York, she is working on a screenplay, a series of short stories, and other clichés.