"The Book of St. Albans,” a 15th century text, lists a hierarchy for the sport of falconry. Kings flew large and rare gyrfalcons, knaves used smaller and more common kestrels, and every rank in between used different breeds of falcon and hawk.
Whether the rules were strictly enforced or simply represented economic realities is unsure, but since then, falconry has become the most regulated field sport in the world. Now, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is trying to make falconry more accessible to everyone by simplifying federal regulations.
Steve Heying, 54, is a local master falconer who has been involved with the sport since 1964. He said the falconry community has been waiting years for updated rules.
Falconry, or hawking, involves the training of hawks and falcons for hunting wild game.
Its exact origins are unknown, but there is evidence that it dates back well before Christ and was practiced by the people of China and the Middle East before the sport came to Europe. Its zenith was probably in the Middle Ages when using birds to hunt for food actually offered practical advantages. Falconry is still enjoyed around the world and has a number of devotees in Missouri.
Bob Payne, president of the Missouri Falconers Association, said the state has an active falconry community, thanks to an exceptional prey base that includes rabbits, squirrels, quail, pheasants and ducks. With 70 members, the Missouri Falconry Association has twice the membership of the hawking clubs in Iowa or Kansas. The group hosts three field meets a year, usually in Missouri or Kansas.
Proposed federal regulations would eliminate the need for dual state and federal falconry permits, with states administering permit programs. In
addition, the age for an apprentice falconer would be reduced from 14 to 12. Regulations would be rewritten in plain language to make them simpler to understand, and reporting of raptor acquisition, transfer and loss would be made electronic.
Payne said he was pleased with the proposed changes.
“I like it,” Payne said. “They are trying to make things easier for everyone to understand — what could be wrong with that?”
Even with the simplified regulations, however, acquiring a falconry permit requires dedication to the sport. For a novice to become licensed, he must find a more experienced falconer to act as a sponsor, pass a test on raptor training and care, and prove he has the necessary facilities and equipment for falconry. After completing a two-year apprenticeship with a sponsor, falconers can apply for a general falconry permit. After five more years of experience at the general level, they are eligible for master class permits.
“It’s a sport that is much more time-consuming than gun or bow hunting,” Payne said.
Heying flies his 4-year-old peregrine falcon, Avianna, in and around Columbia and travels with her to other states whenever he gets the chance. He said the sport has introduced him to a lot of interesting people over the years; it also allows him to indulge his love of nature, an important part of falconry.
“You have to have an affinity for nature,” Heying said. “You have to understand nature and know how it works to do falconry at all.”
Heying’s day job is surveying, but he periodically writes book reviews for the magazine “American Falconry.” In a recent issue, he argued that, despite what some people believe, falconry is an art. He calls falconry an “ever-evolving, ever-changing situational landscape.” The art comes from the close cooperation between man and bird, the multitude of decisions to be made and the fact that there is no one right way to make them. In falconry, everything must go absolutely right or you will come away empty-handed.
“It’s always exciting and never predictable, and the excitement is in the unpredictability of it,” Heying said.
Payne said falconry is for all ages. When people are looking for a sponsor, they gravitate toward his group.
Even if you don’t have a license, you can still enjoy falconry.
“It’s a great spectator sport,” Heying said. “In Europe, some of the best parties were falconry gatherings.”