Falcons, the majestic birds or prey have been
patronized by royalty for the thrill of sport and to add splendour to
the cour. The sport of falconry which spread throughout the world was
especially popular with the Indian nobility.
Falconry, a sport among
kings, princes and nobles started way back in 2000 B.C. in China. It
started not as a sport but simply out of a necessity for food. From
China it spread to Japan, India, Persia, Arabia, Turkey and finally
to Europe. By 700 A.D. falconry was well established as a sport. By
the middle of the 18th century there were hawking clubs
all over Europe. Many tapestries and paintings all over the world
depict battle scenes of kings and nobles with their favourite falcons
as falconry was also a form of relaxation during long battles. King
Richard, Coeur de Lion, took his hawks with him to the crusades. The
kings Frederick Ii and Henry VIII of England and the Emperor Napoleon
were all keen followers of this magnificent sport. Among the ladies,
Mary Queen of Scots loved to be out hawking and Empress Catherine of
Russia had her favourite falcon, Merlin.
The Mughals in India
were also keen falconers. The sparrow hawk was the favourite of
Emperor Akbar. He often used these remarkable birds for hunting. They
also added splendour to his court. For them many mansabdars (
commanders), ahadis (single man) and other soldiers were employed.
The birds were fed twice a day and towards the close of each day they
were fed on sparrows of which the baz, jurrah and bahri got seven
favourite, the falcon possesses several unique characteristics and
exhibits qualities of individuality and royal personage so desirable
to man. Falcons are birds of open country, solitary in habit and
prefer to fly freely scouring the countryside with their acute sight
and pausing in their majestic flight to stoop down at a hundred miled
an hour on their unsuspecting prey.
The peregrine falcon,
the finest bird for training in India, migrates along the east coast
of Bhavnagar in Gujarat on the boarder of the Gulf of Cambay. It is
an aggressive and fearless bird, a superb flier with complete and
easy mastery of the air. The peregrine is also known as the duck hawk
and is found throughout the world. There are about 18 different
species described from different areas. They are medium sized
falcons with short tails, sharply pointed long wings and stocky
bodies. These birds are able to lift heavy prey as their primary
wing feathers are long and slender facilitating speed in flight, the
inner secondary are broad and can give tremendous amount of strength.
The adult male has a blue grey back and the head is a dark flush
slate. The area around the eyes is black and the upper breast is
white or buff with black spots and the rest of the under part is
dark. The tail is grey, blackish towards the end, tipped with white
and heavily barred.
When hunting it is the
fastest bird on earth both in stopping or straight pursuit. It can
kill its prey in midair with its long hind killing toe. Often the
impact of landing itself renders the prey immobile as while stooping
the peregrine reaches a speed of 150 to 200 miles per hour. This is
one or the reason why a peregrine can kill prey twice as heavy as
itself like teal, partridge, grouse. Other falcons found in Bhavnagar
are the desert falcon known as the lugger and goshawk or baz which
can be trained very successfully.
In Bhavnagar the royal
family continued to cherish the sport of hawking till the 40s. the
late Maharaja, Shri Krishna Kumar Singhs two brothers, Maharaja
Nirmal Kumar Singh and Maharaja Dharam Kumar Singh were very
enthusiastic sportsmen. They each had their own trainers and falcons.
The falcons were caught on the coast of Bhavnagar or brought from
Punjab. According to Maharaja Nirmal Kumar Singh, it is customary
for these falcons to hunt in pairs. Regarding capturing and training
of these wild birds, he says a decoy is fastened on an upright net
and on seeing the decoy, the falcon stoops down to catch its prey and
gets hopelessly entangled. Falcons were caught and kept for just one
season and then set free.
After it is caught the
falcon is securely bound in a handkerchief and its eyes are sealed.
This id done by slipping a needle through the lower edge of the
eyelid and putting the thread over the head. Apparently the falcon
shows no sign of pain. In this manner the eastern falconers seal the
eyes of their hunting birds. This keeps them quiet for the rest of
the training days and prevents them from becoming excited and scared.
The bird also gets used to the human voice and touch. Maharaja
Nirmal Kumar also added that buying a hawk is like buying a horse.
The colour phases, marking, shape, size of beak and middle toe,
spirit, age and weight are a few points worth considering Indian
falconers would never buy a falcon whose eyes were not sealed. Sealed
eyes were an indication that the hawks had not been tramed.
Asked about the training
of these birds, he says the new hawk never leaves the gloved hand of
its trainer for four to five days. Day and night they are handled
carefully by speaking to them softly and stroking them gently and
constantly for only then can these wild birds be trained.
As soon as the hawks
lose their fear and become docile, their eyes are unsealed and the
training days begin. The trained swings a lure at the end of a short
stick and the falcon stoops but the bait is jerked away before the
bird can strike. After 40 to 50 attempts the falcon is permitted to
strike and bring the lure down to the ground. It is indeed a
wonderful sight to see these hawks starting to respond to their
trainers. After this lesson the birds are hooded and well fed. Before
a contest or a hunt the birds are given secret Indian drugs to
stimulate them to have the utmost powers of speed, courage and
endurance. Falcons, being good hunters with keen eyesight, can bring
down big birds like ibis, cranes, big heron and among animals, hares.
When the game rises, the falconer throws the hawk to catch its prey
just like an athlete hurls a goal forward. But vigorous training is
absolutely necessary to teach the little fighters how to chase such a
quarry. In game hunting, pointers and setters are used and not until
the game is found is the falcon unhooded.
Sometimes it is
interesting to observe how an old hoody crow tries to outwit a
falcon. The crow will try its best to get cover under bushes, ledges
or anything in sight but if it is unfortunately on open ground the
quarry must then try to beat the felcon in the air and keep above
her. Once he does this he tries above her. Once he does this he
tries to stoop downwards to take cover twisting and turning. This is
a dramatic and exciting sight with the crow not always being the
In India falcons and
hawks constitute two thirds of all species of birds or prey. The
uncommon goshawks and the perennial favourite, the peregrine span the
However, the sport of
falcony has been fast losing popularity not only due to the expenses
involved but also due to wide criticism and an increasing awareness
of preserving nature and wildlife. There has been a dwindling of the
species. In fact the king of falcons, the bullet-headed, steel grey
peregrine became almost extinct due to excess DDT in the environment
causing the bird to lay eggs with fragile shells leading to greater
prehatch mortality. However, people were quick to champion this much
loves bird and save it from imminent peril.