the tigers of the air -- 12/14/16

Today's selection -- from Birdology by Sy Montgomery. Falconry is the hunting of quarry in in the wild using a trained falcon. It was considered 'the sport of kings' and dates back to the ancient civilizations of Egypt and China. The sport has its own unique language -- so much so that even a falcon's sleep and defecation have special words:

"Falconry, 'the sport of kings,' connects its practitioner with a romantic, proud history, stretching back to ancient China, India, Egypt, Persia, and Babylon, thou­sands of years before the existence of Rome. At one time, the type of falcon an Englishman was allowed to own marked his rank: a king carried the gyr­falcon; an earl, the peregrine; a yeoman, the goshawk; the priest, the sparrow hawk; and a servant, the kestrel. It is a sport with its own battery of accoutre­ments, including beautifully tooled leather gloves for the falconer and elabo­rate, often feathered hoods for the birds, sometimes considered works of art.

Detail of two falconers from De arte venandi cum avibus, 1240s 

"Falconry also has a language all its own, known only by the shared broth­erhood of fellow falconers. Some of the words are needed to describe the sport's many accessories: 'jesses,' attached to leather anklets around the bird's legs, are soft leather loops to which one can hook a length of rope or a tether to the falconer's glove. The 'bewit' is a slip of leather attaching bells to the feet, so you know where your falcon is. The 'creance' is the long, light cord for tethering a falcon in training.

"Special words describe the activities unique to training and caring for a bird of prey. 'Imping' is the act of mending a broken feather. 'Manning' describes training the young bird to be carried on the fist. 'Seeling' is the word for the ancient, now-abandoned practice of sewing the bird's eyelids shut -- temporarily deprived of sight, the bird is rendered dependent on the falconer and more easily trained.

"But much of falconry's secret language underscores, like a promise repeated again and again, how special these birds are, how different from all other beings. Though many bird species hunt, kill, and eat other animals -- ­from the shrike, a songbird also known as the butcherbird, who kills and then uses thorns to skewer other birds to store them prominently for a later meal and attract a mate, to the worm-eating robin -- birds of prey are exclusively predatory. They are also known as raptors (daytime raptors, more accurately, to distinguish them from the unrelated and mostly night-loving but equally predatory owls). Sometimes they all are just called hawks. They include some three hundred species that go by various names: hawks, eagles, falcons, harri­ers, kestrels, kites. (And to make it more confusing, the English use different words than
we do; for instance, their buzzards aren't our vultures, but what we would call our red-tailed and ferruginous hawks.) They live all over the world. They are the tigers of the air. They hunt like no other predator.

" The language of falconry honors this difference. The falcon isn't sleeping, like ordinary birds or mammals; it's 'jonking.' When it cleans its beak and feet after eating, it's 'feaking.' The act of hiding the food with outspread wings and tail while it eats is called 'mantling.' A bird of prey, in fact, is so rarefied that it doesn't even shit like the rest of us. Hawks 'slice'; falcons 'mute.' "



Sy Montgomery


Birdology: Adventures with Hip Hop Parrots, Cantankerous Cassowaries, Crabby Crows, Peripatetic Pigeons, Hens, Hawks, and Hummingbirds


Free Press a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Copyright 2010 by Sy Montgomery


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment