The art of hunting with birds of prey is known as Falconry, as is the related art of training and caring for it. A falconer is a person who trains and raises such birds.
A Full-Time Job
Raising a hunting bird isn't easy. Not only is this a full-time profession, but (for most types of falconry) the raising of any single bird is a full-time job in and of itself. Birds of prey have instinctive behavior that's often not desirable, and if not trained they may refuse to hunt, fly away never to be seen again, or peck your eyes out. If you attempt to raise more than one hunting bird at a time, their own social instincts will take over. The birds may fight, and the dominant bird will more than likely stop hunting and simply steal kills from the submissive bird(s).
Even getting the bird in the first place is difficult, as not all species will breed easily in captivity. The falconer may start his job by climbing a tall tree or high cliff-face to raid a nest for an egg.
Once you've secured the bird, you have to establish a relationship with it and train it, which can take a very long time. During the acclimation period, the bird is generally kept blind. This can be done with a leather hood custom-made for such a purpose, or by sewing the bird's eyelids together (a process called "seeling"). In the weeks or months you'll be training it, the bird has to be given the same stimuli over and over again. You'll wear the same clothing for weeks on end, so it can figure out your scent. You'll feed it chopped mouse or songbird by hand, so your hunting bird learns not to eat it's kills, nor to chase off after something tasty and never return. You'll have to carry it around on your wrist for several hours a day. This process of acclimating it to people, and teaching it to only hunt the prey you designate, is known as "manning". Even when manning and training are done, the bird still needs constant care and handling, after all, you have taught it to only feed from your own hands.
Falconry and Social Status
Despite (or perhaps because of) the difficulties, Falconry is often regarded as a "Sport of Kings". It dates back to the Ninth Century in Europe, and much further back in the Eastern world. China, Mongolia, Japan, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Ancient Rome all developed the art of Falconry long before the days of the familiar image of the European nobleman and his bird of prey. Royalty and nobles may have the spare time and inclination to raise and train the bird themselves, or they may hire a professional falconer to raise their birds for them, and somewhat reduce their own involvement in the process.
Just as many cultures have had strict laws governing which social classes can wear certain clothes or attend court, Medieval Europe had strict rules about which social classes could own or raise which breeds of hunting bird. The Eagle is the sign of the Emperor. Royalty would be likely to have large Peregrine Falcons, including a rare breed of large white "ice falcons" exported from Greenland at the height of falconry. Those with lesser status about court would have to content themselves with Merlins and Sparrow Hawks. At the lowest end of the social tier was the Kestrel, which was generally allowed to be owned by anyone regardless of status. A professional falconer working for nobility would of course be allowed to train and tend to whatever bird is appropriate to the noble they serve.
Modern falconry, though somewhat rare in this day in age, tends to be practiced with the North American Harris' Hawk. It's more social than European and Eastern falcons, and thus a single modern falconer might be able to care for more than one bird.
Owls are another possible bird of prey. Owls are more independent, and thus slower to train than falcons. They can hunt in the dark, which is a big plus, but they tend to only strike prey that's standing still and won't give chase. They also get into fights with hawks and falcons.
You can teach a bird of prey to:
- Hunt only specific animals
- Hunt only the prey you designate by pointing.
- Attack anyone that harms you.
- Attack a specific person (you'd train them with an article of that person's clothing, I believe)
- Specifically target eyes.
- Catch any small object you throw in the air.
- Capture small prey and carry back to you alive.
- Return to their perch when called.
- Track prey, and lead you to it on command.
- Hide an object, and bring it back later.
- Screech if they feel endangered, or if a stranger approaches (basically the bird equivalent of a guard dog).
Different species (and individual birds) are easier or harder to train than others. Owls are very difficult, Harris' Hawks are a bit easier than average. Not every animal can learn every trick, and some animals just lack discipline or obedience. Recently, at my zoo, I witnessed one of their trained hawks "lose it" and pick a fight with some wild crows. It took more than an hour for the zoo staff to convince the bird to come back down and land on their perching glove.
Words of Warning
- Birds of prey are dangerous, and ones that are trained to hunt are even more so. Don't carry hunting birds on your shoulder, unless you can regenerate the eyes they're likely to pluck.
- Birds need attention, and are a big responsibility. A key part of the manning process is teaching them to stay still, and not feed themselves.
- If you forget to feed them for a day, they may die. Most need fur and/or feathers in their diet to work as "roughage" and aid digestion.
- If you don't take them out to fly every couple of days, their health will suffer.
- Maintaining (and hunting with) more than one bird is a recipe for disaster. Owls will kill falcons and hawks, and vice-versa. Even birds of the same species will get competitive, or steal kills from each other. Generally, only Harris' Hawks are social enough to hunt together.
- Even after they are well trained, a bird may still have the instinct to fly off and explore. The whole point of the hood, and hand-feeding is to keep your investment from just suddenly taking off one day and never returning. It happens anyway.
- In the modern day, hunting birds tend to be tightly regulated and controlled.
- In the United States, what sorts of birds can be legally raised for falconry is restricted on a state-by-state basis, and varies depending on whether you're an apprentice (apprenticeship lasts at least two years) or licensed falconer.
Game and Story Use
- PCs who engage in Falconry are likely to get to skip over the hard stuff. It's generally easiest if we assume the training and raising of the bird happens off-camera before the campaign begins. Most RPG players just want the "cool factor" of having a trained attack bird, which is not such a huge advantage that we need to really spend a lot of time and trouble playing out the day-to-day details.
- However, the drawbacks in time and commitment could be an interesting plot-point, provided it's worth it.
- It's a way to get a more martial PC involved in less combative plotlines, or to root the campaign to a location for a while. The PC is elevated in social rank as a reward for their deeds, and given a fledgling Hawk to commemorate their promotion. Or, for their exemplary service to the crown, perhaps they are even promoted to the King's entourage and offered the position of Royal Falconer. Either variant could serve as a way for the GM to transition a game away from dungeon-crawling, at least for a while, and focus on courtly politics. Suddenly you have this obligation to raise and train this animal, which can't be done on the road or in a dungeon. The bad-ass attack-bird comes as compensation to the most combat-oriented PC in the party, whose character focus isn't as good a match to the plotline of the next half a dozen sessions or more.
- A particularly powerful bird, especially a semi-magical species in a fantasy genre campaign, might be potent enough of a weapon or ally to warrant spending some "screen time" addressing the headaches and hard work required to maintain it.
- Specialty birds, such as the "Ice Falcons" of Greenland or any sort of magical bird, might be big business.
- Such a bird is being sent overseas as a gift to foreign Royalty.
- The PCs defeat a [[[roc]], terror bird, harpy, griffin, phoenix, dragon or other bird-like creature. "Looting the bodies" reveals a nearby nest with egg(s). They've got three options: sell the rare eggs at a profit, invest the time and effort to learn falconry, or make breakfast. If nothing else, it's at least a golden opportunity for character development.
- Speaking of character development, you can define a lot about noble NPCs in your campaign by their approach to falconry.
- A proud "warrior king" may have some rare (and huge) eagle that they raised themselves between wars.
- A king who's lacking in conviction and strength of character is more likely (at least according to the rules of drama) to have hired a falconer to do the hard part. The playboy prince is a falconry poser. They can only hunt with the bird if the royal falconer is just a few feet away. More than that, and the animal becomes unruly. Feel free to extend the metaphor to other aspects of their rule.
- A vile tyrant may have a vile bird to match. In a fantasy setting, you could have "buzzardry", "vultury" or "battery". They keep a trained Vulture, Vampire Bat, or other iconic flying creature. It doesn't have to be useful or logical, as long as it communicates thematic elements about the NPC.
- An old retired Ranger now lives a simple (or a courtly) life. All their weapons and treasures are hidden away, and the only outward signs of their combat prowess and adventurous spirit is the rare bird of prey they spend their days doting upon.
- A small amount of magic, allowing the falconer to see through the falcon's eyes gives him access to a fantasy RPV/scout drone.
- The modern day Oil Baron, Sultan or Billionaire might have the time and wealth to indulge in Falconry.
- Other modern day falconers often work for zoos or theme parks.
- See Falconer for ideas on building such characters.