Trained Dogs and Falcons
Published: October 2, 2006
They consult you concerning what is lawful for them; say, “Lawful for you are all good things, including what trained dogs and falcons catch for you.” You train them according to God’s teachings. You may eat what they catch for you, and mention God’s name thereupon. You shall observe God. God is most efficient in reckoning. [5:4]
I’ve always been fascinated by this verse. God dispels any negative notions about animals and their association with humans by saying that they catch good food and that we train them according to God's teachings. Any mention of dogs always catches my attention. I understand training dogs—it’s what I do. But this verse also includes falcons, and I realized I had no idea how falcons were trained and used.
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History of Trained Animals
In the above verse, God mentions only dogs and falcons. Interestingly, they are about the only animals regularly used to help humans hunt. In ancient Egypt, cats were sometimes taught to retrieve birds that their masters brought down with a boomerang. While modern cats are very domesticated, they are very rarely trained to do anything. Wild cats such as the cheetah and the caracal have been used in India and Asia. Both display speed and agility and can be tamed, but both are endangered and rarely seen. We’re left with dogs and falcons.
Dogs have been bred over the last few centuries to perform specific tasks for their owners. There are different kinds of hounds that use their noses, eyes and ears to find and chase prey; there are pointers and setters that alert to the prey; spaniels that chase and flush prey; and retrievers that retrieve the fallen prey.
Falconry involves the use of a wide variety of birds of prey—eagles, owls, hawks, true falcons, down to the tiny kestrel. As in dog training, understanding the animal is important to success. The kestrel is the most easy-going of all but is barely larger than a robin so it’s a good bird for beginners but can’t be expected to bring down anything larger than a mouse.
On the other extreme, the eagle is very difficult to use because it’s so big and strong. Carrying one on the arm is exhausting, and its grip on the wrist is like a vise. Arguably the best hunter is the peregrine falcon. It has a wingspan of 40-46 inches and dives between 100-120 MPH. Part of the joy for modern falconers is the sheer pleasure to be derived from watching one in action, a master of the air. One falconer wrote: “It’s a unique hunting partnership—you tame her, tend her, train her and work her to the peak of physical condition, then release her to the elements while you become no more than a mere spectator of a totally natural event.”
Falconry is a very ancient form of hunting, going back to China before 2000 BC. It shows up in some of the oldest Egyptian wall paintings. The Romans introduced it throughout Europe, and it became extremely popular among English nobility in the early part of the last millennium. In fact, the type of bird an Englishman carried on his wrist when he went hawking marked his rank. A king carried the gyrfalcon, an earl the peregrine, a yeoman the goshawk, a priest the sparrow hawk, and a servant the kestrel. The Middle East has always embraced falconry, as evidenced in bas-relief from 1700 BC and by its inclusion in the Quran.
I was interested to learn that the training of falcons has a lot of similarities to dog training. While there are a lot of books out on the subject, they acknowledge that trying to train a bird “by the book” is out of the question. Hawks, like dogs, have both inherent traits and individual characteristics that shape them and must be taken into account. But the approach is gentle and deliberate, not pushing the animal beyond its capacity.
First the bird gets used to its new surroundings. Today most birds used in the sport of falconry are bred and raised in captivity, eliminating the need to trap wild birds. But of course, when they were truly used for hunting, a wild bird was all there was. If an adult bird was captured, it would take longer to adjust to working with man, but it already knew how to hunt so training was easier. Nestlings would bond more quickly but had not been taught to hunt by their parents so more training was required. The falconer might stay long hours in a darkened room next to the bird in its cage, talking quietly and stroking the hawk. This is vital in the early stages if the bird is to accept and tolerate its new partner.
It’s generally agreed that birds will bond with their owners to the point where some degree of communication is possible. But it’s not a relationship of love and trust, as you might find with a dog. In dog training, you use praise and food to teach; in falconry, it’s all food. By controlling the amount of food, the times the bird is fed, and the fact that it must look to its owner to receive food, the hawk will learn to do what is expected in order to receive that food. To begin, the falconer attaches a short leather cord to the bird’s feet and holds that in his hand while he teaches the bird to stand on his gloved fist where it’s fed tidbits of meat. He then teaches the hawk to jump from its perch onto the gloved fist to receive the meat, gradually widening the distance until the bird will fly 50 feet or more from its perch to the falconer’s fist. All to be fed.
Eventually, the trainer moves to an open field. You can do some practice with a line attached to the bird, but for it to really do its job, it must fly free. How do you keep a wild bird from simply flying away? Well, sometimes you don’t. A bird that was captured as an adult is more likely to flee when given the chance. But if the training is done correctly, the bird has learned that the simplest way of obtaining food is to fly to its handler. So they perch in trees or fly in slow circles around their handlers and come when called. A partnership has been formed. And when the hawk captures the rabbit or quail, it must surrender it to the human. Hunting is the natural instinct of these birds, but giving up what they catch must seem very strange. This is a gift from God. Only God subdues the wild bird to the will of a human being. …"Glory be to the One who subdued this for us. We could not have controlled them by ourselves. [43:13]
Modern Use of Falcons
Hunting today is mostly for sport and show, but one amazing use of hawks in modern
times is at airports. Flocks of flying birds are sometimes sucked into jet engines causing the plane to crash. After one such accident at JFK in New York, officials decided to try an experiment. For over ten years now, hawks have been used to chase off other birds from the area at the end of runways, and there hasn’t even been a near miss in all that time.
In ancient times and in some places today, hunting with falcons is all about survival. Human beings are quite ill-equipped to catch game—we’re not fast, not strong, not agile. We think we’re smart, using our superior intellect to train these birds and dogs to do our bidding. But it’s all a blessing from God that He allowed us to use other creatures to help us in this endeavor. …You train them according to God’s teachings. You may eat what they catch for you, and mention God’s name thereupon…. [5:4]
By Lydia; For the International Community of Submitters: The world wide community of those who submit to God Alone and advocate the worship of God Alone.
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