The Art and Science of Falconry

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The Art and Science of Falconry


Falconry is the practice of hunting with birds of prey such as falcons or hawks. There is evidence to suggest that falconry was practiced in Assyria (present-day Iraq and Turkey) as early as the eighth century b.c. It reached a peak in popularity in Europe during the Middle Ages. One of the main participants falconry was Frederick II (1194-1250), a king of Germany and Sicily crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1220. Despite being one of the most politically powerful people in central Europe, Frederick found time to be an enthusiastic falconer and observer of birds. He authored a book on falconry titled De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (On the art of hunting with birds). This book was unusual in that it was based almost entirely on the author's own observations, rather than on the statements of other scholars.


Frederick's book (often known simply as the Falcon Book) is much more than a hunting guide. It is divided into six parts, the first part of which is a general description of birds—not just falcons and hawks, but the hundreds of species with which Frederick was familiar. He gives detailed descriptions of their behavior, including feeding, breeding, and migration habits. He also discusses their anatomy and physiology—the structure and functions of their various parts—including their skeletal system, eyes, wing feathers, and internal organs.

In the second and third parts of the book, he moves more specifically to birds of prey and describes the capture and training of such birds. The remaining parts of the book discuss hunting with particular species of falcons. Frederick made much use of his observations of falcons in their natural surroundings as he cared for and trained his birds. For instance, he noted that young falcons in the wild were fed regurgitated meat by their parents. Therefore, he ordered that his young captured falcons should be fed finely chopped fresh meat—and not just any meat, such as that of a barnyard chicken, but that of wild birds that would be the normal prey of falcons. Thus, he attempted to raise his birds on food that would closely resemble what would have been fed to them by their parents.

Frederick noted that the sense falcons rely most heavily on is sight. (He concluded that falcons do not locate their prey by smell based on his observation that birds whose eyes had been sealed, or stitched closed, could not locate meat thrown near them.) He made use of this fact in training birds. By temporarily taking away their sight by sealing their eyes or by placing a leather hood over their heads, he was able to control the stimuli to which the birds were exposed. In this way, he was able to control their behavior.

As the initial part of training, Frederick suggests that the falconer should repeat a specific phrase while feeding the falcon. Eventually, the bird will learn to associate this sound with being fed. As a result, the phrase can be used to calm an agitated bird; it becomes less restless because it assumes it is going to be fed. This type of behavior modification, known as classical conditioning, became widely-known through the experiments of Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) near the beginning of the twentieth century (about 700 years after the publication of the Falcon Book). In classical conditioning, an animal learns to associate one stimulus with another. By ringing a bell whenever a dog was shown food, Pavlov trained the dog to respond to a second stimulus (the sound of the bell) in the same way as it normally responded to another stimulus (the sight of food). In Frederick's case, the normal stimulus for the falcon was the taste of food and the second stimulus was the sound of specific spoken phrase. Both stimuli soon had the same response, a calming of the bird.


Frederick's book made an important contribution to medieval science. He based his conclusions presented in the book on 20-30 years of his personal experiences. He refused to accept the ideas of other scholars without testing them for himself. This attitude toward science was not typical for a person of the Middle Ages.

In Frederick's time, relatively few books were published in Western Europe. (The printing press would not be invented until about 200 years after his death.) Those Europeans who produced books were primarily concerned with religion and spiritual matters and often had little use for the material world, including scientific study. Their own observations rarely appeared in what they wrote; instead, they tended to rely on the work of ancient philosophers such as Aristotle (384-322 b.c.). Frederick's Falcon Book, however, consists of nothing but the author's own observations of the material world; it represents a change in attitude that pointed toward the beginning of experimental science. Frederick can be seen as a predecessor of Albertus Magnus (1200-1280) and Roger Bacon (1220-1293) later in the thirteenth century. They also believed that science should be based on the observation and experience of nature.

Frederick, in fact, even went so far as to disagree with Aristotle on certain points. He states in his preface to the Falcon Book, "We discovered by hard-won experience that the deductions of Aristotle, whom we followed when they appealed to our reason, were not entirely to be relied upon." (When Frederick says "we," he means is referring to himself. It was common practice for monarchs to refer to themselves with plural pronouns.) He also states, "In his [Aristotle's] work, the Liber Animalium (History of animals), we find many quotations from other authors whose statements he did not verify and who, in their turn, were not speaking from experience. Entire conviction of the truth never follows mere hearsay."

Frederick, however, tried to verify everything about birds that he read or that was told to him by others. For example, he had heard of socalled barnacle geese that lived in northern Europe and supposedly hatched from barnacle shells attached to the rotting wood of ships. He had samples of such wood sent to his court to find out whether this was true. Based on his tests, he concluded that the geese did not in fact come from barnacles. Frederick proposed that the geese hatched from eggs like other birds, but made their nests in remote areas unfrequented by people. His hypothesis was later proven to be true, but the birds are still known as barnacle geese to this day.

Prior to the publication of the Falcon Book, other short works on falconry had appeared in Europe. However, none of the other authors were nearly as thorough or as knowledgeable as Frederick was. He attempted to bring the realm of falconry to an exact science. Those who read the book were taught not just about falconry or birds; they were also taught the art of observation as well as how to describe these observations to others in a clear manner. (Even though the book was written more than 700 years ago, its style is so matter of fact that it is still easily readable today.) This skill of observation could be applied to any area of science, not just ornithology (the study of birds).

The Falcon Book had a great impact on scientific thought because its author was not simply an unknown scholar applying such skills, but the Holy Roman Emperor—one of the most powerful figures in Europe. In fact, the book probably could not have been written by someone who did not have Frederick's political power and social status. These allowed him to send for birds from across Europe and Asia. Thus, he was able to observe firsthand a much wider variety of species than other naturalists would have had access to at that time. For example, Frederick was the first to realize that two falcons normally considered to be two separate species were really the same; their differences were due to the different climates in the different parts of the world in which they lived. Frederick also had access to the knowledge of falconers and other naturalists from across Europe and the Middle East. His court fostered scholars in the natural sciences, and he had the works of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers translated into Latin. His religious crusade to the city of Jerusalem in 1228 brought back other experienced falconers from Arabia and Syria.

The Falcon Book served as a model for other books that were soon written in the same manner and style, but on different topics. Frederick himself had great influence on the publication of another work called Horse-Healing by Jordanus Ruffus. It represents what many consider to be the first veterinary book produced in Western Europe. Frederick suggested that Ruffus write the book and served as one of Ruffus's sources of information, being an expert on horses himself. This book was also translated into many languages and also served as a template for similar works.


Further Reading


Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. The Art of Falconry, being the De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus. Translated and edited by Casey A. Wood and F. Marjorie Fyfe. Boston: Charles T. Branford Co., 1943.

Kantorowicz, Ernst. Frederick the Second. London: Constable & Co. Ltd., 1931.

Madden, D.H. A Chapter of Medieval History. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1924.

Van Cleve, Thomas Curtis. The Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen: Immutator Mundi. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1972.


"Falcons and Man—A History of Falconry." PBS Online, 2000.


During the Middle Ages, falconry became popular throughout Europe. The main purpose of hunting with falcons usually wasn't to obtain meat. Instead, most people participated in the sport simply for entertainment. However, falconry served another purpose as well: people used it as an excuse to show off to their neighbors. Falconry was an expensive hobby. Some species of falcons were worth more than their weight in gold. There were also other expenses involved, such as fresh meat for the birds, equipment, and training. In addition, nobles competed with one another to host elaborate falconry parties. These events were used to establish and maintain power. The grander the party and the more numerous the falcons, the richer and more important the host seemed.

Today, if people purchase a status symbol that is more than they can afford, the worst that might happen to them is that their new sports car will be repossessed and their credit ruined. In the Middle Ages, however, the consequences of owning a status symbol above your rank could be much more severe. The Boke of St. Albans, published in 1486, lists laws of ownership regarding falconry. These laws state the types of falcons a person could own depending on his or her rank. For instance, a king could own a gyrfalcon, an earl could own a peregrine, and a lady could own a merlin. According to the book, people caught owning a bird that was above their rank not only had their falcon repossessed—but also had their hands cut off.


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The Art and Science of Falconry

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The Art and Science of Falconry