Falconry in Russia
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
Photo by Andrey Gorbatov
The wild steppe streches endlessly on, and in the distance a falcon hovers – a female goshawk on the hunt in the wilds of Tatarstan.
She is not, however, hunting alone.
With two small leather straps on her paws, she is tethered to a leather-gloved hunter standing in the distance. Holding a falconry hood in his left hand he is using a female goshawk, because she is 1.5 times bigger than a male. If she catches a hare and holds onto it until the hunter's arrival she will be considered a very good bird. Hunting hares with goshawks is classical hunting – one of the most fantastic sights in the world, beautiful and entertaining.
"In the West today falconry is also called art – falconry art," says Ildar Yenaleyev, a falconer from Kazan, Tatarstan. "Of course, falconry is first of all a sport and a serious business," continues Yenaleyev, "but it is also an art – a creative approach of the hunter with a bird of prey on his hand is quite necessary and the attitude to the bird should also be creative."
Falconry does indeed involve a lot more than it might at first seem.
First, the falconer must observe the bird for years in order to understand in detail its ways of living and hunting in the wild. Only then can he tame the bird and set it hunting for him. The falconer always uses a hungry bird in order to make it hunt, as the bird will always hunt for itself and not for the hunter. When it kills a duck, for example, the hunter follows its flight using binoculars and then runs or drives towards it in a jeep, covering the prey using a special rag with his free left hand in order to conceal the victim from the bird of prey. Then he puts his gloved right hand under the bird of prey, squeezing a bit of meat so that the bird understands that it has been rewarded. The bird sees the meat and starts pecking. In the meantime the falconer puts the prey into his hunting bag vatchik.
Falcon hunting totally depends on the kind of bird and on the object of hunting. The peregrine, for example, which is not only the fastest bird on Earth, but the fastest creature, can work up to a speed of up to 300 kph when swooping. It does not catch its prey the way the hawk catches a duck or hare. The peregrine strikes its prey on the neck or head. So, when the peregrine whose mass is about a kilo strikes its prey at the speed of 75 m/second, it hits hard. Ildar recollects a case from his hunting experience: when his peregrine was up in the air he let out a dove and the peregrine struck it so hard that the dove fell on the ground and sprang up 1 meter above the ground like a ball; the peregrine picked it up in the air, flew with it for a while, then landed and started pecking.
In the wild when wild birds – waterfowl or partridges – manage to see a peregrine they do not take wing, but flatten themselves against the ground or water, which is their only salvation, for the peregrine only attacks flying birds, unlike the gyrfalcon or saker who can catch their prey on the ground. Some hunters say: if a peregrine drops its prey by accident it does not pick it up from the ground but starts hunting another one. Ildar tells another story: once a flock of jackdaws saw a peregrine in the air and hid themselves in a bush. Ildar and his friend Albert Mukhametzyanov tried to drive them out with sticks and stones, but the jackdaws would not leave their bush for love or money – they preferred to be beaten rather than become the peregrine's victim.
Birds of prey are not studied very well in Russia. Ornithologists have partially described their life in the wild, but not in captivity. In the West falconers' clubs issue monthly publications on the bearing and training of birds of prey.
A bit of history
Kreshetsmot, photo by Andrey Gorbatov
The first image of man with a bird of prey on his wrist found by historians is a rock drawing dating back to 3,000 years ago.
The history of falconry begins in ancient Egypt and ancient Rome. Falconry rated as an elite sport: only the rich – the nobility and politicians – could afford this kind of pastime.
In the Middle Ages falconry flourished in Russia, in Western Europe and in the Middle East.
Falcon hunting came to Russia from Asia (Mongolia and Kazakhstan) during the period of the Mongol-Tartar Yoke (1243-1480) and moved West to Europe through Russia. During the reign of Russian Tsar Alekxei Mikhailovich (1629- 1676) falconry in Russia was historically important: falconers from Western Europe were sent to Russia to be educated and instructed at the tsar's falconry court, which kept about 3,000 gyrfalcons – the strongest and the most beautiful birds of prey used in falconry. The tsar even wrote a book on the sport, which is now treasured as a historical text. In Russia gyrfalcons were the prerogative of the tsar and his select retinue. Even the nobility (let alone the peasantry) were not allowed to deal with gyrfalcons. From the point of biology the Russian subspecies of gyrfalcons, the geographical race of gyrfalcons, so to speak, were considered to be the most precious birds of prey in the world. When diplomats from Persia or Sweden came to Russia the best diplomatic present was a gyrfalcon – a present like that could even prevent a war between the nations. A gyrfalcon was literally worth its weight in gold – the bird would be put on one of the scales while gold was being poured on the other until balance was achieved.
The tsar sent special workers, called 'pomutchiki,' out to Siberia and the north to catch the birds. Carrying a special petition from the ruler, pomutchiki had the right of way wherever they traveled and were provided food and shelter along the way.
In Kazakhstan, hunting with eagles used to be very well developed. Aksakals (‘àê’ – white, ‘sakal’ – beard) – heads of families with birds of prey on their wrists were very much respected. Today falcon hunting in Kazakhstan is rare. In Georgia, the school of traditional hunting was quite strong – with sparrow hawks (‘mimino’ in Georgian) for quails, but the recent war stopped its development.
At the end of the 18th century when firearms appeared, falcon hunting was scaled down and in the 20th century the attitude towards birds of prey became particularly negative, as they attacked poultry and were rivals of armed hunters.
From the 1940s up to the1960s a campaign was raged against birds of prey in the Soviet Union. Only in 1964, at an international ornithological congress, a group of Soviet ornithologists headed by a well-known scientist Gennady Petrovich Dementyev, and supported by leading ornithologists from other countries, proved the usefulness of birds of prey and signed several documents on their protection. The event resulted in putting most birds of prey down into the so-called red book, or endangered species book.
The fact that falcons and large eagles are on the verge of extinction is due not only to man's attitude towards them, but also to man's economic activity – forest degradation, land reclamation, overuse of chemicals in agriculture and general environmental pollution.
Supporters of falcon hunting advocate that their sport is ecologically sound. Unlike hunting with guns, it leaves no wounded birds and is not a threat to midday strollers.
Falcon hunting is first of all connected with the preservation of birds of prey, which is vitally important today. Unlike the situation in other countries where such birds are often associated with preservation clubs or societies, in Russia, it is up to individuals to save such birds, which are on the brink of extinction in Russia.
A big problem for the reintroduction of birds of prey in the wild is pesticides, which is also a general ecological problem. Pesticides accumulated in the bodies of animals eaten by birds of prey accumulate in the bodies of falcons. Pesticides and other harmful elements (heavy metals, for example) which accumulate in the body of a female peregrine influence the fragility of the eggs' shells. So, when the female lays her eggs, they break under her weight. In the 1980s Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., was breeding up to 200 peregrines a year in a special arboretum, which later reintroduced the birds into the wild – a costly, vital program. The Americans wanted to release the peregrines bred in captivity from the university spire and then reintroduce them in the Moscow area. The idea was supported by some scientific organizations of Moscow, but nothing was done. In the USA the state department allocates US$100,000 annually to the scientific-research expenses of the ‘Peregrine Programme’.
The future of falconry in Russia is not clear. A lot depends on the imagination and ingenuity of owners to raise money, necessary to support their birds. Yenaleyev and Mukhametzyanov plan to earn part of their muchneeded funds by staging ‘falcon shows’, similar in concept to falcon shows elsewhere in the world, where falconers wear ancient costumes, and the birds are encouraged to fly close to the spectators.
Falconry in Russia
In Moscow, there are two organizations – The Russian Falcon Center and The Falconers’ Association. But actually falconers are single enthusiasts, for example, Yuri Noskov. This person, who lives in the village of Shushinskoye, Krasnoyarsky Kray, is world famous, but he is difficult to contact. There is also The Russian Falcon Club, but this organization is not more than a couple of semi-dilapidated barns, in the words of Andrey Gorbatov, editor of Hunting and Fishing Magazine.
However, if we talk about the falcon business, it’s huge. Falcons are very expensive, starting at US$50,000 dollars per bird. And of course, there are ‘enthusiasts’ who simply catch the wild birds and sell them to falconers.
Russian Falcon Center
(Tel: 432-2144 Alexander Borodin)
The Falconers’ Association (771-2592 Dmitry Rodionov)