Modern day Falconry and hunting with Sparrow Hawks in Turkey

The Turkish Government after initially banning Falconry as a sport in 1988 (in part due to the Governments implementation of the European Council Directive on the conservation of wild birds) and the protests that ensued afterwards allowed Falconry as a regulated sport again in 2002, with the use of Sparrow Hawks only. The hunting season with Sparrow Hawks in Turkey is between mid to late August until early November, which coincides with the migrating period of of both Quail and Sparrow Hawks amongst other large numbers of bird species. Passage birds (young birds in their first year) are trapped under licence and Falconers are allowed to keep Sparrow Hawks to hunt for Quail (Coturnix coturnix). The regulations governing Falconry are within the hunting regulations, which require Falconers to have a Master Falconers licence.

Exceptional birds are kept and this is determined by their colouration, shape or size when trapped or hunting skills during their captivity. These will sometimes rarely be kept through the moult and are usually released back into the wild by the end of October when the season ends. They are released for two reasons, first economical reasons they do not wish to feed and moult the Hawk when a fresh bird can be caught the following season and secondly to allow them to breed in the wild. It is often frowned upon if one keeps a 'Mother' bird. However, environmentalists claim that the released birds are traumatised either by the intense human contact or the fact that their migration has been interrupted. The rehabilitation of injured wild raptors re-introduced into the wild does not support this claim, other factors that one could argue are that young raptors have high mortality rates (70-80%) in their first year alone, and that Falconers are indeed assisting in helping the birds becoming more proficient in their hunting skills as well as ensuring that they are at their highest weight when being released at the end of their hunting season. By the time that Sparrow Hawks arrive in the eastern Black Sea region some have travelled half way on their migration route, large numbers are lower than their optimum weight with some not surviving the remaining part of their journey.

The Hawks when tethered are kept outside either on a high tree branch or a screen perch. During the night the Hawks are taken inside the home or mews and because of this constant human contact are very well manned. Predators such as Cats, Dogs, Foxes and other birds of prey would be a problem if left outside unattended. The Turkish male pastime of frequenting the Tea House is an ideal manning station for the Hawk, with the busy, crowded hustle and bustle the Hawk becomes used to human activity soon losing their fear, often within a few days. Here they will sit on their perches outside or on the Falconers fist.

Due to the short hunting season training and manning seems to be a hurried affair. The Hawks first flights are flown on a 30 metre creance attached to traditional jesses, leash and swivel attachment. When the Hawk has caught quarry and trusted it is then flown without the creance but still with the combination of jesses, leash and swivel. To prevent the Hawk injuring itself through bating, the newly caught Hawk in the initial manning stages, a thin cotton loop is placed around the Hawk's neck on one side and under the wing on the opposite and attached to the jesses with a small leash. This seems to work without complications and helps by evenly distributing and releasing pressure on the legs. Bells are also attached to the leg above the anklets and on the two centre deck feathers.

The obvious hazard when the Hawk is flown is being caught amongst tree branches etc. To overcome this Falconers often climb the trees or use a long stick with a hook to retrieve the Hawk. The way of hunting and husbandry seem to be based upon tradition and the constraints of a short hunting season and not based on modern or practical methods. The Hawks diet when freshly trapped consists of force feeding the Hawk with half a boiled egg daily until its first kill. The Hawk learns to accept this perhaps out of hunger as its weight reduces. This custom seems based upon tradition and may be because of lack of refrigeration for keeping meat which was a highly valued food in ancient times. It may also be based upon the misconception that to deny the Hawk meat would make it much more eager to kill. There is no evidence to support this and it is based purely on reasoning. The Hawks diet consists mainly of either kills or trapped animals fed to the Hawk; this has also been known to include trapped raptors.

Traditional general husbandry and hunting does not involve weight monitoring, there seems to be no use for the scales at all. The Falconer feels the breast to determine the Hawks weight without observation of the bird's mutes. However, this is changing albeit slowly as modern methods are embraced. Hunting techniques do not involve the use of a lure, with retrieval of a loose Hawk through a hand held dead Quail being presented to the bird and a whistle as a command. Some birds are so obedient that they come to the glove or hand just through the whistle, obviously associating the outstretched hand as a suitable comfortable perch from which to hunt for food. Summer months in the Black Sea region are hot and dry, autumn months rain and wind. The hunting season does not extend into the winter months which can be very cold with some snow. Falconry is practised mainly in the Black Sea region and around Istanbul. People in the Black Sea region are famous for their love of Falconry; however it is in serious decline. This is due to various factors such as urbanisation, environmentalists and lobbyists applying pressure upon the government, modern distractions, and even brides to be reluctant in wanting to wed a Falconer due to the commitment that is required. Falconry is in serious decline with Falconers decreasing significantly in the last 35 years. In 2006 it was estimated that less than 4,000 Falconers existed, mainly people of the older generation, this decline from an estimated 15,000 practicing Falconry in 1971. Today in 2012 it is estimated that no more than 3500 Falconers exist and this decline is now reaching a critical point. Effort is required to assist and encourage people to keep this cultural heritage going otherwise it may well disappear within the next generation.

The Preparation and method of trapping

The preparations begin in the summer months before the bird migrations commence. This begins with knitting the dhogazza, triangle or stream nets required to trap the Sparrow Hawks. These nets consist of a dark coloured (usually black), soft, fine net with a mesh size approximately 65mm – 70mm square. Dhogazza nets measure approximately 180cm x 180cm, triangle nets are another version of the dhogazza with stream nets being far simpler to set up and placed in openings between trees and other areas that have cover. The trapping house or hide is built in a prominent position where migrating Sparrow Hawks are expected. These are either given a flat front or 'L' shape depending upon where they are sited with a small window to allow the trapper to observe any airborne Sparrow Hawks. The hide is constructed with a combination of sticks and leafy branches affording some camouflage to prevent the Hawk becoming suspicious. The net is placed to one side of the hide to allow the trapper to place the decoy bird to encourage the Hawk in. However, before the trapping of the Hawk can commence it all begins with the Mole Cricket (Gryllotalpa vulgaris). These Crickets can be found under Cow or Sheep droppings or in their harbourage, which is a hole in moist ground. These can be easily flushed out by applying a little soapy water down the hole, which brings them out immediately. These are then stored in damp soil for use when required before using to trap the Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio), which is the traditional decoy bird used during the autumn migrations.

The captured Cricket is placed into a handmade small cage, measuring approximately 30cm x 15cm x 20cm. The insect has to be secured with a fine thread around the body, between the thorax and abdomen to prevent it escaping and the trapped Shrike gaining access to eat it. The cage design varies from region to region and may consist of fine nooses (made out of fishing line monofilament) to the exterior of the trap or with a trap door mechanism allowing the Shrike access.

Young female Shrikes are preferred (they are smaller and paler ensuring that they are seen easily) and after fledging emerge from mid July onwards; observation of their favourite perches decides a suitable location to place the trap, migrating Shrikes are predominantly caught. When the location is decided upon the trap is placed; the wriggling movement of the Cricket is just too irresistible for the Shrike to ignore the constant movement, which arouses its instinct and curiosity to come to the cage to eat its meal. The Crickets are kept moist and replaced periodically to prevent them being exhausted. Once the freshly trapped Shrike has been captured they are tied to a stick approximately 1 metre in length, secured with an anklet, jesse and leash combination. At first the bird is nervous and bates continuously, however they soon accept the handler's presence and calm down. At the point of becoming calm and starting to feed the training begins. Shrikes are carnivorous and a small piece of meat is fastened to the stick for the Shrike to eat, any uneaten meat is changed twice a day before it dries out. The birds are manned, with daily exercises where the stick is moved around by the falconer, this gets the bird used to finding its way returning back onto the perch. After the training period the Shrike is fitted with small pieces of semi circular shaped leather caps for each eye. These are glued into position, preventing the bird from seeing upward, only being able to see the stick and the food. This is designed to prevent the Shrike seeing the approaching Sparrow Hawk when used during the trapping session. Where upon it would scream and attempt to dive for cover instead of dancing on the stick being presented.

Often more than one decoy bird is kept as some may possibly die in captivity, become wounded or killed if the trapper is not skilled or to prevent exhaustion if used for long periods during the trapping session. Before or at the end of the Hawk trapping season the Shrike is released back into the wild.

During the trapping session, observations are made for any Sparrow Hawks soaring or on the hunt in the vicinity of the hide. The decoy bird is then presented to 'dance' on its perch to attract the attention of the Hawk, which can see the wing beats of the small bird from a great distance. Upon diving in to catch its prey, the Falconer withdraws the Shrike to prevent it from being captured and hurt by the Hawk. The Hawk hitting the net is then captured, where it is carefully removed to prevent damage to its feathers and the net becoming damaged. If the Hawk is to be kept it is then placed and wrapped into a sock or handkerchief. The Austringer may capture several Hawks, which may be given to friends or family, selected for various attributes, with any not required released back into the wild.

Some terminology:

English

Turkish

Leash

Bağ, ip

Anklet

Ayak bağı

Jesses

Ayak ba ğ ı (anklets and jesses are all one part)

Swivel

Fırdöndü

Bell

Zil

Lure

Leş (dead quail)

Band which travels over the breast and under wing

Göğüs bağı

Sparrow Hawk

Atmaca

Quail

Bıldırcın