Falconry is one of the most ancient Hungaricums and the tradition of hunting with raptors is as old as Hungarian history. What proves this more than the prominent role of the turul? The turul was—if not a Saker falcon specifically—most definitely some sort of falcon.
Falconry in Hungarian history
Falconry is a general term encompassing hunting with all birds of prey, such as hawks, sparrow-hawks, eagles and buzzards. It’s certain that the early Hungarian conquerors arrived in the Carpathian basin with the aid of raptors trained to hunt—most likely acquired initially from the Persians. In fact, aside from the Arabs, the Hun tribes (later the Hungarians) introduced falconry to Europe. For example, in the Hungarian origin story, Emese, the ancestral mother, was fertilized by a falcon. According to the famous chronicler of the XIII. Century, Simon Kézai, the turul was the Hungarian war symbol from the age of Attila until Grand Prince Géza.
The falcon and the culture surrounding it was quite popular throughout the Árpád Dynasty (which Simon Kézai also labeled a turul nation) and by 1301 twenty-eight Hungarian rulers claimed they derived from turuls. Saint Stephen established separate villages for his cherished falconers, often naming towns after them. Béla the III, András the II and Béla the IV all included depictions of the turul on their coins; according to the Vienna Illuminated Chronicle, Prince Álmos, King Coloman the Learned’s younger brother, is depicted riding horseback with his falcon along the Csor Castle. The falcon held a prominent role in diplomacy as well, often serving as a gift. Later on, King Matthias’ passion for hunting with birds of prey inspired him to utilize them in charming his would-be wife, Beatrix of Aragon.
Up until the spread of firearms, around the XVI-XVII. centuries, falcons were regularly utilized in hunting; however, they have progressively decreased in importance and slipped into the “hobby” category.
And what does falconry look like today?
The Hungarian Falconry Association, formed around 1939 after some historical turbulence, has around 150 members. Overall, there are about 200 active falconers in Hungary today, but their work is unfortunately obstructed by outdated laws. For instance, it is quite complicated to legally obtain a trainable raptor. Falcons, because they are not tamed, stay beside their falconers instinctively, not just because of their intimate connection, but first and foremost because their falconer provides a steady source of food. Falconry involves a long process of patient, persistent and constant work which makes it more of a job than a hobby—in fact, many claim one must commit an entire lifestyle to falconry. Also, it is widely held that falcons can only be trained with positive reinforcement, otherwise, in the case of any negative experience, they will fly away to never return.
photo by hungarikum.hu
Despite the niche popularity of falconry, it is still relevant given that it is one of the most ethical and humane forms of hunting. This is because there is an opportunity for the prey to escape, minimal injury, and a refined, sensitive connection between the bird and its owner. Few are aware that the Budapest Ferenc Liszt Airport, and many other airports, employ teams of falconers so that unwanted flocks of birds, hazardous to arriving and departing planes, may be distanced from the runway. This method is not only more environmentally friendly but also, according to experts, more effective because while the birds can grow accustomed to the noise, they still instinctively flee the “sharks of the sky.”
In 2012, Hungary was added to the UNESCO Falconry Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. In the same year, on November 27th, Hungarian falconry was officially designated as a Hungaricum.