FLYING WITH FALCONS

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Lane Wade

In the middle of the arena the falcon flies several large boomerang-like loops, ending with a direct nose-dive toward the target that’s been cast out for her to capture.

At the arc of the swing, the bait is yanked in the opposite direction by the falconer, and the bird follows in a sudden, choreographed flash of silver. She spirals down and lands on the soft, silky sand, greedily covering her prize by spreading her wings protectively in an instinct known as mantling.

“She does that to cover what she’s caught from anything that is circling overhead,” says Darren Smith, a professional falconer at the Toronto Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament, and a Ryerson graduate. “Just in case something else tries to snatch it from her.”

He breathes heavily after swinging the lure and admits that the daily workout is intense on both sides. “There’s a saying out there that at the end of a flight, the falconer should be just as tired as the falcon,” says Smith, who is dressed in a heavy leather surcote (tunic) and tights.

Although his clothing isn’t authentic medieval-ware per se, much of the other equipment he uses has its historical counterpart, like the bird-shaped lure he throws and the thick tough gauntlet used to protect his hand from the falcon’s craggy talons.

“Lure flying was used by huntsmen and goes back thousands of years before medieval times,” says Smith. “But it reached its peak of popularity in the years between the eleventh and twelfth centuries AD.”

During this time, falcons were used not only to put food on the table, but also in sports of national prestige, and as heraldic symbols. They also determined one’s rank in a society deeply divided by classes such as serfs, lesser nobilities, dukes, knights and kings.

“Falconry worked its way into the social strata of the medieval ages, with the most common birds being flown by the common people,” says Smith. “The stronger and larger birds like the gyrfalcons could only be flown by kings.”

The three female falcons at Medieval Times are lanner falcons named Guinevere, Morgaine, and Viviane. They were raised in captivity and are flown in the shows on a rotating basis.

“What we do here at Medieval Times is more spectacle and entertainment, but it does provide an element of preservation because sometimes, that stuff sticks with you.”

Smith recalls that as a kid, he was one of those dreamy boys who was fascinated with stories about chivalrous knights, King Arthur, Lancelot and the like, but as soon as he got his foot in the door at Medieval Times, he knew he wanted to work with the falcons.

“The job came about because I was already involved with swordsmanship and fighting,” says Smith, referring to his involvement with an organization called AEMMA (pronounced EM-ah), the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts.

“My whole life is everything medieval; it’s phenomenal.”

After graduating from the RTA program at Ryerson, Smith came across a newspaper clipping about AEMMA, which was founded in 1998 and focuses on preserving the fighting traditions of medieval Europe.

In weekly meetings, recruits are taught combat skills from surviving Renaissance-era manuscripts dating back to AD 1410. The principal training guide is called Flos Duellatorum (Flower of Battle), and was written by Italian swordsmaster Fiore dei Liberi.

Smith was impressed with the academy’s solid foundation and absence of fantasy role-playing or re-enactment. “[AEMMA] was not just a bunch of guys hitting themselves with nerf sticks.

There was no spectacle and they were professional-pursuing medieval combat as a martial art.” At the salon (dojo) where they practise, Smith’s teacher Brian McIlmoyle, principal instructor and co-founder of AEMMA, explains that the word “martial” is derived from ancient Greek, meaning the arts of Mars (the ancient god of war).

Martial tends to be associated with Asian culture because it burst onto the North American scene and psyche in the ’60s and ’70s. McIlmoyle insists that the Western tradition is every bit as sophisticated as its Eastern counterpart.

“Really there is no single culture on the planet that is more martial than the European,” says McIlmoyle. “But Europeans tend to be too forward thinking and they forget where it is they come from. That’s where Asian cultures have us beat because they are standing on everything that came before.”

As McIlmoyle teaches, Smith suits up in a chain mail shirt and coif (cap) that he ordered from the United States for $600. When fully suited with a custom helmet ordered from the Czech Republic and a sword, Smith estimates that he’s about 60 pounds heavier and worth about $3,000.

When the conversation shifts to the Western Martial Arts Workshop in New York next month, Smith says he probably won’t be attending. He slides up his visor and says with a wry smile: “I’m saving my money – there’s always more armour to buy.”

In the cavernous backstage behind the arena at Medieval Times, Smith gently lowers Guinevere onto a special scale and meticulously records her weight and condition in a daily log.

He takes a chunk of raw, marbled beef out of a bar-sized fridge and twists it into the lure. Then he gingerly slips a tiny black leather hood over the falcon’s head and coaxes it to step onto his outstretched glove.

“Some people are taken aback and upset by the falcon’s hood,” says Smith. “The hood doesn’t harm her and is used so she won’t be frightened. Falcons have very sharp eyesight-it would be like you or I wearing binoculars all the time, or like going to a movie and processing it frame by frame.”

He also addresses the issue of those who may object to the use of wild birds for entertainment purposes. “We can’t mistreat our birds and have them do what they do in the show,” he says. “In order to be able to fly and fly strongly, we need to have healthy birds.”

Smith also points out that the falcons are banded as a precautionary measure in the slim chance that they fly off.

“I would give them four or five days on their own. If they hadn’t caught anything by then, they would starve to death,” he says. “But because we fly our falcons every day, because they are well fed and well exercised, they wouldn’t go anywhere.”

Once the hood is removed and the bird launches into its mesmerizing climbs and dives, Smith confides why he plans to fly falcons for a long time to come. “I think it comes from a personal desire to want to fly. So instead of going out to buy a glider, I’m able to fly a falcon,” says Smith.

“The idea of being able to work with an animal like that and to have her do something that she does naturally – a bird in pursuit of prey-is awesome and magnificent.”

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