[IN PICTURES] Falconry in Malta: from king’s tribute to ancient art revived

A 4,000-year-old technique that bonds wild falcons to their masters is part of the fascination with the arcane world of falconry

Lucas Micallef with his Peregrine falcon
Lucas Micallef with his Peregrine falcon

Diving in at over 320km per hour, Peregrine falcons can not only be the fastest birds, but the fastest animals on Earth.

These intelligent birds have formed a bond with their owners, being set free yet finding their way back again and again. As a tradition that spans thousands of years, falconry creates a certain emotional bond between falconers and their birds.

“There’s nothing like the feeling of pride and when your bird takes a dive or pure joy when they come back,” veteran falconer Marco Aquilina told MaltaToday. “It does not form overnight. It needs to be sustained. Unlike other pets like dogs, who come to their owners out of a sense of loyalty, in this case there is no loyalty. Instead, the falconer needs to create a bond so that bit by bit, the bird will start to trust him, knowing that she will be taken care of. This is a technique that man discovered 4,000 years ago, a long process of bonding that requires him to spend many hours a day in order to foster it.”

The falcon must be trained every single day, and feeding time is an art of its own. Equipped with a GPS and whistle, Aquilina starts off with exercises that train the bird to respond to their call. Then, it is time to start flying.

At law GPS tracking is mandatory. “This is the hardest bit… letting the bird go, and knowing that she might not come back. You can work for so long on something in order to perfect it, and then lose it in an instant,” Aquilina says.

Falconers look for cliffs set against the wind, taking advantage of thermal uplift winds which falcons naturally look out for.

Lucas Micallef, the president of the Malta Falconers Club, says falconry has very strong ties to Malta. Apart from being the coveted ‘MacGuffin’ in the 1941 film adaption of the detective novel The Maltese Falcon (the small statuette provides both the book’s title and its motive for intrigue), historically when Charles V handed over Malta to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, part of the islands’ remittance to the sovereign was a wild peregrine falcon captured from the Dingli Cliffs area.

Falconer Marco Aquilina
Falconer Marco Aquilina

Since the MFC’s creation in 2015, the club won legislation now endorsed by the International Association for Falconry (IAF) as the best type of legislation in Europe. “In fact, today Denmark and Greece have followed suit, using the same legislation,” Micallef says. “In 2016, Falconry was also included by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Finally, the art of falconry was inscribed on Malta’s national inventory list as intangible cultural heritage in 2019.”

Tracking the falcon with GPS
Tracking the falcon with GPS

Environment minister Aaron Farrugia has also recognised falconry as being synonymous with nature conservation and the rehabilitation of birds of prey for repopulation, reinforcement or reintroduction.

The Environment and Resources Authority has already approved a pest control pilot in Comino, to assess the possibility of using such a system for the control of pest populations of the islands, rather than using chemicals or culling.

“Falconry can be used for the rehabilitation of birds which would have suffered some type of incident or injury during migration, so falconers, through their practice, are able to rehabilitate these species so that they can continue on their journey,” Micallef says.

Apart from being involved in various cultural and historical events, the MFC involves itself in regular school visits and participation with youth organisations, raising awareness not only on the magnificence of these birds but also the importance of protecting them.

Unfortunately, wind farms, high voltage wire accidents, feeding on poisoned carcasses, and habitat destruction, as well as poaching, are threatening birds of prey.

“Being on the top of the food chain, falcons have a very important role in keeping a balance in our ecosystem. But since the diet of birds of prey is mainly carcasses, we often see the tragic consequences of these birds having consumed poisoned animals,” Micallef says. “These incidents are heartbreaking, but serve as further motivation for us to continue educating through falconry.”

Micallef credits a recent increase in awareness with an increase in the population of birds of prey. Since 2009, Malta also saw the return of the peregrine falcon, for the first time in decades. “We were glad to highlight the return of the peregrine falcon that has successfully bred in the wild on the Maltese islands in recent years. In 2015 a pair of peregrine falcons was observed breeding on the Maltese Islands,” he said. “Since then, another two pairs bred on Ta’ Ċenċ cliffs on Comino. This strengthens our resolve to continue raising awareness of these occurrences to further safeguard these magnificent species.”