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The Falconer

Pietro Pottino, a master falconer since 2005 and one of Italy’s most specialized trainers, expresses his passion with enormous enthusiasm and poetry. His work clothes bear the signs of intense use: a hat pulled well down over his head, a bag slung across his chest, a thick glove – these are all tools of the trade. But the emotion in his voice as he strokes the tiny head of one of his falcons is the most tangible sign of this passion: when he approaches a nest of chicks for the first time, or hears the “chup” used by the tiercel to court the female, offering her food in a display that shows off his hunting prowess. Or when a mother calls to her young to take flight, urging them to seize the prey she has already stunned.

to take flight, urging them to seize the prey she has already stunned.

The same passion underlies the breeding, rearing and training methods used at his centre, known as Sparacia, a few miles outside Palermo. Pottino relies completely on nature, in this area of Sicily with its abundant rocky outcrops and large numbers of raptors, an ideal setting for a no-frills blend of instinct and technique: “If you are intently observant as you look around, you’ll be able to see things through a falcon’s eyes. It’s vital to put yourself on the same level, because a falconer’s ultimate goal is to teach a falcon bred in captivity to fly as if it were wild. And when one of my birds gets close to that level, it gives me the greatest satisfaction.”  

Falconry is one of the most complicated forms of hunting, but using birds of prey has zero environmental impact. Even Frederick II of Swabia, author of a medieval treatise titled De arte venandi cum avibus, namely the art of hunting with birds of prey, wrote that: “This is true falconry, a tradition handed down over millennia, born from the necessity of learning how to survive by hunting without weapons.” For Pottino, a former farmer, it all started by watching birds in flight: “At some point I became more interested, and started to study in order to try and understand the various species. Becoming a falconer is not easy. It takes years of hard work and sacrifice.”

But apart from the surroundings and the species bred here, the real fascination lies in the relationship between the falconer and his bird. It is a relationship made up of glances and barely visible but unmistakeable signals, and a familiarity based on years of handling and practice. No coercive methods are used: to train a falcon you need firmness and determination, but also kindness and mutual respect. “The raptor will never let itself be dominated,” explains Pottino. “All that can ever exist between a falconer and his bird is a proud and lofty collaboration. This is an undomesticated animal, that lacks expression, but whose instinct remains intact. It’s not a toy. To understand it you need to empathise with it and thoroughly study of its way of thinking.”

Today all birds destined for training are born in captivity. Thanks to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) taking wild animals is no longer an option and every falcon must have its own identity document stating date of birth and its breeder’s name. Anyone who breaks the rules runs the risk of criminal prosecution.