The captive propagation of raptors is a relatively new activity from a historical perspective. Anecdotally, there have been rare accounts of captive raptor breeding throughout the past, but it really wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that any real success was consistently achieved. The impetus for this captive breeding effort was the drastic decline of the Peregrine Falcon in North America, which culminated in the falcons near extinction by the early 1970’s. In recognition of this problem, the Peregrine Fund was founded at Cornel University by then ornithology professor and avid falconer, Tom Cade. It was here that the groundbreaking techniques of raptor breeding in captivity were developed. Many falconers contributed their privately owned hunting falcons to the cause, and it wasn’t long before the Peregrine Fund was releasing captive bred falcons to the wild in order to help sustain dwindling populations, as well as offering young falcons to falconers in order to fly and keep safe until they reached a suitable breeding age. Today, the Peregrine falcon is completely recovered, and that outstanding fact can be mainly attributed to the hard work and perseverance of North American falconers and their invaluable contribution to the field of raptor propagation.
Thanks to the techniques pioneered by the Peregrine Fund, there are many individuals successfully practicing raptor breeding today for both conservation and falconry. Captive breeding makes the more difficult to obtain raptors easier to access by falconers, and it is a welcomed method in some instances to obtain a hunting hawk. In order to take part in raptor propagation, the propagator must possess both a state and federal license to do so. Each species presents its own special and diverse challenges to successfully propagate in captivity. Every raptor that is propagated in captivity may be sold as the breeder sees fit to licensed individuals, although rarely is a profit ever turned for most of the smaller breeders. It is a labor of love, and those that breed hawks and falcons do it because they enjoy the challenge, as well as the reward of interacting with the hawks outside of the hunting season.
Raptor propagation requires of the breeder an extreme commitment in both time and dedication during the breeding season. If the breeder is working with human imprinted birds that will be artificially inseminated, this time commitment increases exponentially. In order to be successful, the breeder must be present in order to court the male and female hawk until they come into breeding condition, collect semen from the male, inseminate the female during her small ovulatory windows, agonize over the condition of the eggs until they hatch, and care for the neonatal hawk. In Pennsylvania, this means being on duty at all hours of the day from the end of February until July for the larger hawks and falcons.
While the intent of this section is to give a cursory overview regarding raptor propagation, it is important for the neophyte to understand that only a small portion of falconry birds are obtained from captivity. Traditionally, in fact for several thousand years, falconers have sourced their hunting companions from the wild. It is worth noting that all relevant research conducted on the take of raptors from the wild for the purposes of falconry has concluded that there is absolutely no impact on wild raptor populations. For many falconers, there is no substituting the wild hawk and her generally superior abilities, which she has earned through Mother Nature’s unforgiving teachings.
In conclusion, captive raptor breeding is a challenging and rewarding way to interact with birds of prey, and it offers many falconers an opportunity to train/hunt with novel and interesting raptors; however, it can never replace the wild take of raptors for our sport which is significantly more ingrained and integral to the art of falconry.