Feet firmly planted on the ground, left elbow out, forearm straight, hand and wrist covered with a thick leather glove, I looked apprehensively at the master falconer standing by my side. He had just sent a magnificent Harris's hawk into the air, soaring into the sky, then swooping down towards me. “He won’t attack me, will he?” I asked. “Not unless he mistakes you for a rabbit,” the instructor deadpanned, “and there is no chance of that”, he grinned. He had placed a piece of chicken on my glove and, sure enough, with a swish of feathers, the hawk landed on my arm, gobbled up the chicken at lightning speed and eyed me expectantly, not unlike a playful dog who wants his master to throw the stick again.
Practiced in Central Asia and the Middle East as far back as 1700 BCE to hunt food and introduced to central and northern Europe around 400 CE (by the Huns, it's thought), falconry became the sport of kings and aristocrats, and in the 20th century started becoming more "democratised" among enthusiasts from many walks of life. In recent years, it's grown even further in popularity, and has even been included as an attraction to the public by falconry centres, tour operators, and even resorts, offering the chance to experience these impressive aves de presa (birds of prey) up close and personal, learn how to care for them, and how to let them fly. I found one such place in Spain, the Las Colinas International School of Falconry, in the town of Campoamor, near Alicante where I live.