Ethical and scientific aspects concerning animal welfare and falconry
by Thomas Richter and Peter Kunzmann

Every type of interaction humans have with animals at the moment is being tested and scrutinised by society. This is true for hunting and especially for hawking as well. The present paper shall evaluate whether hawking and falconry go morally and biologically together with the ideas of animal welfare.

Morality, to my thinking, is advice for how to behave properly. Morality gives the answer to the question: ”how shall we act?” In the Middle Ages at the times of pope and emperor, decision-making was quite easy, decisions came from the authorities. In the present day there is no universal morality left. Everybody is forced to think by themselves whether his or her behaviour is right or wrong.

In the present day I am allowed to decide many various subjects by myself personally. If I don’t like the taste of spinach, I am not forced to eat some. But if my aim is to regulate the living of other people by law, I have a duty is to justify the way I think. The arguments have to be reasonable and without contradiction. How much better it would be if other people could agree with my decision; in case of spinach this would fail.

One basic principle in philosophy is the principle of equality. Equal things should be treated equally, unequal things should be treated differently. A person is acting reasonably, when he or she makes decisions on comparable items in the same way (Wimmer, 1980, by Mueller, 1995, P. 87). This means: if the ethical assessment is known for a possible option of acting, and if there is a second possible option of acting comparable to the first, the assessment has to be the same. By this means I will compare the keeping of Bird of Prey with other animal keeping and hawking with other hunting methods.

Ethics is that part of philosophy which does scientific research on morals. The relationship between moral and ethics is comparable to the relationship between a disease and medical science. Ethics is super-individualistic. To forbid spinach for the only reason, that I personally do not like it, would not fit into a critical overview by ethics.

In order to decide whether falconry and hawking fits to the principles of animal welfare, we have to do four steps:

1. an ethical and scientific overview concerning the quarry,
2. an ethical and scientific overview concerning the hawking birds, using the concept of Meet Demands and Avoid Damage , an ethological scheme accepted by most of the scientists dealing with animal welfare in the German speaking countries
3. regarding the fact that there is no action done by human beings that has only positive or negative aspects, there is a comparison to be done to weigh the benefit by the human action (i.e. hawking) versus the harm it may probably cause
4. a synopsis and conclusion.

I. Overview concerning the quarry

To ask if falconry and hawking can be accepted morally, you have first  to answer the following questions:

1. is hunting acceptable at all?
2. is killing of one animal by an other animal to human benefit acceptable?
3. is hawking less acceptable like other hunting methods?

To the first question:
What objections can be given against hunting? Hunting means the killing of animals. The first question is of course: is killing of animals acceptable? The killing of animals in our opinion is allowed, provided there is a justifying reason. What reasons can be considered as justifying, depends on the cultural context and the personal opinions of an individual. The range varies from no reason all to self-defence, defence of human property, defence of nature (by pest control as well as by sustainable use of quarry for sport hunting purposes) and consummatory use (especially for human nutrition) to any reason at all.

The most usual answers to the question of what might justify killing (while hunting) are:
- no reason
- just self-defence
- self-defence and defence of human property or nature conservation or food
- self-defence and defence of human property and nature conservation and food
- any reason

Although there is no method to verify which opinion is the one and only, but you may have a look at the consequences that occur, if you advocate one of these opinions.

- If there is no reasoning that justifies the killing of any animal, than you must not take a drug if you are occasionally infected with a tapeworm.

- If ‘only in self-defence’ is acceptable as justifying reason, you may kill the tapeworm and you may even kill the fox, if you can show, that it endangers you with Ecchinococcus multilocularis or rabies.

- If defence of human property is acceptable as a justifying reason, you may kill different animal species causing problems, for example rats and mice, wild pigs which are a big item of farmers concerning crops and wild rabbits that destroy railway installations, campgrounds or graveyards.

- If nature conversation is acceptable as justifying reason, you may control predators to avoid the extinction of rare species (like fox-control in Germany to protect the last Grouse-Populations) as well as saving white rhinos in the Southern Africa for hunting purposes.

- If consumption of animal products (like meat, fur or skin) is acceptable as a justifying reason, then it must be allowed to use wild animals as well. By the way, harvesting wild animals usually does mean less suffering for the animals then the use of farm-animals, which mostly are kept under quite poor circumstances.

Now you can decide, what consequences you personally are willing to bear, and you can ask your compatriots what their opinion is. In Western Europe, to accept the killing of animals for self-defence, defence of property, nature conservation and nutrition supply is common sense for most of the people.

We are coming now to the second question, whether it is allowed to use an animal to kill others. The most common predator that kills animals for human benefit, is the cat that catches mice. It is our duty to study if the mice-catching of a cat – lets say to a farmers benefit – is more acceptable morally than catching rabbis with a goshawk by a falconer. Indeed there are two substantial differences between these two cases – but in both cases the Goshawk has an advantage over the cat. First the cat does not respect closed seasons and catches for example lactating mother-mice with the result that the dependent offspring will die. The second problem is that cats do not respect nature protection laws and do catch protected species like songbirds as well. If there is consensus among people, that catching mice by a cat is acceptable, I can see no reason, why catching rabbits with a goshawk (or partridges with a peregrine and so on) should be immoral. 

In order to give an answer to the third question, if hawking is more immoral, than other hunting methods, we shall compare it with hunting by using a gun. This comparison leads to a better results for the hawking method. The hawk is part of nature and the quarry knows it very well. Both hawk and quarry share a long period of evolution. Hawking is silent, it disturbs only the potential quarry, and not other wild animals and it involves the human to a much lesser extent than shooting. Additionally it is worth to mention, that the absence of lead-shot leads to less pollution for the environment. From an ecological point of view hawking is the less disturbing hunting method.

Killing and injuring: while shooting quarry animals that are injured but not killed immediately escape occasionally. They will die after a certain time with significant suffering. This is very unlikely while hawking. The hawk catches the quarry properly or it will escape unhurt. Falcons kill their prey quickly, quarry captured by a short wing, can usually be reached and killed by the falconer within seconds.

There is no risk for humans being injured due to hunting, if hawking is the method. There is even no risk for human property becoming damaged. For this reason falconers are quite popular if the aim is to reduce rabbit-populations in graveyards, industrial areas or camping grounds.

Another interesting possibility is to chase away crows, seagulls or herons from airfields, rubbish tips or fish farms. For this means it is often successful just to let a falcon fly, to cause the birds to leave the area.

II. Overview concerning hawking birds

In order to decide whether there are special problems in keeping and training hawking birds, you have to deal with the following questions:

- is keeping of animals, especially of “wild animals” in the hands of man acceptable?
- is the special kind of keeping and training of birds of prey used by falconers acceptable?

“wild” versus “domestic” animals
Most citizens do accept the keeping of animals. This is verified by the enormous number of pets that are kept, assessment tells that 100 million pets are kept privately in Germany alone. Humans do have a big urge to live together with animals. The position “the one who loves animals does not keep animals” is only shared by a minority of our fellow citizens.

This leads to the sub question if the keeping of animals whose conspecifics are usually living in nature (“wild animals”) is allowed or just the keeping of domesticated animals? This is also accepted by the majority of our compatriots, think of the huge amount of fish kept in aquariums, as well as parrots, reptiles and amphibians, virtually all of them wild. We need also to clarify whether the status of being member of a (sub)species(1) living usually in the wild constitutes a special status. Following the principle of equality – that means using moral principles – you have to refuse this idea. Every animal in human hands has to be cared for properly, with no difference between “wild animals” and “domestic animals”. A special moral status of “wild animals” has to be refused as well, if you take biological points of view into account. There is no evidence that there have been new behavioural patterns raised up by domestication, only an increase or decrease of intensity in existing behaviours. The criteria for animal welfare cannot be how long an animal or its ancestors have been kept in the hands of man, but whether it is possible to fulfil the demands of the animal while it is being kept. In other words, whether the housing conditions are suitable for the adaptability of the animal or not. To give an example: we can seen no problem keeping an animal of a usually free living (sub)species if there is no evidence of suffering, damage or pain. However, to keep a domestic horse that shows stereotypical behavioural problems like wind-sucking, or has injuries at the hoof, because of being reared in an impoverished environment is, in my opinion, a big welfare problem.

Meet Demands and Avoid Damage Concept

As a tool for the decision whether falconry has a significant relevance to animal welfare, one can use the concept of Meet Demands and Avoid Damage. This concept was elaborated by a group of Swiss and German ethologists (ethological working group of the German Veterinarian Society, Tschanz et. al., 1987) and first published in 1987. At present it is the most often used method to decide whether a certain phenomenon has an animal welfare relevance or not.

The concept of Meet Demands and Avoid Damage arises from the assumption that every organism is able to self-creation and self-maintenance. Whether an animal can manage self-creation and self-maintenance sufficiently can be evaluated if the animal is able to fulfil its demands and prevents itself from damage. The animal uses for these aims its physiological, morphological and ethological equipment acquired by evolution and by individual ontogenesis. With this equipment animals use or avoid structures and conditions in their environment (if an animal is kept, the structures and conditions are ruled by men). If the adaptability of an animal is overstretched, physiological, morphological and/or ethological damage will occur. Physical damage can be seen easily with, mostly even without knowledge about that animal species, and there is no dispute about the relevance of physical injury to the welfare of the animal. Ethological damage will be recognised as disturbed behaviour like stereotypes and is most often not so easy to detect, so there is much more discussion whether disturbed behaviour does really indicate poor welfare. The concept of Meet Demands and Avoid Damage claims if there is a significant amount of injured or damaged individuals correlating to a certain keeping or managment system, this system will be recognised as not compatible with the approach of animal welfare. For this judgement the seriousness of the damage is to be taken in consideration as well.

In order to answer the second question we shall have a view on the methods used by falconers typically.

At first is to say, that during the moult period the birds are mostly kept in aviaries (or so called moulting pens). During the hunting season, especially prior to the hunting act, the bird will mostly be tethered at both of the two legs and fixed to a perch or the fist. The so called falconry method is only justified for birds engaged in hunting that are also allowed to fly freely and often during the season.  (By the way: while keeping other species of pets, tethering is a very common method for leading an animal as well and is completely accepted morally. Nearly all dogs and a lot of cats are led with collars and leads, horses wear a halter and are steered by reins which force much more power to the sensible moth than the jesses to the legs of the hawk.)

Does tethering cause suffering in the birds? Concerning the locomotion activities, most people have a wrong idea. This idea may result from human dreams of freedom (see the advertising the Marlboro Tobacco Company does worldwide) and from the behaviour of buzzards, who are sailing in thermals. This soaring costs considerably less energy  than the active flight of a peregrine or even a goshawk. And even the buzzards don’t fly just for fun. They need to soar either to look for carrion as food or to mark out their territory. Scientific results show, that Birds of Prey are very keen on saving energy by resting and avoiding flying. Wild living peregrines at the shore in the Netherlands have been observed during the winter period when a lot of quarry (ducks, seagulls etc.) is available easily. They flew on the average one and a half minutes per day - just enough to catch a duck (Bednarek, 2002), then they rested, till hunger grew the next day and they hunted again for about one and a half minutes. Falconers are very keen that their birds are very well trained physically, because a less fit bird will not catch as much quarry, if any. They take a lot of care that their birds have a lot of flight opportunity and experience.

The training of the hawk firstly means taming. Even if this is quite different between the various species of Birds of Prey used for hawking, it can only be done by patience. Negative sanctions like those used a lot in the training of dogs and horses for example, are deadly bad for the learning process in Birds of Prey. All birds have in common, that they are much less capable of learning than mammals. They are basically too “stupid” to understand sanctions. They would only become frightened as a result. If we accept the training of dogs or horses for human purposes, we have to accept the training of birds of prey even more.

Birds of prey, no matter if they are living freely or together with men, do not hunt unless they are hungry (or mating or rearing offspring). Birds of prey, like all predators, are capable of eating much more than their actual nutritional demands for one day, if they had the luck to hunt successfully. While hawking the falconer has to control the food intake of the bird carefully to keep it still motivated, but strong enough to hunt successfully. If this food management is done carefully, the bird is in the same condition as its conspecifics in the wild. If we are asking whether feeding a bird less food than it could eat as a maximum can be accepted morally, we have to compare the feeding of birds with the feeding of other animals and even of humans. A lot of animals have a controlled diet to get them to a maximum rate of fitness. I am not able to see a moral difference between feeding a diet that fulfils the demands but prevents from becoming too fat, to birds, or to dogs, horses or (wo)men.

Using the Meet Demand and Avoid Damage Concept we can state:

Successful hunting falconers birds do not show physical damage in general. There is just a single pathological problem left, that had been cause of a severe illness, the so called bumble-foot disease. This occurred especially in wild caught (passage) falcons. The reason is supposed to be a too rapid change in metabolism (Heidenreich, 1996). Additionally poor perches have been discussed (Trommer, 1992). Bumble-foot can be prevented by good housing, good food and good management in both the captive bred and the wild caught bird. Successful hunting with birds of prey presupposes they are in perfect condition.

Disturbed, especially stereotypical behaviour, as we do know very well from domestic and non-domesticated animals kept under poor environmental circumstances, like weaving, wind-sucking and crib-biting in horses, bar-biting in sows or feather-picking in poultry and parrots has not been recognised in falconry birds. There is no evidence that the ethological needs of falconry birds’ are not met by the keeping and training typical for falconry.

And even if you face falconry from an aesthetic point of view, you will find no contradiction. As far as we know, animals have no thirst for freedom. Hawking is the very best example of a voluntary cooperation between an animal (who’s conspecifics live freely) and a human being. I personally am fascinated by hawking, because the hawk has to be physically fit and behaviourly fit at a very high level, to be a successful hunter. And this successful hunter accepts cooperation with little me by a positive learning experience. The bird cooperates even though it flies completely free, it could fly away easily and – as a successful hunter – it could survive without problems in the wild.

All keeping of animals requires resources of material and of knowledge. Successful falconers prove that they have access to these resources, otherwise they wouldn’t be successful.

III. Advantages

As we have seen, there are no particular animal welfare problems with falconry. Furthermore we can see some significant benefits resulting from it:

1. Benefit for Humans:
a. Falconry is a great pleasure for a lot of people –  in Germany it belongs to the constitutionally protected freedoms (by High Court Ruling).
b. The tame hawk with undisturbed behaviour is a great chance for science. Most of the knowledge we have about the behaviour of hawks, especially of the reproductive behaviour, comes from trained birds.

2. Benefit for Nature Conservation:
a. It was only the intimate rational and intuitive knowledge falconers have from their birds, especially from their ethology, gave us the chance to breed birds of prey successfully. This was the basis not only to serve falconers’ own demands for birds, but for many release programs worldwide. Especially the peregrine populations, both in Germany and in the US, which have had a great advantage from the several thousand captive bred birds that have been released to the wild. 

3. Benefit for Animal Welfare:
a. Injured or otherwise helpless birds of prey require proper medical treatment – after that they must not be released without special training based on the methods and experiences of falconers.

IV. Summary and Valuation
Weighting the pros and cons:

There is a long list of benefits from falconry.

For the falconers hawking is a source of fulfilment, challenge and delight.

Falconry is the most suitable hunting method from an ecological point of view. The stress for the quarry is, compared to other hunting methods, quite low.

Falconers’ birds are indispensable for science, especially for ethological and reproductive research. Watching the natural behaviour of a bird of prey – and hawking means nothing else– is a basis of invaluable merit.

The knowledge and the engagement of falconers made the new foundation of many populations possible that had been extinct.

Falconers’ knowledge and techniques are the basic requirements for successful rehabilitation of injured or otherwise helpless wild birds.

Is there any obstacle?

A moral disadvantage from falconry and hawking cannot be seen.

From a biological point of view, there could no welfare relevance detected by the Meet Demands and Avoid Damage Concept. Compared with living in nature a tame hawk has a much more comfortable and secure life.



Mueller, A., 1995: Ethische Aspekte der Erzeugung und Haltung transgener Nutztiere, Enke Verlag, Stuttgart

Fachgruppe Verhaltensforschung (Beat Tschanz und Coautoren), 1987: Bedarfsdeckung und Schadensvermeidung; Deutsche Veterinaermedizinische Gesellschaft; Giessen

Sambraus, H.H., 1991: Sind Verhaltensstoerungen Indikatoren fuer eine nicht tiergerechte Haltung? Tierzucht, 45. Jahrg., Heft 6, S. 260-264

Heidenreich, M., 1996; Greifvoegel, Blackwell-Wissenschafts Verlag, Berlin, Wien

Trommer, G., 1992: Greifvoegel und Falknerei 1991; Neumann-Neudamm, Melsungen

 BVerfG 55, 159 = NJW 1981, 673

Richter, Th. und Susanne Hartmann, 1993: Die Versorgung und Rehabilitation von voruebergehend in Menschenhand geratenen Greifvoegeln - ein Tierschutzproblem; Tieraerztliche Umschau, 48. Jahrg., Heft 4, S. 239-250, Terra-Verlag, Konstanz

Authors address:
Prof. Dr. med. vet. Thomas Richter, Neckarsteige 6, D-72622 Nuertingen, Germany
Prof. Dr. phil. Peter Kunzmann, Marsstr. 19, 80335 Munich, Germany

Note 1: By a biological point of view, domestication creates no new species, the animals remain to be a member of the original species (dogs remain member of the species Canis  lupus, pigs of the species Sus scrofa), therefore you just can talk about wild or domesticated subspecies.