The world’s largest falcon, the gyr (or ger), is a rare visitor to Britain, although sightings have recently become comparatively common owing to falconers’ increasing use of captive-bred birds . . .
Owing to their size, these Arctic predators have always been highly-prized by falconers. These are the world’s largest falcons with females weighing up to 3 kg and easily capable of killing geese or even swans. Unlike a British female peregrine (which weighs about 1 kg) as ‘desert’ falcons they are all-rounders which are quite happy to take mammals as well as birds (Arctic hares feature heavily in its natural diet).
Their size, beauty and frozen, remote, hunting grounds meant they were the ultimate prestige symbol during the late Middle Ages. When Anne of Denmark married James I, her father gave the groom four gyrs as a wedding present and one source priced each at £10,000 each – many millions of pounds in today’s terms. Little wonder, therefore, that James’s great-great-uncle, Henry VIII, asked his court painter, Hans Holbein, to paint his falconer, Robert Cheeseman, holding his most valuable hunting bird. Sadly, no written details about the bird have survived, but modern falconers suggest its plumage suggest it is a two year-old jerkin (male) from Northern Norway.
Because of their ridiculously high value, most birds which found their way to Europe’s courts were probably always more prestige symbols than genuine hunting birds, but they were sometimes flown. The traditional quarry were large birds such as herons, storks and kites. This is because despite their size, such birds have surprisingly light wing-loadings (about 0.3 g/cm2). As a result when pursued by the powerful, fast, falcon with its much higher wingloading (0.7g/cm2), the stork or kite would try to escape by flying almost vertically upwards. The heavier falcon could not match this style of flight, so instead would circle rapidly. This produced a ‘ringing’ chase which was highly-valued by the aristocratic onlookers.
The other interesting aspect of this picture is that it is possibly a tribute to Cheeseman from a grateful monarch who almost drowned while hawking near Hitchen during the 1520s. As the already substantial monarch pole vaulted a drainage ditch (this traditional means of crossing waterways is where today’s athletic sport began), his staff snapped and the king became stuck, upside down in the mud. Cheeseman dragged him out, saving him from a watery death. Had he not done so, he would never have divorced Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, there would have been no split with Rome, no Church of England and the whole course of the Reformation and Counter Reformation would have been very different.