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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a keeper or trainer of hawks, falcons, and other birds of prey

Some things come full circle, and tweeting a word for someone who manages hawks from a Twitter account called Haggard Hawks is a little too meta for comfort. But here we are: an accipitrary is a keeper or trainer of birds of prey.

That’s a word coined in the 1600s, and having seemingly long fallen out of use was rescued from obscurity during a resurgence in the popularity of hunting and other traditionally gentlemanly pursuits in the Edwardian era.

As a lot of people pointed out in the comments here, yes, this is also a word that shares etymological quarters with accipiter, an ornithological term for a bird of prey in the family Accipitridae. But not all birds of prey are accipitriform birds—so technically, despite the name, not all the birds an accipitrary would deal with are accipiters. So how did that come about?

In taxonomic terms, the accipiter family includes most diurnal birds of prey except falcons and vultures. Falcons belong in a separate family, Falconidae, while the New World vultures and condors are Cathartiformes (and nocturnal owls are Strigiformes). The accipiter group ultimately includes the likes of hawks, eagles, harriers, buzzards, kites, the osprey and the secretary bird, alongside a few others—but not the likes of peregrines, kestrels, merlins, hobbies and caracaras.

What is the difference? Well, hawks tend to have broader, rounder wings than falcons, which makes them more suited to prolonged, high-altitude soaring. Falcons tend to have sharper, narrower, sometimes sickle-shaped wings, which makes them more suited to faster and more energetic flying, as well as hovering and diving in flight. (In its high-speed dive or ‘stoop’, the peregrine falcon regularly reachers speeds of over 200 mph, making it the fastest animal on the planet.)

Hawks also tend to be larger birds overall, with many using their body weight to stun or kill their prey the instant it is caught. Falcons, on the other hand, have more noticeably angular beaks and talons, which are said to be used to inflict a specific killing movement on their prey.

Differences like these might matter to ornithologists today, but when the word accipiter first appeared in the language in the Middle English period, it was essentially just a byword for any bird of prey. (Etymologically, it’s a fairly puzzling term, but it probably means something along the lines of ‘swift-flying’, or ‘swing-winged.’) Its specific association with raptorial hawks and the like did not emerge until much later, when the taxonomic arrangement of living creatures began to prove important—but in the time between, the term accipitrary was coined as a general term for someone who looks after, trains, or captures wild birds of prey regardless of their form or family.

As for hawk, that is a straightforward Germanic word, while falcon is a borrowing from French and ultimately Latin, and which is probably derived from falx, the Latin for ‘sickle’. These two words also likely enjoyed some overlap of their use and meaning over the centuries before more specific meanings emerged—and even today are occasionally used somewhat vaguely and interchangeably of any smaller bird of prey, much to the consternation of ornithologists and naturalists alike.

Apparently there’s even some website called Haggard Hawks whose logo is quite clearly a falcon.


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