Show & Tell: 17th-Century Falcon's Hood

Cooper Hewitt/Smithsonian Institution 
Cooper Hewitt/Smithsonian Institution  / Cooper Hewitt/Smithsonian Institution 

This early-17th-century falcon’s hood is made of tooled leather, inset with velvet panels that are embroidered with metallic yarns and metal beads, and topped by a silk tassel. The Cooper-Hewitt, which holds it in its collection, says the whole confection features two openings: one in the front for the bird’s beak, and one in the back, where leather straps could be tied to secure the hood to the falcon’s head. 

Although the Cooper Hewitt was unable to definitively pinpoint this hood’s origin, the museum hypothesizes that it was made in England or France (there’s another early-17th-century hood from Britain in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum that looks like this one). European falconry was relatively new in the early 17th century, at least compared to the sport’s much longer history on the steppes of Mongolia or Iran; falconry was commonly practiced in Asia and the Middle East as long ago as 2000 BCE.

The concept of the falcon hood, writes falconer Lydia Ash, was Arabic in origin. “The purpose of a hood is to calm the bird,” she writes. “These birds are so visually oriented that they are not fearful of what they cannot see … Hoods protect the bird and allow ease of control of situations that otherwise could be startling to the bird.” Today's hoods, like this older one, are made of leather. They should be constructed with enough room for the bird to be able to open its beak wide, and they should be stored open, rather than closed, to retain their shape.

By the time this hood was made, falconry in England had become enmeshed with human social hierarchy. Royalty practiced the sport, which became a status symbol. In 1486, the publication of The Book of Saint Albans set forth rules called the Laws of Ownership, which assigned the right to fly certain birds of prey to particular ranks of human falconer. A yeoman could fly a goshawk, an earl a peregrine falcon; a knave could only hope to fly a kestrel, and a priest a sparrowhawk. Gyrfalcons were reserved for kings, and eagles for emperors.

Like other charismatic animals, such as polar bears and elephants, birds of prey made excellent diplomatic gifts, since they carried connotations of nobility, wealth, and power. According to the International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey, in the 17th century, falcons arrived at the French court from many faraway locations, including Turkey, India, Russia, Norway, Corsica, Sardinia, and Spain. You can imagine a gift falcon sporting a hood like this as an additional embellishment, like a ribbon on a package.