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Game of thrones has Orell who uses an eagle to scout the area. And in the real life, birds of prey have up to 8 times visual acuity of the humans. They are able to see white rabbits camouflaged in a snow from 4 miles away.

Assuming we could somehow train them, and/or selectively breed them, to something like a dog level, would they be useful as a scouts in a medieval army?

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome! We need more information. If dogs are searching for a missing person and find them, they will stop and bark to indicate the location to their handler. What do you want the falcon to find? How do you want them to report back? $\endgroup$ – chasly - reinstate Monica Jul 13 at 20:51
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    $\begingroup$ Not a big GOT aficionado, but based on your links, the benefit is from having Orell's brain processing things picked up with the eagle's eyes. I think the larger question is "can you train falcons to distinguish friends from foes, determine numbers and positions of both types, and finally report this back in a meaningful capacity" The last one is probably the sticking point $\endgroup$ – Punintended Jul 13 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ @chasly-reinstateMonica How about circling above the enemy columns. Or screeching if it sees enemy camp. Or crossing your path if there is an ambush afront. Any natural behavior that birds use to communicate adapted to communicating to humans. $\endgroup$ – soho Jul 13 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ @soho - Thanks for the extra info. It's usually a good idea to edit the question itself to add such clarifications. Make sure you make the extra information obvious (say in a P.S. so that you don't invalidate answers already given). How and what to do comes with practice. $\endgroup$ – chasly - reinstate Monica Jul 13 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ The problem is that while dogs have been domesticated and generally want to please, falcons are still wild birds. $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Jul 14 at 9:52
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They'd be as useful as dogs, for better or worse

Canine units are great at detecting certain things, be it bombs or cadavers or drugs. They are trained through "constant repetition and reward" according to a detailed article from Smithsonian Magazine. A dog will detect a smell of interest and then "alert," when means the dog tells its handler that there's something interesting. It's then up to the handler to investigate further. The dog only gives a notice that the human might want to check out what's going on over there.

Expanding this approach to your falcons, you'd send them up to look for something and then they would alert when they found it. What does that mean? Well that depends on how you've trained them. Maybe they learn to look for the enemy's uniform pattern; maybe they look for anybody in a patrol area that's supposed to be empty; maybe they look for specific kinds of weapons. You could train them for any of these things. Their alerting behavior is also up to you. For example, they could fly a barrel roll when they notice something, or maybe they react in a certain way after landing (perhaps because they expect a treat for finding the thing).

In short, you have a lot of options. As other answers have pointed out, you can except very low information density from your falcons, just like a bomb dog won't tell you much about the bomb it just found. The real advantage comes from being able to deploy your scouts more effectively. If you know that most of the sectors around your camp are devoid of people, you can send scouts only to those areas where the falcon alerted.

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    $\begingroup$ I'll note that alerting behavior is more natural (and thus probably easier to train) for pack hunters. For example, a Harris's hawk already naturally performs scouting in the wild as part of social hunting. In general, social animals are easier to train regardless. $\endgroup$ – Brian Jul 14 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Brian that's a really good point $\endgroup$ – Andrew Brēza Jul 14 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ I'd say a good deal worse, since even bred-for-hunting falcons are still very very wild while dogs are bred for human cooperation for ages $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Jul 15 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok I agree with you in the real world. The question posits that the falcon in OP's world are at a dog level so I went with it. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Brēza Jul 16 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ Barrel roll in the direction of troop movement. Faster/longer roll for more troops. That will be invaluable. Flanking will be a non issue. $\endgroup$ – Cem Kalyoncu yesterday
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The simple answer to your question is "no." But let's run with the idea a bit and flesh it out some more.

Could a falcon in either a late medieval or Game of Thrones styled fantasy setting be used in any way like an AeroVironment RQ-14 Dragon Eye recon drone? If so, how? If not, why?

I picked that particular UAV for a reason. It's small, small enough to be carried by a single soldier in his/her backpack. Its primary surveillance system is visual and its primary control system lends itself rather well to the fantasy half of this answer.

The Problem: Communication

Falcons are smart little honkers, and with training can become smarter still. But the fundamental problem with using a falcon for pretty much anything other than fetching lunch is communication. A falcon's eyesight is wonderful, but what's the point of that eyesight when what you need to know is

In the gulch 2 km from my launch point and 37.5° north of the setting sun are two battalions of Orcs including two supporting mages and 18 ballista. Well supplied and well rested. They appear to be staging for an advance.

And what the falcon is actually thinking is...

Mouse!

Military engagements, no matter how patterned they may seem, are actually quite chaotic and unpredictable. How to train a falcon to tell the difference between four ninja sneaking through a forest and four skittish deer? How to train the falcon to remember where a previously unknown river is? How to get it to express the idea, "they're over there!"

I'll be completely honest with you. I think all the training in the world would produce a falcon that's good for scouting maybe one thing only. And as soon as you changed valleys, it's worthless.

Unless you forget medieval Europe and stick with fantasy Game of Thrones.

The cool thing about the RQ-14 Dragon Eye is the way it's controlled: the soldier uses a pair of video goggles that let the controlling soldier see what the drone sees in real time. Cool!

Call it fate! Call it luck! Call it Karma! Oh, all right... Call it magic! Whatever hand waving you use to explain it — your soldiers need to see through the falcon's eyes, the need to sense what the falcon senses (especially alarm or alertness) and have the ability to "feed back" commands to direct the falcon. This (IMO) enhances your story because while a Marine will directly control an RQ-14 without argument (unless it's fighting weather conditions... or flak...), the falcon may actually have other ideas (Mouse!) and the rustler must coax the bird to do as needed. The relationship between rustler and bird would need to be very tight (e.g., another trainer would be hard-pressed to control the bird if the primary was inconveniently killed. You know, while he/she was zoned out seeing through the bird's eyes. "Sire, Galadriel sees two battalions of Orcs 2 Km from here about... ARGH!")

Conclusion

So, I think this is a very cool idea, but the simple answer to your question is, IMO, no — no amount of just training will permit a falcon to be a scout to any useful degree before or during a battle.

But if you work with the limitations and shake a little Game of Thrones salt and RQ-14 Dragon Eye pepper onto your story, I think that would be very cool.

P.S.: I've never seen a single episode of GoT, but I just read @Punintended's comment and I see the OP already had the answer I just presented. My apologies to @Punintended for inadvertently making an answer out of his/her comment.

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    $\begingroup$ To expand on the 'magic' part of the answer, in D&D there are spells and abilities for explicitly this sort of task (seeing through a beast's senses and communicating with beasts), so it has precedent. $\endgroup$ – BBeast Jul 14 at 3:39
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    $\begingroup$ I suppose another method would be if you could train it to circle over groups of people - battalions or encampments - which would tell you that someone was there, but not who or why $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Jul 14 at 9:56
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    $\begingroup$ Also expanding on the 'magic' aspect, possibly look into the concept of 'borrowing' from Terry Pratchett's Discworld. The borrower (usually a witch) kind of slips their mind in alongside the mind of the animal, allowing use of their senses as well as the ability to use subtle suggestion to influence where it goes and what it does. Birds are commonly used for this, but the really good borrowers can do crazy stuff like borrowing the hive-mind of a swarm of bees or even project their mind to an external frame of reference and use their normal senses of sight and hearing. $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Jul 14 at 13:27
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman That seems like a waste of arrows, and a very useful way for you to realise that your falcon has found enemy archers, rather than innocent merchants... (To summarise the link: an expert archer has about a 2% chance of hitting the falcon, and even then would be done from fairly close range. Shooting an arrow straight up in the air at a tiny target 500 feet away seems like a recipe for friendly fire, especially with a bow that's probably rated for a "useful" range of about half that distance) $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Jul 14 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH On the contrary, thank you for providing a fleshed-out answer, complete with sources, explanations, and youtube links, that addresses the comment better than I would have :) $\endgroup$ – Punintended Jul 15 at 16:39
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Sure, trained eagle scouts could be useful. However, it seems to me that the greatest benefit will come from making your opponents believe that you have trained eagles, whether you actually use them or not.

Think about it - every time an enemy camp sees an eagle or bird of prey fly overhead, they’ll get paranoid. They might even waste resources by trying to shoot it down, if they’re suspicious that it’s a trained bird. They’d have to spend a lot of extra (possibly unnecessary) effort to hide their camps in places that cannot be spotted by birds.

The psychological effect that this will have on the enemy seems more feasibly useful than birds’ utility as scouts.

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    $\begingroup$ Did pre-modern armies rely on being unseen that often? Columns of troops aren't exactly difficult for human scouts to track; birds would be faster and probably somewhat cheaper (in rations if nothing else) but it's not like your army was going to go unnoticed before. $\endgroup$ – Cadence Jul 13 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ This only account for certain situations. For example in Pharsalus, and a thousand other battles, that did not matter. Romans had big known camps. Also only an idiot marches into action and NOT expect that spies, agents, scouts...etc at least give out that he has an army. Your example is only useful for ambushes or small engagements or surprise marches...etc. But that is far from being the norm. $\endgroup$ – Seallussus Jul 14 at 1:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Cadence they are if they're on the other side of a mountain range, heavy forest, or large lake. Birds that could scout would have a huge advantage over human scouts, so it makes sense that having people THINK the birds can scout would affect morale. $\endgroup$ – barbecue Jul 14 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Seallussus Varus in the teutoburg forest might think otherwise. $\endgroup$ – paul23 Jul 15 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ @ paul23, If you mean how Varus was an idiot who did not expect trouble and prepare beyond the possibility of defeat, as Sun Zu says, then yes. That's why the fella lost 3 frigging legions. Personally I always believe that being paranoid to a degree is a must in any decent military general. $\endgroup$ – Seallussus Jul 15 at 17:59
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it depends. A raven would be even better as those have good ability to learn languages and speak.

also, crows and raven are so common, that most never give them a second thought, not to mention underestimate them. I Live in Alaska, and there, unless you're actually looking for them, ravens go unnoticed.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe a team of falcon to point general direction, and covid to gather information. $\endgroup$ – slobodan.blazeski Jul 14 at 10:18
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    $\begingroup$ @slobodan.blazeski you mean a corvid. Biological warfare is against the Geneva conventions, I'm afraid. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jul 14 at 13:43
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The birds have been trained to recognize and steal enemy decorum.

Flags, badges, a knife or arrow? Anything will do! If there is someone in this restricted area, the mission of the bird is to steal something from them.

At most, the bird would only be able to use this method to communicate that a possible enemy exists in the territory. No specifics. And there may be a lot of false positives!

This behavior exists in birds today, magpies in particular are known for stealing shiny things. Perhaps this behavior could be exploited given enough time and training.

Eventually they'll pick the area pretty clean as well! Why don't we train falcons for litter cleanup. . .?

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Yes, they could indicate the position and direction of travel of a military force which would make them invaluable .

The Israeli military are reportedly pursuing a similar concept for covert scouting

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting, do you have any links handy, my google fu fails me. Results for falcons return pages of F-16 falcon. $\endgroup$ – soho Jul 13 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ IIRC The lebonese claimed that Israelis were training vultures as spies, but through transmitters. google "israel vulture spies" for articles about it. $\endgroup$ – Binyomin Jul 14 at 5:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Binyomin the vulture was found innocent of all charges and returned home. $\endgroup$ – barbecue Jul 14 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ @soho the document is not longer there -- k9.fgcu.edu/articles/Gazit-Goldblatt-Terkel.pdf - from my notes -- "The Centre for Applied Animal Behaviour for Security Purposes at Tel Aviv University i.under the leadership of Professor Joseph Terkel of the Zoology Department, they have carried out a project involving birds. Terkel’s team have trained birds either to sweep over a wide area to remain over a location; and respond with a trained behaviour to a particular target which would noted by a handler tracking the bird via GPS so the bird need not carry any incriminating electronic gear $\endgroup$ – David Hambling Jul 15 at 7:15
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Ambush detection, flanking maneuvers...etc. That is how I think they make the most sense.

See a scout that tells you: hey, there is an army over there. Is not very useful unless they provide exact distance, their numbers, their allegiance...etc.

So using them for scouting seems like a complete waste of time. A human soldier with a human eye might take much much more time with a bigger chance of detection. But with the human soldier he will relay exact accurate, most of the time t least, information that will help you draw your battle plans and actually be of tactical value. But an animal that can't answer that won't be so useful.

Now a very important point if they can distinguish friend from from foe. Also what type of friend or foe! For example can it tell infantry from cavalry apart?

This gets complicated real fast when you factor allies but this is the nature of warfare.

However for here is how I see it.

General detection!

You are marching through thick woods, you use your falcon. The terrain is rough and you need to camp for the night, use the falcon. You you besieging a city and the opposing nation might send allies, the falcon. You are crossing a river and want to find out a good spot, falcon again. Mountain passes, guess what to use Merely using it to report large groups of humans that you know for a fact should not be there could be extra helpful if done fast enough.

In all those scenarios you know that there is no detachments of your army or allies marching with you. So the mere presence of large humans is a red flag.

That requires less intelligence of course and can be used in a two step verification process.

Spot the humans, and send your own human scout while assuming the worse.

And knowing the terrain is another part of a scout's job.

Lastly it could be useful in actual battles if it can detect the enemy troops and disposition. Might be a long shot but imagine the classical examples of a detachment of the enemy that managed to outflank you.

Or in certain cases if the cavalry, usually the most mobile troops so it makes sense, of the two armies were just fighting somewhere and then only one group returns. Well. You better make sure it is your own cavalry that won that battle.

Lastly I have to say that they would be used and useful in the field. But by far the most useful thing for them is to aid border control and well as used in castles.

Oh man. A castle with such a trained falcon can do so much and have so much time to prepare that it can probably survive whatever siege the enemy has in mind.

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