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Falconry is an ancient sport that has been practiced all over Europe and the Middle East since the 8th Century. Descriptions of hunting houbara with falcons in Arabia more than 700 years ago exist in the chronicles of the legendary Ousama (translation by Potter, 1929).

In Arabia it was practiced not so much as a sport but as a means to provide the tribe's meager diet with some very necessary protein. The birds that were hunted with the falcons were the Bustard (houbara, Chlamydotis undulata) and the Stone curlew (karawan, Burhinus oedicnemus). The houbara with a weight of two or three kilograms, was large enough to provide food for several people. It has a surprisingly powerful flight and is an able match for many falcons. It migrates in the autumn from the northern hemisphere to Arabia and Africa to over-winter. The Bedouin captured the falcons, both peregrine (Falco peregrinus) and saker (Falco cherrug), on their passage to Africa.

There were numerous ways to trap the falcons, depending on the availability of materials. The most ingenious method was very simple. If in the first light of dawn a bedu located a falcon sitting on a dune, he would return to the same location the following morning, riding together with a friend on a single camel. As soon as they found the bird again, they would ride upwind from the falcon and dismount, keeping the camel between themselves and the bird of prey. Hidden behind the camel one bedu would bury the other in the sand, leaving only his head and arms exposed and further concealing him with some brush of a desert bush. He would then remount and ride away, whilst at the same time the man left behind in the sand would release a pigeon that was tethered by the legs with a string. The falcon, not realizing that a man had been left behind, would assume that the fluttering pigeon had been disturbed by the departing camel and would attack the bird as soon as the camel and its rider were some distance away. It would dive upon and kill the pigeon upwind from the buried hunter. As the pigeon was attached by a string, the falcon could not carry it away and would settle down to start easting the dead bird. Falcons do not like the wind ruffling their feathers, so whilst eating the bird would always face into the wind, turning its back on the buried bedu who was down-wind from the falcon. Pulling the string slowly towards him the hunter would bring the dead pigeon, with the falcon sitting on top, closer to his outstretched arm. Because of the movement the falcon, thinking the pigeon was still alive, would keep attacking it fiercely until the moment when the hunter cold grab its legs and throw a cloth over the bird.

Another way to trap falcons was based purely on the fact that the bedu understood the behaviour of falcons, due to his considerable power of observation. Knowing that falcons are very opportunistic feeders and therefore will use any means to catch an easy prey, the falconer would use a smaller falcon, the kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), to trick the bird he wanted to catch. Kestrels are resident breeders in the UAE and are the smallest and most defenseless falcons of the region. Once the large peregrines and sakers started to arrive in the autumn, the hunter waited in a hide with his kestrel outside, tied to a block. Attached to the kestrel's legs was a bundle of feathers that was laced with very fine snares. The kestrel with its very keen eyesight would spot an approaching large falcon long before the falconer could see it. As soon as the falconer noticed that his kestrel started to become agitated, he would release it. The kestrel, irritated by the bundle of feathers tied to its legs, would immediately start flying. The large falcon would see it and mistake the bundle of feathers for a freshly killed prey and would immediately try to rob the kestrel. Stooping at the kestrel, it would pass underneath the latter and, turning on its back in mid-air, would try to sink its talons into the feather bundle under the fleeing bird. Thus he would become entangled in the snares. Now attached to each other, both falcon and kestrel would be unable to fly and would finally come down in a fluttering tangle of wings to the ground where the waiting bedu would throw a cloth over the struggling pair.

Along the UAE coastline and on the offshore islands, falconers installed more complicated traps, using nets that were flicked over a falcon by a man sitting in a hide. The hunter would have to sit in the hide patiently and motionless, sometimes for days on end.

Once the falconers managed to trap the valuable birds, they had only two or three weeks to train them before the migrating houbaras started to arrive. The falcon's eyes were closed by threading a hair from a horse's tail through the lower eyelids, bringing it together and tying them in a know on top of its head. The falcon's eyes were thus permanently shut and stayed like this for several days during which the falconer kept the bird with him for 24 hours of the day. He carried the bird with him wherever he went, stroked it, talked to it and called it by its chosen name. This was to calm the wild bird and to make it used to the falconer's voice and to sitting on the falconer's glove (the mangalah). When the hair thread was removed after about three days, the first thing the falcon would see was the man whose voice he had heard and started to trust during his days of temporary blindness. The falconer also offered his bird some food from his hand and in this way the bond of trust between a wild captured bird and a falconer was established over a relatively short period of time.

Shortly thereafter the bird, whilst still attached to the glove with a long string, would be "cast off" the mangalah to fly a few meters to some food that was offered to him. The flight distance was constantly increased and eventually the bird was left to fly free. The bird was also introduced to the lure, which was made from a pair of houbara wings, retained from the previous year. In this way the falcon, which would not necessarily kill bustards in the wild, or which might come from a region where there were no houbaras, would become familiar with the quarry that the bedouin wished it to hunt.

The bedu would hunt the bustards with his falcon throughout the winter months. In the early morning they would search for houbara tracks in the sand, which they then followed, knowing that this night-active bird would spend the day resting under a bush. Once a houbara was found and "brought up", the falcon was released to hopefully capture and kill it. After a successful hunt the falconer would feed his bird with the head and the neck of the bustard and keep the rest for himself and his family. In spring, when the houbaras returned to their breeding grounds, there was no prey small enough for the falcon to kill and at the same time large enough to feed the falconer and his bird. That was the time when the bedouin would take their hunting companions and set them free again, hoping that the coming autumn would give them new birds to train and to hunt with.

Much has changed since the days when falconry was a mean to improve living conditions. Nowadays falconry is practiced only as a sport. Falconers have started to experiment with different breeds of falcons to find one that would be stronger and faster than the usual saker and peregrine. It turned out that hybrid birds of the large white Gyr falcon and the saker answered this need. The Gyr falcon originates from the far north of North America, and it is therefore not surprising that at first there were many problems with keeping and breeding these falcons in the Arabian deserts. Air-conditioning and cross-breeding have helped solve some of the problems. In the last thirty years several falcon hospitals have been started to treat the diseases that occur with both, wild-caught and captivity-bred birds.

I have visited the two falcon hospitals, one in Dubai and the other in Abu Dhabi. They all seem to be perpetually busy, with waiting rooms thronged with men holding their birds on their wrist. Several veterinary specialists treat the various diseases, of which bumble foot and aspergillosus are some of the most common. In bumble foot a severe infection of the area between the toes of the bird become infected, usually because the perch on which the bird is kept does not allow for proper circulation of blood in the tissues of the foot. It is cured with both surgery and antibiotics. Aspergillosus is a fungal infection that attacks the respiratory tract, especially the air sacs that are situated beyond the spongy lungs. Broken feathers are treated with implants (glued into the remnant of the old feather with superglue!), and most birds are fitted with a microchip, that will enable owners and veterinaries to recognize specific birds.

Even though in the Emirates falconry is still practiced along traditional lines, the efficiency of modern transport, communications and weapons has increased the hunting pressure on the prey animals. Combined with habitat degradation of the breeding grounds and illegal trapping along the migration routes, it has resulted in the decline in numbers of the houbara.

There is also concern for the falcons, as the birds are expensive and a strong illegal trade is thriving all over the Middle East.

In September 1989 the National Avian Research Centre (NARC) was started in Abu Dhabi with its goal being the captive breeding of both, houbara and falcons in order to reduce the pressure on wild stocks. The organization also does ecological research to promote the knowledge and understanding of avian conservation. The ultimate goal is to achieve sustainable hunting and to provide sufficient houbara as a quarry resource for falconry. Several times in the past years captive bred falcons or falcons that had been used for hunting were released in Pakistan by the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Program in cooperation with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (Pakistan). In 1995 over 100 falcons were released and in 1996 a total of 85 falcons (a.o. 60 sakers and 20 peregrines) flew to freedom in the Gilgit area of northern Pakistan. Although flacons were always released at the end of the hunting season, this was never before done under scientific monitoring. In the NARC release program, each falcon is fitted with rings and microchips so that there is a chance of identifying the bird wherever it may be captured. A small number of birds were also fitted with satellite transmitters, which allowed their movements to be tracked. In this way, birds have been tracked into western China and southern Russia and back into Kazakhstan on their southward migration.

Besides the well-known saker and peregrine falcons, which are mainly used for hunting, there are several other species of falcons that occur in the UAE. One of the two species that breed here occasionally is the already mentioned kestrel (Falco tinnunculus). The other one is the small Barbary falcon (Falco pelegrinoides). Both birds are often captured and sold in the suqs, a practice that is highly dangerous for the birds and threatens their continued existence in this region. Other falcons that visit the region in small numbers are the Hobby (Falco subbuteo), most commonly seen in the fall and the Sooty falcon (Falco concolor) that is a summer breeder on some of the rocky Arabian Gulf islands. The Lanner falcon (Falco biarmicus) and the Barbary falcon are often seen with tresses still attached to their feet, indicating that they are escaped captive birds. Only rarely does a wild bird visit this region. Of all these falcons only the Sooty falcon has been the subject of extensive surveys as well as of a documentary film by local cineaste Yusuf Thakur, who filmed the birds on one of the off-shore islands of a neighbouring Gulf country

Hunting with falcons is a very special experience - best described by one of the poems of the Presiedent HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan:

"O bird, I trained you to hunt,
to hunt the bustard for me
a bird that is fierce on the run (....)
Let the bustard which fly as fast as the wind fly away and return
I am sure you'll be filled with pride upon hunting them (....)
Each kinsman and friend tells a tale of a falcon.
Upon their return in their fast-running cars,
Falconers bring bustard and tell stories about them."

Although visitors to the UAE are not very likely to witness a beduin falcon hunt, it is possible to see them fly their birds during training. There are several sites around Dubai where falcons are being flown every day of the early winter. Also, there are now several travel organisations and hotels, which put on special falcon shows that are popular with young and old alike.

The training is mostly done with the lure made of houbara wings. This is usually spun around in circles by the falconer, though recently kites have been used to move the lure into the air. The falcon is let free to fly off, where it either settles on a high perch of a tree or bush, or flies high to find potential prey. When the falconer swings the lure, he tried to make the circles erratic in both height and path, so that the falcon has to make an effort to catch it. Often several passes are needed before the falcon catches its prey. When it does, it is rewarded by the falconer with sweet words and a mouthful of meat. This close interaction between the falconer and his bird is necessary to maintain the bond of trust that makes the bird com back to the falconer even though he is free to fly away and never return. It is this interaction that takes place between a falcon and its handler that is one of the most fascinating between a wild animal and man.



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