Falconry – Traditional Sport of the UAE and Heritage Symbol

falcon standing on a wooden stand313

Falcons and falconry were entwined with Emirati culture for thousands of years. Because they have been an integral part of Bedouin lives for many millennia, there is no evidence of when the Arabs started domesticating these birds in the desert.

In the olden days, Bedouin Arabs used them mainly for hunting. In the arid deserts where food is scarce and walking on foot is complex, falcons have been greatly helpful. Their sharp eyesight and swift flight aided the desert dwellers in capturing Bustards and Curlews for food. Especially on special occasions when the Bedouins have to host eminent guests.

A Bedouin holding a falcon.

As times changed, hunting was no longer a part of daily life. But falcons still hold their place in Emirati culture. Today, falcons are used for sports more than anything else. They are also admired for their beauty and speed. Falcons are a symbol of pride and honor among Arabs. 

Falconry is art for Emiratis. They take good care of the falcons while training them to form an everlasting bond. History shows that the Arabs spread falconry to ancient Rome and Persia during their trading expeditions.

In 2016, UNESCO added falconry to its list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

Click here to read about the traditional food of the UAE.

Falcons were used as hunting birds.

What made falcons the favorite of Arabs for hunting was that they could be trained with a little effort. Falcons can also be trained to deliver the game without killing or eating any part of it. This was important to the Arabs because for the food to be permissible to eat (halaal), it had to be slaughtered by slitting the throat while it was alive.

Training the falcon in Dubai

Usually, female falcons are used for hunting. Al-Hurr, as they are called, are powerful and more significant than their male counterparts. The saker and peregrine are the most sought-after raptors of all the falcon species.

Training the falcons

To train, a falconer needs patience and an understanding of the bird’s behavior. Manning or acclamation of the birds to men’s presence is the most important part of the training. A hood made out of leather called a Burqa is for that.

The hood is put over the head of the bird to cover its eyes, helping them calm down. To avoid causing discomfort to the bird, hoods are made of soft leather. Other traditional training equipment includes a wooden stand where the bird can perch and a forearm guard that protects the trainer’s hand.

Young birds that are around seven months are chosen for the training. The whole training process takes two to three months. Techniques like food deprivation are employed to make the bird more tamable and bond with the trainer.

Falcon racing in Dubai.

The training prepares the Falcon to dive down on the prey, attack them, and then carry the prey and take flight. The birds are trained to lift by gradually increasing the decoy’s weight as they build more muscles. To do that, a feathered decoy resembling the prey is used. The trainer swings the decoy and trains the bird to chase it and swoop down on it. When the bird is ready, live prey is used.

These days, GPS beacons are attached to the bird’s legs. Other than for training purposes, GPS helps locate and identify the bird if it is lost. Good falcons are a prized possession and can cost quite a lot—especially Rare peregrine falcons, which can easily fetch a few million dirhams.

FalconryTraditional sport of the UAE

These days, falcons are mainly used for sporting events. These events are so popular among the Arabs. So much so that a typical racing falcon sells for over 800,000 UAE dirhams. 

There are two types of falconry sports. One involves a trainer swinging a prey, letting the Falcon fly in circles around him, and chasing the prey down. Watching the bird fly at the top of its speed, swiftly changing direction following the lure is enthralling. And when the Falcon finally chases down the prey, the trainer appreciates the bird and lets it eat it. This is often called the shotgun falconry.

Shotgun falconry

We all know how popular horse races are in Dubai. But there is yet another racing that is unknown to the world as much — the falcon race. 

In a race, falcons compete with each other for the coveted title. The bird which covers the distance in the shortest amount of time comes out as the champion.

To make the bird fly, the falconer standing at the finish line holds a lure and attracts the bird. The time taken by each Falcon to cross the finish line is noted down. Drones with lures attached to them are also used nowadays in racing.

A falcon must undergo a long training period to be fit for the competition. Much like horses, falcons are also valued for their strength and speed. There are special events for the falcon race, which usually take place in deserts or semi-deserts. The Fazza championship conducted every year is just one of them. This sport is enjoyed by Arabs no matter what their social status or wealth is.

An old man with a baby falcon.

If you want to witness falconry on your visit to Dubai, schedule your trip for the cooler months from October to March.

National bird and icon of the UAE

To illustrate how significant falcons are to the Arabs, look at the fact that UAE was the first country to issue a passport for falcons and the first place to open a hospital dedicated to taking care of them. The Falcon is also the emblem of the UAE.

The country has taken a lot of steps to protect these magnificent birds. The former ruler of the United Arab Emirates started the initiative to breed falcons in Al Ain and other endangered bird species. The falcon release program was also begun under his patronage. The program helped the birds return to their natural environment, enabling them to reproduce and reintegrate with nature. 

The popularity of falconry is evident from the two specialist hospitals in the country for falcons; one in Dubai and the other in Abu Dhabi. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is the largest and most advanced hospital in the world for falcons. 

Tourists can take a guided tour through the falcon museum inside Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. It will also allow them to see the bird-wards and witness the luxury available for the birds. 

Falcons in the desert safari camp.

Falcons are the only animals that can travel on airplanes in the UAE, too, only in a business or first-class.

A desert safari Dubai tour lets you see the majestic bird up close. You can also hold them in your hands and pose for pictures against the desert background.