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 to when the Arabs actually 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 difficult, falcons have been greatly helpful. With their sharp eyesight and swift flight, they aided the desert dwellers to capture Bustards and Curlews for food. Especially on special occasions when the Bedouins have to host eminent guests.
As times changed, hunting is 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 an art for Emiratis. They take good care of the falcons while training them to form an everlasting bond. History has it that it was the Arabs who spread falconry to ancient Rome and Persia during their trading expeditions.
In 2016, UNESCO added falconry to their list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Falcons were used as hunting birds
What made falcons the favorite of Arabs for hunting was that they can 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 has to be slaughtered by slitting the throat while it is alive.
Usually, female falcons are used for hunting. Al-Hurr, as they are called, are powerful and larger than their male counterparts. Out of all the falcon species, the saker and peregrine are the most sought after raptors.
Training the falcons
A falconer needs to have patience and the understanding of the bird’s behavior to train. Manning or acclamation of the birds to the presence of men is the most important part of the training. A hood made out of leather called burqa is for that.
The hood is put over the head of the bird to cover its eyes, thereby helping them calm down. To avoid causing discomfort to the bird, hoods are made out of soft leather. Other traditional training equipment include a wooden stand where the bird can perch and a forearm guard that protects the hand of the trainer.
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 help in bonding with the trainer.
The training prepares the falcon to dive down on the prey and attack them and then to carry the prey and take flight. The birds are trained to lift by gradually increasing the weight of decoy 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 the training purpose, GPS helps locate and identify the bird in case 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.
Traditional sport of the UAE
These days, falcons are mostly 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 of them involves a trainer swinging a prey, letting the falcon fly in circles around him and chase the prey down. It is enthralling to watch the bird flying at the top of its speed, swiftly changing direction following the lure. And when the falcon finally chases down the prey, the trainer appreciates the bird and let the bird eat it. This is often called as the shotgun falconry.
We all know how popular are horse races in Dubai. But there is yet another racing that is not known 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 the champion.
To make the bird fly, the falconer standing at the finish line holds a lure and attract the bird. The time taken by each falcon to cross the finish line are noted down. Drones with lures attached to them are also used nowadays in racing.
A falcon has to undergo a long period of training to be fit for the competition. Much like horses, falcons are also valued for their strength and speed. There are special events for falcon race, which usually take place in deserts or semi-deserts. 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.
If you want to witness falconry on your visit to Dubai, then 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, just 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 along with other endangered bird species. The falcon release program was also begun under his patronage. The program helped the birds get back 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 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 are the only animals that can travel on airplanes in the UAE, that too only in a business or a first-class.
A desert safari tour lets you see the majestic bird up close. You can also hold them in your hands and pose for pictures with them against the desert background.