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They were the secret weapons of the Bedouin, the key to a good winter’s hunt. Falcons – trained to bring down rabbits, game birds, and even small gazelles – were long part of desert life. Family members would carry the falcons on a gloved arm for weeks to get the birds used to them.
Today, Emiratis tend to falcons for sport. The United Arab Emirates sponsors festivals and high-stakes races. Hundreds of Abu Dhabi residents rise early during the winter to drive out to the desert and train the birds. But the Emiratis do not forget the debt they owe them. The falcon is everywhere here: on government seals, bank notes, military uniforms. In the land of sheikhs and princes, the falcon is king. The exalted birds are even issued passports.
But there is perhaps no greater testament to Emiratis’ devotion than the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, where owners sit in the waiting room like expectant fathers while their hooded falcons await appointments. “We are not taking care of birds,” says Dr. Margit Muller, the hospital’s director. “We are taking care of their children.”
Long before natural gas and oil discoveries in the 1950s transformed the United Arab Emirates into an economic powerhouse of skyscrapers and tech firms, it was an eat-what-you-catch way of life for the region’s nomadic Bedouin inhabitants.
But the Bedouin had a secret weapon, equipped with basic desert tools and instincts, that could make or break a winter’s hunt: the falcon.
While the mostly arid desert had limited grazing lands, it did lie under the flight path of migrating birds moving south from Europe to Africa for the winter. The Bedouin would trap falcons stopping to rest at desert oases and then, after weeks of training, would deploy them to catch and kill rabbits, game birds, and even small gazelles.
Falconry became an integral part of the Bedouin’s way of life. Yet something else happened when the Emiratis’ ancestors trained their wild falcons.
Working in shifts, Bedouin family members would carry the falcon on a gloved arm around the clock for up to two weeks to get the bird used to their voice, commands, and touch. Sitting in their tents and even sharing their food, the falcons would soon be seen as part of the family.
“Because in the UAE falconry was [originally] never a sport, but an important tool for survival, the falcon was quickly integrated into the Bedouin family like a child,” says Dr. Margit Muller, an author and director of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.
Preserving the tradition
After centuries of people relying on these birds of prey for survival, the UAE is now one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The falcon is the UAE’s national symbol, and an estimated 10,000 Emiratis tend to falcons for sport and pedigree breeding.
To keep the falconry tradition alive, the UAE’s rulers sponsor several festivals and races across the Emirates during the winter, with prizes in the millions of dollars.
In hopes of snagging a prize or simply honing their falcons’ skills, hundreds of Abu Dhabi residents rise before dawn each day during the winter months, drive out to the desert, and train their pedigree falcons with decoys before the morning sun begins to blaze.
The royal-linked Mohamed bin Zayed Falconry and Desert Physiognomy School, meanwhile, teaches young Emirati students across the country the tradition of falconry to pass on their ancestral craft to the next generation.
The UAE is home to falconry clubs, falcon breeding and reintroduction programs, falcon boarding schools, and several associations devoted to promoting the care of falcons.
The Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan Release Program has reintroduced more than 1,800 endangered peregrine and saker falcons into the wild in Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
The falcon hospital
The Emiratis do not forget the debt they owe to their adopted “children,” but there is perhaps no greater testament to Emiratis’ care for falcons than the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.
The hospital, a sprawling center on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi with operating theaters, X-ray machines, and an in-house lab, is the largest falcon hospital in the world and one of the largest avian hospitals anywhere.
Anxious owners sit on plush, leather couches in the air-conditioned waiting room, sipping Arabic coffee and glancing at the clock like expectant fathers, while a half-dozen hooded falcons stand on a row of perches placed in the middle, waiting for their appointments.
Falcon owners from across the Gulf come to the hospital, which is open 24 hours and has a team of on-call staff and surgeons.
“We are not taking care of birds. We are taking care of their children, as this is how they see them,” Dr. Muller says.
Some emergency cases are victims of “crashes,” or mid-air collisions. For falcons, who fly at speeds of up to 300 km per hour, this is no laughing matter. Other common conditions include lung infections or illnesses picked up from diseased prey.
However, over 60 percent of the patients at the hospital are here for their regular, biannual checkup. But these checkups are not just parental handwringing. As birds of prey, falcons notoriously hide any sign of illness or injury, lest competing birds or predators see that they are lame and take them down. Often when owners finally notice the signs of an illness – a loss of appetite, sluggishness – the problem has been present for weeks, and it may already be too late.
At the hospital one day in February, veterinarians perform one of their more routine operations, a “feather transplant.”
A tiny gas mask is carefully attached to the falcon’s beak. After several seconds of anesthesia, the vet prepares a stent and inserts a spare feather in the wing, restoring its balance.
In a week’s time, the falcon will be back to flying as normal.
Traveling in style
Amid their enthusiasm, Emirati falcon owners faced a dilemma. With the largely arid Emirates becoming increasingly developed, overhunting depleted local wildlife. The UAE government was forced to ban falcon hunting in the country in 1999.
Emiratis began taking their falcons to other countries – Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, and even Iran – to hone their natural instincts in the wild and feel the unfettered wind beneath their wings.
Yet with some falcons classified as endangered or protected species, Emiratis would constantly face difficulties at customs when entering and leaving with their feathered family member.
In 2012, the UAE found a solution: falcon passports.
The UAE is now the only country in the world to issue full and legal passports for falcons indicating their gender, size, name, ID bracelet, and color. The Emirates have issued some 30,000 falcon passports.
Two of the UAE’s national carriers, Etihad and Emirates, allow passengers to take their falcons on as their carry-on luggage – if they are small enough to perch on their arm – or to fly as passengers.
It is common on Emirati airlines to see a falcon sitting on a chair in economy, business, and even first class on international flights – hooded so as to be put on manual ‘sleep mode’ throughout the flight.
Elsewhere, throughout the UAE, the falcon is everywhere: on government seals, the 100-dirham note, the uniform of the Emirati armed forces, and on the gates and doors of royal palaces and private homes.
More than family, here in the land of sheikhs and princes, the falcon is king.