Bulletin 02 June 1977: Falconry in the United Arab Emirates
Falconry in the United Arab Emirates
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Falconry in the United Arab Emirates

by Tony Harris

The sport of falconry is a very old one; the Arabs have practiced it from earliest times and there seems to be evidence for it existence in the Middle East as long ago as the 8th Century BC. The Arabs took the sport into Spain and Persia and it probably spread further into Europe at the time of the Crusades.

The home of Arabian Falconry is in the plains of northern and eastern Arabia, including the UAE and Oman. It is into this area that the favorite quarry of the falconer, the Houbara Bustard, migrates. The Asiatic sub-species of houbara, Chlamydotis undulata macqueeni, was formerly known as Macqueen’s Bustard although the Arab name of ‘houbara’ is now in general use for the entire species. There are records of the houbara breeding in eastern Arabia but its breeding range is now restricted to the northern side of the Gulf. Its numbers are now much reduced by hunting and by disruption of its habitat. In the past hares and even gazelles have been hunted with falcons but these techniques seem to have died out in favor of hunting the houbara. The Stone Curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) is also a quarry for the falconer in the United Arab Emirates.

The falcons used for falconry in the UAE are usually of two species – the Saker (Falco cherrug) which is often called "hurr", and the Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) which is knows as "shaheen", although "shaheen" is also used by non-falconers as a generic name for almost any raptor. The two species are of roughly the same size thought the saker is more heavily built. The saker and the female peregrine grown to about 18 inches in length: the male peregrine is much smaller. (Its name, "tiercel" indicates that it is about one third smaller than the female.) The saker has a longer tail and a paler head than the peregrine. It is chiefly distinguished by brown-spotted underparts, and its brown back and wings. Some birds are very pale and appear almost sandy brown. The peregrine is generally darker, especially on its head, and is distinguished by dark, often black bars across its underparts. It has a distinctive anchor-shape in flight and is generally more aerobatic than the saker.

Falcons or hawks (the two names are used interchangeably by falconers) are caught all around the Arabian Gulf. Many are also caught during migration in Syria and Jordan. There are brought to Gulf towns such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai where they fetch high prices. The saker is preferred for hunting as it has the local reputation of being stronger than the shaheen and is said to be less likely to be injured when attacking houbara. A good "hurr" can change hands for £3000 and a shaheen for only slightly less.

The usual method of catching the falcon in the UAE is by means of a pigeon harnessed with finely woven string or nylon nooses tied over its back so that it cannot fly freely. The trapper attaches the pigeon to a long cord and throws it into the air when a falcon appears. Alternatively, the end of the cord can be attached to a stone. Sometimes the pigeon is simply thrown into view with only its harness to restrain it. When the falcon binds to the fluttering pigeon, its talons become enmeshed in the nooses and it cannot fly away. If the pigeon is on a cord, the falcon will often be so busy feeding on it that both birds can be pulled gently towards the trapper who is in hiding behind a bush or in a hollow. The falcon is then seized by the legs. Even if there is no cord and the falcon tries to fly off with the pigeon, it soon tires with the weight. The trapper quickly catches up with them and throws a cloak or net over the pair. Closely tethered pigeons and clap-nets tripped from a carefully camouflaged hole are also used to catch falcons in this area.

When the falcon is safely secured, it is hooded as soon as possible. This has the effect of immobilizing and quieting it. Falconers often pierce the lower eyelids of a newly captured falcon and thread them with cotton. This is then tied on top of its head, drawing up both lower lids so that the falcon cannot see. This is called "seeling". A "burqa" or leather hood can then be fitted onto the falcon’s head. Seeling is not always thought to be necessary as a securely fitted ‘burqa’ can have the desired effect.

Arabian falconers are renowned for training their falcons quickly. They can prepare a bird for hunting in two or three weeks whereas it often takes threes times as long in Europe. This is because the Arabs are hardly ever separated from their birds. They carry them about with them all day, talk to them constantly, hooding them and unhooding them. They eat and sleep with their falcons by their sides. As soon as the falcon is accustomed to its handler and to the idea that being picked up is a prelude to being fed, it can be unhooded and trained to fly a short distance to the fist to get food. The bird remains tethered at this stage; initially by its leash and later by a long line called a ‘creance’. The falcon then graduates rapidly to flying to a lure which is usually a bundle of houbara wings with some meat tied among the feathers. A typical sight in Abu Dhabi in November and December is of Arab falconers training their birds by flying them at a lure whirled around in the air. At first the distances are small and the falcon is kept on the creance but as it gets used to the idea it can be trusted to fly freely and to come several hundred yards to the lure when called. Thus later, when the falconer is hunting in earnest, the falcon will return to a lure swung by the falconer when the quarry escapes. Although the practice of stooping at the lure in no way trains the falcon to fly at quarry, falconers in the Gulf commonly train their birds in this way.

The falcon has remarkable vision and can distinguish small objects, particularly if they are moving, at great distances. The eyes of diurnal birds of prey are absolutely vital to their existence. A peregrine’s eye is almost the same size as a human eye. The large, round eyes are almost immovable in their sockets although small lateral adjustments may be possible. To see perfectly in any direction, a falcon must move its head; it then has binocular forward vision like ourselves and can judge range accurately. A flacon has binocular vision through almost 35 to 50 degrees of arc and lateral vision through one eye on either side through about 150 degrees. To see behind, it can swivel its head on its very flexible neck. (The blind spot, at the back, where it cannot see without moving the head, is about 20 degrees.) Falcons have very acute vision, partly because of the density of the sensitive visual cells or cones. The resolving power of the retina is three or four times that of the human eye. The eyes of the birds of prey have two pits, or foveae, one directed sideways with monocular vision and one directed forwards with binocular vision. In these the cones are still more concentrated. The Buzzard’s foveae have a million cones per square millimeter, suggesting visual acuity about eight times that of man. Thus the falcon has a much clearer and more detailed image and also a much magnified visual image when compared to a human eye with ‘perfect’ vision.

Hunters often unhood their birds as a way of scanning the ground for game. When a houbara is seen, the falcon chosen for the chase is straightaway unhooded and slipped. It flies straight towards its prey with powerful wing beats, keeping close to the ground. At the last moment, the falcon will thrown up into the air and then stoop onto the houbara, in order to seize its prey with its talons. Falcons do not strike with their bill until the quarry is helpless in their grip.

The preferred prey, the houbara, is a medium-sized bird, 26 to 29 inches long and about 24 inches tall. Recorded weights of male houbaras range between 1800 and 3000 gms., and of females between 1200 and 2500 gms. The Asiatic houbara begins to arrive in its southern winter quarters in September, but it is not present in any numbers until November of December. Traveling in groups of up to six, the birds move north once more in late March or early April, to arrive on the northernmost breeding grounds in mid-April. It is extremely hard to find in the desert, being excessively shy, and when approached on foot or otherwise threatened, the sandy camouflage of its plumage makes it virtually invisible. When it sees danger such as a falcon, it freezes and skins slowly to the ground, with its neck erect at first but gradually retracted and finally stretched out flat in front of it. It watches its adversary carefully and if it realizes it has been seen, it either walks off in a stately manner, thrusting its head forward at every third or fourth step, or runs rather than flies away. It can run at about 25 mph. When it does fly, for instance, to escape a hawk, it often jumps up at the moment of attack and takes to the air with a thrust of its powerful legs and deep flap of its large wings. It flies slowly with its neck outstretched and slow, deliberate wing beats, and rarely rises more than 150 feet, and that usually for short distances only. In the air, the houbara spirals upwards to avoid the falcon’s stoop. A falcon is usually flown from a distance of 200-300 yards at a party of houbaras on the ground. The houbaras move together and when the falcon binds to one of them, the others begin to peck at the attacker unless the falconer arrives on the scene quickly.

The houbara can also eject a dark green anal slime with considerable force. This sometimes clogs the falcon’s feathers so that it becomes virtually incapacitated.

In the last 50 years or so, the nature of hawking in Arabia has changed. The firearm has to some extent replaced the falcon, and the motor vehicle has replaced the camel. Both have greatly extended the range of the hunter. Consequently the numbers of quarry in Arabia have been drastically reduced. The falconers of the UAE commonly go to Pakistan, India or Iraq in the hunting season. Some hawking is still done in the open deserts of the UAE and Oman, but with little to show for it.

As falconers know only too well, hawks need a great deal of attention. They rapidly become listless and weak if not fed properly with fresh meat. In this condition they are very vulnerable to illness. As little is known about diseases of birds of prey, many die before they can be correctly diagnosed. Many birds, however well trained, escape back to the wild from a hunt. They are unlikely to live long with their legs tied in the jesses, particularly if the leash is also attached. Thus with hawks being trapped in greater numbers in Europe and the Middle East to supply the rich markets now opened up, and with decimation by shooting and poisoning by pesticides, the Saker and the Peregrine and the other long-winged falcons are in some danger of extinction over much of their natural range. The falconers quarry is also in jeopardy in the desert areas of Arabia. The future of hawking must therefore be seen as part of the wider issues of conservation as a whole.

On the 7th March 1977, Mr. Mark Allen gave a talk to the ENHG on falconry. He is himself a keen falconer and has practiced the sport in Britain, Jordan, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. On 15th March 1977 Mr. Allan introduced a showing of "Falcon Gentle", a film on falconry in Britain made for British television and shot in Caithness. The film well illustrates the principal differences between falconry in Britain and in Arabia. The British falconer uses dogs to flush out game (mainly Red Grouse Lagopus [Logopus scoticus]. The falcon is trained to "wait on" several hundred feet above the falconer until the dogs up the quarry. The falcon then stoops almost vertically and kills the quarry in mid-air with a raking blow from its talons. Peregrines are particularly prized as exponents of this form of sport.

Glossary of Common Terms Used in Falconry

Block: The falcons perch (Arabic ‘wakar’) in the shape of a large drawing pin. The hawk is kept tied to the block when not on the fist.

Creance: The long line (Arabic ‘khayt’ ‘sabah’) on which the hawk is called during training.

References:

Brown L. Birds of Prey, Hamlyn London 1976

Brown L. and Amadon D. Eagles, Hawks and Falcons of the World (2 vols) Hamlyn London 1968

Dixon H.R.P. The Arabs of the Desert, London 1951

Gooders J. (Ed.) Birds of the World (9 vols) IPC London 1969

Heinzel H., Fitter R. and Parslow J. Birds of Britain and Europe, Collins London 1972

Hitti Philip K. Memoirs of an Arab-Syrian gentleman or an Arab Knight in the Crusades, Khayats Beirut 1964

Thesiger W. Arabian Sands London 1959

Voous K,H. Atlas of European Birds, Nelson London 1960




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