Falconry, an integral part of desert life for many centuries, was practiced originally for purely practical reasons, i.e. the necessity to supplement a meager diet of dates, milk and bread with a tasty hare or well-fed bustard. In time it developed into a major sport enjoyed by rich and poor a like.
Falconry was developed into a major sport enjoyed by the poor and the rich alike and was an integral part of desert life practiced originally for practical reasons such as supplementing the meager diet of dates, milk, and bread. Falconry, or the upkeep of falcons is a traditional and highly valued custom in the UAE, reflecting the Bedouin love of this sport. The falcon itself, known as the "Saqr" is a bird that is much admired by Arabs because of its fascinating beauty, posture, sharp eyesight and grandeur.
A favorite activity of H. H. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan is falconry or "al qanas" as it is called in the local dialect. According to His Highness, falconry is a sport that teaches endurance, strength, and patience. Due to the popularity of this sport, the UAE's falconers are famous for having developed specialized techniques and methods for trapping and training falcons in readiness for the hunting season.
The Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Project, a National Avian Research Center (NARC), aims at reintegrating birds of prey into the wild with the purpose of studying their migration patterns. The birds are fitted with small mobile transmitters in order to monitor their movements. In order to have a falcon population, only the birds which are free of infections are selected and released into the wild.
The two main species used for hunting in the UAE are the "Saqr" falcons (Falco Cherruq), which are imported from other Middle Eastern countries and the Peregrine (Falco Peregrinus). The Saqr is the most popular since it is well suited for desert hawking. The female Saqr (Al Hurr), which is larger and more powerful is the one utilized more frequently than the male (Garmoush). The female Peregrine (Shahin or Bahri Shahin) is also preferred to the male (Shahin Tiba) for hunting purposes.
Training falcons requires both courage and patience and it is an operation that is carried out by the "Saqqar" or the trainer. The ability of a predator to be tamed and made to obey the call of its master is a mystery of nature that adds fascination to falconry for Arabs.
During the training process, the falcon sits on a round wooden mushroom shaped movable block (Al Wakr) or on the trainer's hand, which is protected from the sharp talons by a cylindrical-covered cuff called the "Manqalah". This is usually made from material stuffed with either straw or cloth, on which the falcon perches. The falcon is held by a pair of jesses, usually braided cotton or nylon (Al Sabbuq) attached to a swiveled leash to allow the bird a certain freedom of movement.
"Al Burgu" is a hood-like piece of decorated leather that is placed on top of the falcon's head covering only its eyes. Falcons have extremely sharp visual acuity and need to be slowly adjusted to any new environment. Their eyes are kept covered as a part of the taming process and then they are uncovered through gradual exposure to the images and environment surrounding them. "Al Mukhlat" is the canvas bag in which the trainer hides bundled up Houbara wings or pigeons. The contents of the bag are used to lure the falcon back or retrieve it. The lure is called the "Tilwah" or "Milwah".
The "Wakir" is the perching place of the falcon. It is a long, ornamented, upright wooden stand, on top of which lies a flat padded surface for the falcon's sharp claws to rest on. When the falcon leaves the "Wakir", the pointed end of the long stand is pushed into the sand where it stays upright.
Restraining the falcon is necessary, especially after making a catch. Light strong tethers are fitted to its ankles. These instruments are called the "Subuq" and are 30 centimeters long, strong, flexible cords made primarily out of nylon. The two ends of the cords are tied together into a shorter cord, which is then attached to a swivel. The swivel and cords provide flexibility of movement for the falcon, while restraining it from flying. The whole piece is called the "Mursel". With the first falconer's shout of "Yalla" and in a split second, the falcon with full power yet regal grace, flaps its large wings for a powerful take off into the sky. As soon as it sees the prey, an enticing chase takes place, climaxing more than once as the prey escapes by a hair's width. This chase lasts for a while until the prey slows down and at that moment, the falcon swoops down and pulls it to the ground.
The main prey for falcons are: Houbara or MacQueen's bustard, Stone Curlew (Karawan), and Hare (Arnab). The Houbara is a powerful bird that can weigh up to four kilograms (nine pounds) and stand as much as 75 centimeters tall (30 inches) and it is known for its great speed both in flight and on land, a feature which makes the nature of the chase more exciting for the falconers.
His Highness Sheikh Zayed is considered to be an expert in the sport of falconry which he has been practicing since he was a teenager. His famous book titled "Hunting with Falcons", which was published in 1976, is considered to be an encyclopedia on the art of falconry. In the late 1940s, a falcon could be purchased for around US $30 and by the 1960s had risen to some $600. Nowadays, their prices are in the thousands of Dollars.