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UAE's falcon breeders on training champions

posted on 20/02/2016: 2538 views



Hamdan bin Mejren is a proud man. His prized falcon has outpaced every other falcon out there and vindicated the many hours, blood, sweat and tears put into training him for the big races. Across various league stages of the falconry championships organised by the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Centre (HHC), under the patronage of Shaikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, Hamdan's falcon has come out on top.

"This is only the second year I've had this bird," says Hamdan. His falcon's name is Yerrat - named after the Arabic word that describes the swift flowing movements of a falcon's wings. "So far, Yerrat has really amazed all of us with his speed and skill." This year it clocked 18.035 seconds over 400m. Last year, it managed a time of 15.555 seconds, shattering many records. "I think this particular bird has been one of the fastest in history. That record was set in Abu Dhabi. They don't have windbreakers like they do in Dubai. As a result, the wind can be a factor in the races. That day the wind was with the falcon, literally pushing him. This might never happen again.

"Also, in the Super Finals (Al Nukhba), the track is longer than the regular races. So the wind can affect the times. This year was close, but our falcons triumphed. I couldn't be happier."

What most people don't know is that most of the intense activity for the falcon trainers like Hamdan happens from the end of August to the end of March/beginning of April. "You spend half the year with these birds. Every morning and evening of every day for six months. You have to be completely dedicated to them. Basically, this is your life. And then you get six months off to enjoy your free time," he says, laughing.

Hamdan currently raises 40 birds, carefully selecting the good ones from the bad. "You can tell from the onset itself - the first interactions with feeding - whether the bird is good or bad. If they're not being cooperative, I give them away to someone else. We are representing Shaikh Hamdan's falconry centre, and he gives us the falcons and supports us with everything, so we don't sell them, only give them away." He adds that he had limited time and could only focus on the birds capable of winning races. "I can't devote my time to the other birds so it's better for them to find a home where they can be taken care of."

When it comes to training these birds it comes down to their breed and age. Although the falcons arrive as juveniles (between the ages of a few months to two years old) to compete in the Farkh category of the races, they don't grow much bigger in size. "They just get older and the way they tell that is by looking at the bones," says Hamdan, referring to the scanners that the organisers of the falconry championship have installed to register the competing falcons.

"The toughest time is when you first get the falcon. The birds are usually wild and scared," adds Hamdan. Well, not truly wild, he quickly interjects. "They have been bred in an aviary or cage and have very little interaction with humans. So naturally, they are scared. That's when you have to start taming them and that can be very challenging. You have to deny them food so that they get hungry. Hungry enough to come to you to get food. Once they start eating from your hand and recognising you, it becomes a lot easier. But it's still the worst period - and this is usually around the end of August to mid-September - when the birds are jumping around and struggling with you."

However, this is also an exciting phase, as Hamdan explains. "It's like unwrapping a box. You can see then if it's a good bird or bad - is it going to fly well or not. There are signs by which you can tell if you are experienced like me. If the bird is not worth my time, I will give it away." He adds that the males are usually the more aggressive and active ones - especially the Jeer falcons. The females are easier to tame. "The males, even after you spend so much time with them, still jump around and struggle. So you have to get used to that. I have scratches all over my hands. But it's not because they are attacking me. They're just hungry and trying to get to the food," elaborates Hamdan. "These creatures are not stupid to attack humans. In fact, the only time when falcons ever attack is when they are protecting their nests. If you try to steal their chicks or their eggs, that's when they attack." And Hamdan says they can pack quite a punch, doing serious damage with their beaks and talons.

Despite his limited time and careful selection of birds to train, Hamdan knows just how much falcons are worth to him; after all, he did grow up with them. He refuses to part with any of his birds at any price, "I will never sell one of my birds. Not for any price or any millions." From the moment he opened his eyes, he was in love with falcons, he says. "In our house, we have more falcons than people! I have three children of my own - four, five and seven years old and they're experiencing falcons the way I was when I was that age." Hamdan used to hunt with his falcons, back when there were no championships or falconry competitions. "Back then, the falcons used to live near our house, but now we have a separate farm. But there are still falcons in our house. I have one that has never won a race, but I still love him dearly. It's a connection I cannot explain." He adds that some birds do recognise their handlers, but most of the birds don't know their trainers as much as we would like to romanticise the relationship between bird and man. "But it's a bond that I treasure and hope to pass on to my children as well."

The joy, heartache of a breeder

If there's one man that has a special relationship with the majestic falcons on display at falconry championship events, it's Darren Chilton. He supplies falcons to the NAS team - the same team that the bin Mejren brothers compete with. For Darren, watching these falcons take off is like watching a child's graduation ceremony.

"I breed these falcons in Scotland - where the best falcons come from - and within a few months they get sent on an airplane to the UAE and then I don't see them anymore. It's like sending your kid off to boarding school or something. For me, watching these falcons fly - sometimes for the first time - and compete and win, is like watching a child graduate from school. It's a very touching moment. A lot of work goes into breeding a falcon. So to see my birds racing is such an immense gratification."

The breeder's first obsession with birds was when he was a teenager. "As kids, we grew up in the countryside in England, and we were always outside, spotting animals and birds and finding eggs and nests. It's different now with Playstations and Xboxes." When he was about 13, he spotted a Kestrel in a nest and he was fascinated by birds of prey, developing a bond with the birds that he hasn't been able to shake off since. He got his first falcon, a peregrine, when he was around 20, and in 1989 he started to breed them. "It was in the 90s that I started building up a collection of peregrines. He has been breeding falcons for well over two decades now, supplying birds exclusively to Dubai, specialising in jeer (gyr) crossed peregrine falcons.

The clean cold air in Scotland makes for a better falcon, particularly for racing. "These falcons tend to do much better at the races than others." But, he adds, these falcons often have little trouble acclimatising to the conditions here. "95 per cent of the time, the falcons here are in airconditioned rooms their whole lives." They do tend to fall sick, though, says Darren, picking up fungal infections in the lungs and airways, called aspergillosis. "Pure Jeer falcons come from the Arctic, where the cold air and sterile environment means the birds have little need for a strong immune system. The UK is a bit warmer and wetter. In the UAE, it's a bit more humid and hotter. So they do have some problems, but veterinary services have gotten so much better and we can actually treat these conditions now."

But whether it's caring for sick birds or breeding the best, for Darren it's an affair he knows is going to be lifelong. "I can't explain the connection, but these falcons are everything to me. They are truly remarkable creatures." – Khaleej Times - http://www.khaleejtimes.com/nation/general/the-falcon-and-i-the-joy-heartache-of-a-breeder

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