Primarily a means to supplement an otherwise meagre diet, falconry was an integral part of desert life. But hunting expeditions also provided the ideal setting for tribal sheikhs to tour their area and connect with the people. The late Sheikh Zayed, founding father of the UAE, often spoke of the satisfaction he derived from being part of a hunting party.
During autumn the south-bound flight of the houbara bustard, the main prey of the falconer, was preceded by the migration of peregrine and saker falcons. When a falconer, hiding in a hole in the sand, managed to trap one of the highly prized birds he had only two to three weeks to train it before the migrating houbaras started to arrive. This training was achieved by developing a strong bond of trust between a wild captured bird and its handler.
Today, falconry is practiced purely for sport, but the skill of the falconer is still highly esteemed and the power and beauty of the falcon greatly treasured. The training process hasn’t changed over time. A leather hood is used to cover the falcon's eyes and it is deprived of food in order to make it easier to tame. The falconer names his falcon and in the first few weeks of training remains with his falcon at all times. During the day the falcon perches on the falconer's leather glove, while the falconer holds the leather leg-tethers that restrain the bird. The feathered lure is always nearby. By night, the falcon is tethered to a wooden perch.
As training commences, the falconer removes the hood and allows the bird to move from its perch to his hand whilst held by leg restraints. Eventually the falcon will be permitted to make short flights. The falconer will then stand with the lure and some raw meat a short distance from the bird. A companion removes the bird's hood whilst the falconer calls the bird's name and swings the lure. When the bird catches the lure the falconer rewards it with a little raw meat. Later still, the training will incorporate live prey, such as a tethered pigeon.
Unfortunately, houbara bustard are almost extinct in the wild in the UAE, but captive breeding programmes are hoping to remedy this. Measures are also in place to protect and preserve falcons. Falconry is controlled by law and falcons are returned to the wild at the end of the annual hunting season, having been placed in isolation at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, where they are given full medical check-ups to ensure that only completely healthy birds enter the wild population. Each falcon is also micro-chipped for ease of identification.
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