Hospital for falcons? That’s right

Hospital for falcons? That’s right

As Azam settles comfortably on my forearm, I struggle to quieten my heart, which is beating like a drum. Azam is a one-year-old Saker falcon and he weighs about a kilo-and-a- half. The heart does not stay still, because Azam is not wearing his hood that is meant to keep him calm and his glassy eyes stare into mine. His handler, however, assures me that Azam is in a fine mood and is perhaps even enjoying his perch.

At the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, one of the largest health centres for falcons, these birds are brought in for specialised medical care, routine health check-ups and grooming.

In the air-conditioned interiors are rows of falcons sitting majestically on their perches, unaffected by the bustle of tourists. The birds are used to humans, say the staff. They are, however, made to wear soft leather hoods over their eyes, to keep them from being too excitable.

The hospital is one of the leading centres for falcon medicine and research, and receives falcons from as far as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. From advanced orthopaedic surgeries to feather transplants, it has it all, including a 24-hour emergency hotline. Prospective buyers get the birds checked for fitness before making a purchase. According to the staff, it receives around 150 falcons a day. It also serves as a centre for captive breeding, which is a way of conserving breeds, some of which are endangered.

A falcon undergoes an operation

A falcon undergoes an operation  

All are welcome

The hospital also provides comprehensive veterinary care to other raptors, parrots, pet birds and poultry. The facility includes examination rooms, operation theatres, ophthalmology and pox units, and digital radiology, apart from wards for more than 250 in-patients. From advanced endoscopic procedures to lasers and an ICU, the idea is to provide the best medical support for the birds.

Set up in 1999, it opened to tourism in 2007, and has since been one of the most popular attractions in the UAE. While watching the falcons being treated, fed and taken care of, visitors can also take pictures with the birds, and if they are lucky, would even get to feed one.

It is feeding time and a graceful white-speckled female Gyrfalcon is hungry. She flaps her wings and lets out a few throaty squawks, startling visitors. But she settles down as soon as one of the staff members brings out her favourite treat — a defrosted quail. Falcons love fresh meat, quail and pigeon being the most preferred.

Falconry is so closely linked to the history and culture of the Arabs that owning a competent falcon is a matter of family pride. Historically, falcons were a tool for survival for the Bedouins in the unforgiving expanse of the desert. They were excellent hunting companions, as the birds have sharp eyesight (nearly three times more than a human being’s vision) and great speed. They can carry three to four kilograms more than their weight and can be trained to hunt the prey without killing it. They attack the prey, at the nape of the neck, so the animal bleeds to death. This made the meat ideal for consumption (halal) as per Islamic tenets.

Falconry is closely linked to Arab history and culture

Falconry is closely linked to Arab history and culture  

The most favoured falcon species in the UAE are the Peregrine, which can touch 400 kilometres per hour while diving; the Saker, the national symbol of the UAE; and the Gyrfalcon, the most expensive breed, which can easily cost over half a million dirhams (around ₹94 lakh).

Over time, falconry evolved into an art and the beautiful raptors came to be seen as symbols of nobility and power. They are sport, too. Grand falcon races are organised yearly and falconers start training their birds well ahead of the racing season, which begins in October. “To an Arab, a falcon is as precious as a Ferrari,” says a staff. “They are prized possessions, they hold passports and fly business class, sitting beside their owner and not in cages,” he adds. Falcons are allowed on airlines such as Emirates, Qatar and Etihad.

In the Gulf region, there are a number of hospitals which offer treatment for falcons, some of them being the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital at Doha, Qatar, the Al Areen Wildlife Park and Reserve in Bahrain, and the Dubai Falcon Hospital, which was set up in 1983. Saudi Arabia has a Falcon Specialist Hospital and Research Institute at the Fahad bin Sultan Falcon Centre, Riyadh.

The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, as part of its Shaikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme, released 65 falcons back into the wild this year in order to promote efforts in wildlife preservation. Done with the support of the falcon hospital, the birds are all implanted with tracking devices (microchips) to enable conservationists study their breeding and migratory behaviour. As part of this, so far more than 1,600 falcons have been released in Pakistan, Iran or Kazakhstan. Every year during spring, the falcons are taken from UAE to the release locations situated on the natural migration routes of wild falcons.

The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital also has a museum, which showcases the Emirati falconry heritage and falconry tools. It has a large enclosed space, where one can watch these great birds in flight. It also has a pet care centre, laboratory facility and internship programmes. The hospital also manages the Abu Dhabi Animal Shelter for stray and abandoned cats and dogs.

Azam is now back on his perch, fed and content. If you ever want to hold a falcon, here’s how: Gently let him or her perch on your gloved hand, keep it a little lower than eye level, and don’t try stroking his or her feathers.

The writer was in Abu Dhabi at the invitation of Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi.

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