Falconry as a sport was widely practised in Europe in the Middle Ages, and was popular with noblewomen as well as with their menfolk. It is said to have been introduced into Britain by the Normans, and was restricted to the nobility - a peasant could be hanged for keeping a hawk. Each strata of society had its own birds: only kings could hunt with eagles and gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons were for princes, dukes and earls, knights could hunt with saker falcons, ladies used female merlins or sparrowhawks, priests could fly sparrowhawks, and knaves [teenage boys] had to be content with the humble kestrel.
Here in Arabia the art of falconry is not only a sport, practised exclusively by men, but among the nomadic bedouin in the pre-oil era was an important means of adding some protein to what was otherwise a meagre diet.
A falcon hide in the desert.
Various methods are used to trap the wild birds; here in Qatar when picnicking along the coast at weekends you may come across a hide, consisting of a shallow pit in the ground over which is constructed a domed shape of wire-netting and sticks, roughly coated with plaster, coloured to match the sand. A man conceals himself in this with either a pigeon or a tame falcon sitting tethered on a perch outside the entrance, and when a wild bird spots it and comes down to investigate he flicks a net over it.
The bedouin employed various ingenious methods to trap falcons.
The bedouin employed various ingenious methods to trap falcons. One way was for a man to be buried in the sand by his companion, leaving only his head and arms exposed which could be concealed under brushwood. He would hold a string attached to a fluttering pigeon. When a falcon was attracted to the helpless pigeon and dived to kill it, the hunter would wait until the bird was intent upon its meal and then very gradually draw the dead pigeon towards him, with the falcon still feeding, until it was close enough for him to either grab it or throw a cloth over it.
Another method was to use a kestrel, one of the smaller falcons, to trick a larger bird. Kestrels are common resident breeders in Qatar and easily trapped; the falcons the hunter hoped to catch were the larger peregrines and sakers arriving on the autumn migration.
The hunter would wait in a hide with the kestrel perched outside, a string fastened to its legs; attached to the legs would be a bundle of feathers concealing several fine snares. When the kestrel spotted a larger bird of prey approaching it would become agitated and try to fly away and the large falcon would see the bundle of feathers and try to rob the smaller kestrel of what it took to be its prey. Once entangled in the snares the struggling falcon, together with the kestrel, would plummet to the ground and the waiting hunter would then throw a cloth over them.
A young Qatari man with his falcon.
Once the falcon was caught, the falconer had about three weeks to train it before the migrating houbara bustards and stone curlews began to arrive: these were the birds most favoured as quarry. The first thing was to calm the agitated bird by temporarily depriving it of its sight, this was done by threading a horsehair through each of its lower eyelids, drawing them up over the eyes and knotting the ends of the horsehairs on top of the head. From then on the falconer never left his bird, always keeping it with him, constantly talking to it, feeding it and stroking it until it became used to his presence. It was given a name and taught to sit quietly on the padded arm cover, the mangala, which is the Arab equivalent of the European 'falconer's glove.'
When offered food, a bond of trust would be established between the bird and its trainer.
When the horsehair was removed after a few days, the first thing the falcon would see would be the man whose voice it already knew. When offered food, a bond of trust would be established between the bird and its trainer. The next thing would be to attach it to a long string and let it fly from the mangala to some food placed some distance away. The distance would gradually be increased until eventually the bird would be allowed to fly free. It would also be trained to follow a lure, made from houbara wings or sometimes a dead pigeon, which was whirled around in circles on a long string. The falconer varied the circles in both height and path, to increase the bird's skill in tracking and swooping on its prey. Each time it did so it was rewarded with praise and a small piece of meat.
The Houbara: A favourite pray of falconers in the Middle East.
Winter was, and is, the hunting season. In the early morning the hunters search for houbara tracks in the sand, which they follow, knowing that these birds, which are active at night, like to spend the day resting under a bush. Once a houbara is located and flushed from its hiding place the falcon is released. If the chase is successful, and it brings down its quarry, the hunter hastens to cut the throat of the houbara and the falcon is rewarded by being given the head and neck to eat.
After the hunting season
In spring, when the houbara return to their breeding grounds, some falcon-owners release their birds, hoping that next autumn they will be successful in capturing or purchasing new birds with which to hunt. Others keep their falcons throughout the year, but they need constant skilled care and have to be kept in air-conditioned rooms, often in a magilis, where the falcons provide a talking point and focus of interest for the owner and his friends in the evenings.
Prize falcons can often fetch astonishing sums of money, almost equivalent to what is paid for race horses and racing camels, and breeders constantly experiment to produce ever faster, hardier birds. Hybrids bred from saker falcons and large white gyrfalcons, which are not native to Arabia, have proved popular. Specialised falcon hospitals in both Qatar and the UAE provide advice and skilled treatment for the various ailments to which falcons are prone.
Prize falcons can often fetch astonishing sums of money...
Among the most common is bumble foot, an infection of the area between the toes caused by small punctures inflicted by the bird's own curving talons, or by an unsuitable perch which does not allow for proper circulation of the blood in the foot. It can be treated with antibiotics and sometimes with surgery. Another common disease is aspergillosus, a fungal infection of the respiratory tract. Broken wing feathers can be mended with implants: fixing a new feather onto the remains of the old feather with superglue! Many owners nowadays have their valuable birds fitted with microchips.
Today, due to over hunting stretching back for many years, migrating houbara are becoming rare in Qatar, and many Qataris travel abroad each year to practise their sport in places such as Kazakhstan.
More: See Falconry in Qatar for the history, sounds and movies of falconry in the Qatar and the Middle East.