RAS AL KHAIMAH, United Arab Emirates, May 12, 2010 — -- Falconry is easily thousands of years old, originally a method of hunting food believed to have originated in the Middle East and brought back to Europe after the crusades. Today it's a million-dollar enterprise, with top birds competing for speed, that are trained and traded among Arabia's elite.
The sport plays on a bird of prey's innate skills and habits, flying overhead until it spots a target, then swooping down and attacking with its talons. The peregrine falcon, one of the most prized varieties, can fly up to 217 miles per hour and drop 300 feet in one second, killing a rabbit or pheasant.
They fly high and fast enough to catch other birds; in some cities falcons have been used to control an overgrowth of pigeons.
"The peregrine is the fastest creature on the planet, three times faster than the cheetah," said Jannes Kruger of Shaheen Xtreme Falconry in Dubai.
The birds are possessive, and won't naturally give up their catch, which is where the owner has to deftly practice the skill of trading with the bird, making it give up its win for another, smaller source of food.
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Traditionally, this is how a desert tribe would add meat and game to its diet.
The sport of falconry is now mainly for show, with trainers using a lure to attract the bird. It has an active following in the U.S., and despite some concerns from animal rights activists all but a handful of states permit the practice of falconry.
American Falconry Magazine cautions beginners they'll need to spend roughly $1,000 on their equipment and housing facility, and hunt with the bird a minimum of three times a week, three hours per day. April to September is the off season, when the bird molts a new set of feathers.
Falconry Not Without Its Dangers
In Arabia, birds can go for over $1 million, and craftsmen have made a big business of customizing hoods that cover a bird's eyes.
An estimated 80 percent of the input to the bird's brain comes from its sense of sight, so trainers use the hood to calm the bird and keep it from flying. When it's time to hunt the falconer will remove the hood, the bird will look around, empty its bladder – literally lightening its load – then take off in majestic flight.
After several dives, when the bird has either knocked out its prey or its owner has let it catch the lure, the bird needs to rest and eat. It's the bird who gets the workout, making the sport of falconry more of an art – the falconer has to master the delicate task of bonding with the bird, training it and earning its trust.
It can be dangerous when done wrong, with the bird using its sharp, hooked talons to injure a man or animal it thinks is stealing its prey.
In the United Arab Emirates and across the Arab Gulf states, falconry is considered a cornerstone of cultural heritage. Tribal chieftains, or Sheikhs, would lead hunting expeditions by day and gather in tented camps by night.
Today the country's rulers prize their connection with the sport and throw Falconry Festivals to celebrate it.
The website of Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed recalls "one of the most remarkable events in the recorded history of falconry," when one of the falcons he owned took down a deer many times its weight."
The UAE embeds the birds with microchips, to track them and monitor migration patterns once they are released back into the wild.