Giving wings to fly

A hospital in Abu Dhabi is devoted to the health of falcons, which have long played an important role in Emirati society, writes Purnima Sharma

PRYING EYES Falcons being treated at the hospital. Photos by author

Going by its moniker, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is the place where falconers get their beloved birds for health checkups and treatment. Well, while they may be right... over the years, the hospice has become more than just that — it is today, one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in the Emirates region. 

As we zip down the highway towards this ‘sanctuary’ for the falcon, our friend Anne Marshall — a long-time resident of Abu Dhabi — tells us how falcons have, from time immemorial, continued to occupy a special place in the hearts of all Emiratis. “Once there, you will be able to understand the affection that the owners have for these beautiful birds.”

And sure enough, the white-hued building that was set up in 1999 not too far from the Abu Dhabi city opens up the falcon’s rarefied world. As we wait for the tour to begin — yes there are special rounds for tourists that can be booked online — we take a walk around the area that gives a tribute to the man who started it all — the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan — who is regarded as not just a forerunner of contemporary falconers but also the architect of modern Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed’s love for falcons is evident in the huge pictures that adorn the little museum here. These reveal the fact that from the time he was a young lad, Zayed knew the importance that falcons held in the lives of all Emiratis. After all, since time immemorial, these birds had helped members of his Bedouin tribe to hunt and survive in the desert. Hence, Sheikh Zayed wanted a place that would preserve his region’s ancestral heritage and help in the long-term survival of falcons as well.

A falcon sits with a burqa.
A falcon sits with a burqa.

 

For the sake of falcons

Given the respect that the bird commands all across the Emirates, it comes as no surprise that not only does the falcon (the saker variety) enjoy the status of being the national emblem of the United Arab Emirates but it has also made it to the region’s currency, the dirham. What’s more, UNESCO’s 2016 list inscribed falconry as UAE’s intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

As we take in these in facts, it’s time for tourists who’re here from different parts of the world, to be assembled in a room where Mohammad Hassan, the hospital’s guide, takes charge. Soon, we’re listening to his fascinating talk, laced with humour, about the falcon and its way of life. The peregrine species, he says, is the fastest moving bird that can swoop down towards its prey at speeds of around 320 km, “faster than even the ferrari”.

While the gyr falcon that comes from the colder regions and has a white plumage enjoys the privilege of being carried “only by emperors, not even by kings”, it’s the saker variety of the Family Falconidae, that is “so strong and powerful that it can even kill a gazelle”.

As a handler walks in with a beautiful fierce-looking bird with piercing yellow eyes, Hassan adds that now, “super powerful” hybrids too have entered the fray. “However, when we talk of falcons, it’s the female of the species we refer to. Being bigger in size than the male, it is also more powerful and strong. So, as in real life, the males steer clear of them most of the time,” he adds with a laugh.  

Falcons, it comes as no surprise, don’t come cheap — “they can go up to as much as $50,000”, and enjoy a pride of place in their owners’ homes — treated not as pets but as members of the family. What’s more, should they need to travel, these birds are even issued passports by the Ministry of Environment and Water, informs Hassan, showing us a bird’s passport. “But it has no picture — that’s because falcons shed their feathers every year and the new ones could give them a completely different look!” So, the ID number on the passport corresponds to one on the leg ring the falcons wear. And each time they fly in and out, details are verified and passports stamped.

falcon

 

Calming & soothing

Soon it’s time for a round of the treatment area where falcons sit on wooden perches with their eyes covered by hoods, also called burqas, and feet tethered. Before you almost start feeling sorry for them, Hassan says this is done to keep them calm. “These birds are very sensitive to disturbance and can get anxious enough to fiercely attack even fellow falcons with their razor-sharp talons.” 

This area also houses an intensive care section and wards where the birds that require treatment can be hospitalised, be it for edoscopy, X-rays and damaged wings. Or even for clipping and filing of nails that — unlike those in the wild — the captive ones invariably need. As we look on, Dr Ranjeet Radhakrishnan — a vet who’s been here for more than 15 years — demonstrates the way this is done on a sedated bird. 

“Falcons enjoy the best of treatment,” smiles Dr Margit Müller from Germany, who has been the hospital director since 2001. “And their owners ensure that these birds are kept fit and beautiful for, besides the racing competitions, they participate in prestigious beauty contests as well.”

Meanwhile, this hospital has expanded its wings to offer treatment to other species of birds and animals including owls, dogs and cats as well.

The tour concludes with the best bit reserved for the last — the caretakers offering you a special glove worn by handlers and letting one of the falcons (one who’s been trained for human interaction) perch itself on your arm — a perfect selfie moment, for sure.

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