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Up close with Abu Dhabi's national bird
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Up close with Abu Dhabi's national bird

Up close with Abu Dhabi's national bird
Travel

Fauziah Ismail

Fauziah Ismail takes a tour of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital to find out why it is one of the main tourism attractions in the United Arab Emirates

“HIS name is Hassan,” a German tourist bellows. We burst into laughter. Hassan grins. He had just started giving us a short talk before the start of our tour when another group of tourists joined us in the room.

Hassan has had to re-introduce himself as new visitors joined us. This time, the German man did it for him. The group is getting bigger.

I am the sole Malaysian here. There’s one Indonesian, a Filipino and groups from the UK, Germany, Switzerland and France. The room is already packed with adults and children, keen to listen to what Hassan has to say and even keener to see the “patients” in the examination room at the hospital.

Yes, we are at a hospital; the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, to be exact.

We are here right smack in the middle of what feels like a desert at Al Shamkha, some 6km from Abu Dhabi International Airport. The hospital started operations in 1999 but it was only eight years later that it opened its doors to tourists and visitors alike under a programme known as the Falcon World Tour.

It is ranked as #3 in the list of tourist attractions in Abu Dhabi on TripAdvisor. It also won the Middle East’s Responsible Tourism Award at the World Travel Awards 2014. Now, who would have guessed that a hospital for Abu Dhabi’s national bird can be a tourist attraction?

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital guide, Hassan. Image via New Straits Times

THE RAPTOR STORY

Hassan tells us there are three kinds of falcons — the peregrine, saker and gyrfalcon. The saker is the national bird of the UAE.

These birds play a crucial part in UAE’s traditional culture. The raptors were used by Bedouin hunters thousands of years ago. The founder and first president of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed Sultan Al Nahyan was a falconer. Photos of him and his falcons adorn the walls of the room. Stuffed birds and some hunting equipment are on display at the wall cabinets.

Falconry is a popular sport in the UAE and enjoyed by ordinary citizens as well as the highest ranking members of society. It is usually practised in desert and semi-deserts around UAE. The most popular species used by hunters are the saker and peregrine falcons, the latter being an especially expensive breed to obtain. A bird can fetch as high as US$20,000 (RM83,560). A peregrine, for example, can be worth more than US$20,000. And falconers use mostly female birds as they are stronger and faster than the males.

Hassan says that Sheikh Zayed was also a conservationist; besides setting up the hospital, he had also initiated a falcon release programne where wild falcons are released back to nature to preserve the natural falcon population. Every year during spring time, the falcons are taken from the UAE to the release locations situated on the natural migration routes of wild falcons such as in Pakistan, Iran and Kazakhstan. Several of these falcons are fitted with satellite transmitters to monitor the flight paths and provide data about the survival rates of the released falcons.

In fact I am told by an Emirati that besides the burqas or leather hoods that covered the head and the eyes of the falcons, some of the birds are also equipped with a GPS beacon.

The burqa or hood keeps the falcon in a calm state. Image via New Straits Times

And Hassan tells us that falcons are the only animals in the UAE that are legally allowed to travel on any Gulf airlines. “So, don’t be surprise if you travel on Etihad and you find a falcon onboard the plane but they travel in style, only in business and first class,” he says.

These birds have their own passports giving each bird a unique ID number. Other important details about the bird and its owner are also listed. The passport is stamped each time the bird enters and leaves the country.

Some of the equipment used to mend the broken feathers. Image via New Straits Times

IN TO THE WARD

Briefing over, Hassan then ushers us out of the room into the waiting room at the hospital. Rows of low perches take centre stage in the room. We see falcons sitting quietly on the perches. They are fastened to the perch by a fine cord connected to a ring on their leg. The leather hoods covered their eyes. The hoods, according to Hassan, keep the falcons in a calm state.

The floor is lined with plastic to catch the birds’ droppings. A cleaner is on standby with water and tissue paper to clean the floor. These birds are waiting for their turn to be taken into the examination room.

There are sofas in the waiting room where the owners can sit and wait for their birds. We walk in between the perches to take photographs. The raptors cock their heads. They sense our presence. Hassan then leads us into the examination room. As we enter the examination, we see birds on the low perches waiting to be tended to.

We are split into two groups — one is the English speaking group while the other group comprises those speaking French. A vet takes a bird, a Gyrfalcon to be exact, and puts it on the examination table. An anaesthesia mask is put on the bird. As soon as it falls asleep, the vet takes off the hood and undertakes full inspection of the bird. This particular bird is here for a pedicure.

So, you think only humans go for pedicure? Birds have them too. Their nails and beaks need to be trimmed and filed twice a year.

The nails of the falcons in captivity do not wear off naturally unlike those of wild falcons who sit on cliffs and catch prey. Overgrown nails can puncture the bird’s soles and lead to severe infections while overgrown beaks can prevent them from opening their mouths wide enough.

Using a surgical nail clipper, he cuts the curvy part of the nails. He then shaves the excess keratin deposit inside the nail using a sharp knife. The nails are then filed and smoothened with a small hand drill. “We will not put any colour, no nail colour,” he jokes. “We don’t colour the nails but we put some special cream to make them shiny,” he says, much to our amusement.

A microchip had been embedded on the bird to identify its owner. The vet spreads the wings of the falcon. Falcons have 22 “main” feathers on each wing — 10 of the feathers (distal to the body) are known as the primary feathers while the “inner” 12 (proximal to the body) are known as the secondary feathers, while the tail consists of 12 feathers.

The hospital has stocks for all the feathers. During the moulting season (between March and September), the birds tend to break their feathers. Surprisingly, this does not happen to wild falcons but only the captive ones. “The wild falcons know how to take care of themselves. The captive ones don’t,” he says.

It doesn’t need much to mend these broken feathers, just bamboo skewers and superglue. The hospital does 20 to 30 groomings daily and has an in-patient facility that can accommodate 250 falcons at a time.

Minor procedures can also be performed in the examination room. There is also an Intensive Care Unit for serious cases. In another building, there is a large free-flight aviary that mimics the temperature in the mountains where the falcons are kept and allowed to fly freely. The aviary is air-conditioned with temperature that mimics that in the mountains.

The writer holds the bird using the leather forearm guard. Image via New Straits Times

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Now comes the best part of the tour. At the end of the tour in the examination room, visitors get a chance to get up close to the bird. Well, not any bird but a tame one. I am a little nervous especially after having a first-hand look at the nails and the beak of the falcon. And Hassan told us earlier that the raptor can rip a gazelle in one swoop.

The handler hands me the leather forearm guard to wear. I put it in my left hand. He asks me to make a fist and to raise my arm.

I say a little prayer as the handler moves nearer to me to transfer the bird from his covered hand to mine. The first thing that crosses my mind is how hard the falcon grips my hand.

I can feel it through the leather forearm guard. The bird is without the hood. It is fully aware that it is in a room full of strangers.

It cocks its head and squares me in the eyes. It looks menacing but having lived in captivity, it has become docile. I do not dare to stroke its pectoral for fear it thinks that my fingers are food.

I maintain my position until the obligatory photographs are taken. I can tell you that it feels like the longest few minutes of my life.

Then, one of the vets calls out for a volunteer to feed the bird. For the demonstration purpose, the bird is fed chicken meat. At the hospital, the birds are fed quails.

We can hear the falcon ripping the meat. It surely beats a visit to any petting zoo.

Copyright New Straits Times