Celebrating the enduring bond between man and bird

Falconry has been practiced for thousands of years across the world

Remah: Desert The gyrfalcon stretches her wings, moves restlessly on her tethered talons and shakes her hooded head.
"The females are bigger than the males," explains Malhoudi Al Humadi as he tends to the 30 or so raptors sheltering and resting under the tent. "But when it comes to hunting, there is no difference. They are both equally good."
Falconry has been practised for thousands of years, from Mongolia through to the native Indians of North America, in pre-Islamic culture in the Middle East and throughout Europe.
"The Book of St Alban's gives the hierarchy of hawks," explains Terry Large, an expert British falconer and the master of ceremonies for the second International Festival of Falconry taking place in Al Ain. More than 80 countries have delegates present at the festival. The Book of St Alban's was first published in 1486 and says that only emperors could hunt with eagles, vultures or merlins. Knaves or servants could only keep kestrels.
"Falconry is really the master and teamwork of man and bird," says Large. "There is really nothing quite like the feeling of training a bird, then releasing it, watching it go into predator mode, and strike its prey."
All about rewards
Training a falcon requires hours of practice and repetition, slowly building up trust between man and bird.
"It's all about reward," notes Martin, one English falconer visiting the show with his family. "When you train a dog, it's about reward and discipline. If you discipline a bird, it will simply fly off. It won't come back. It all has to be about reward, conditioning the bird."
Modern falconers rely on telemetry — small radio beacons attached to the bird's back — to locate those that don't return on release. But even then that's no guarantee as the birds will continuously work at removing the telemetry.
When a falconer gets a new bird, the first step in training is to weight it.
"Say it weighs three kilogrammes," Martin explains. "You need to reduce its food intake to bring it down to about 2.8 kilogrammes. That way it's hungry."
At all times, the new bird is tethered to its perch.
The first step is to introduce food on the hand, getting the bird used to ‘manning' — being touched and lifted by humans.
When the bird is used to that stage, sitting on the hand, it also begins to associate the falconer with food.
A slightly longer tether is then introduced, getting the bird to leap from perch to gloved hand for food.
Slowly, the distance between perch and glove is increased, and the bird becomes more comfortable with the knowledge that its handler is the supplier of food. After weeks of repetition and increased distances, it finally becomes time to release the tether.
"That's a huge leap of faith," Martin says. "You never know for sure if the bird will fly to you, or will fly off."
When a bird kills prey, it's important to reward it with a portion of its kill — but never allow it to get ‘fed up.'
That common idiom — to be ‘fed up' — comes from falconry and refers to birds that have had too much to eat to the point where they no longer need to hunt or respond to the handler for food, hence the need to reduce food intake in the early stages of training.
Hoods are used on falcons to calm them.
"When they're in the dark, they tend to be quieter, less anxious, that's why they're hooded," Martin notes.
While there is a general perception falcons are limited to preying on game such as rabbits of other fowl, in Central Asia golden eagles have been used to hunt wolves, foxes and other large prey.
Large added: "For the falconer, the thrill is being able to train a bird to do what it does in the wild but to be able to control it. It's ultimate teamwork, ultimate trust between man and bird."



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